When the Florida Panthers faced their first real adversity of the season after a playoff series against the Washington Capitals, players called a meeting to work things out.
They talked about what they needed to do better and came to an agreement.
“After that, we started playing the right way,” captain Alexander Barkov said. “We hold each other accountable and work hard for each other and the people next to you. That way you win.”
The Panthers relied on a familiar formula from the regular season to win the franchise’s first playoff series since 1996, when they were the best team in the NHL and led the league with 29 comeback wins. Each of their last three wins over Washington came in trailing fashion, erasing a three-goal loss once and getting some overtime heroism from Carterville Haag twice.
The initial nervousness at home early in the series dissipated when Florida began to feel the pressure. The Panthers then started looking and playing like themselves, and went on to face back-to-back Stanley Cup winners in a series between the Tampa Bay Chargers and the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“As the series went on, I felt like they loosened up a little bit,” said interim coach Andrew Brunette. “They found their magic and got to work.”
That magic provided the confidence the Panthers needed to endure a tie goal from Washington’s TJ Oshie with 1:03 left in Game 6 and an 18-round 0-win streak in a power game. They joined only a handful of teams in NHL playoff history to win the best seven-game series without scoring a power goal, but after an emotional victory , they can still get a laugh out of it.
“We just have to keep going and obviously, we might try to play our strengths because we haven’t scored yet,” said top winger Jonathan Huberdo.
No team has scored quite like the Panthers in the regular season — 4.11 goals per game not seen since Mario Lemieux’s Pittsburgh Penguins. Florida didn’t have a team at the time.
It was a success in the early days of the organization, reaching the Cup final in its third season. After the Panthers were swept by the Colorado Avalanche, they never won a playoff series again, and the reputation of losing in the first round was locked on the team, especially cornerstone players Barkov, Huber More and linebacker Aaron Ekblad.
Verhaeghe was the team’s leading scorer with 12 points on six goals and six assists, but Florida State’s core player was an important part of moving forward and had the opportunity to give it his all.
“We’re all happy, and it’s a big relief for us,” Huberdeau said. “Having that feeling, we don’t know what it’s like. The last time I felt it was junior. It’s great to have the feeling of winning the series again, now we’re just going to work and thinking about the second round, who knows, Won this round as well.”
Newcomers also played an important role. The trade-deadline acquisition of Claude Giroud’s scoring in the third quarter of Game 6 and setting up Verhaeghe for the overtime winner was a welcome addition to the longtime Philadelphia Flyers captain. A degree of redemption because he lost a crucial face-off late in the rules after Washington equalized.
“Maybe some people are a little bit disappointed when they tie it up,” Giroud said. “I’m probably one of them. But the atmosphere is good. The guys are excited. The guys have a feeling that if we play our game well, we’ll get our chances and we’ll be able to score.”
Even in their power struggle, the Panthers showed they could score 5-on-5 and got a solid goalie from Sergei Bobrovsky to keep playoff hockey going in South Florida. Although his team has once again earned the moniker of “comeback cats,” Brunette sees the series as more of a year-round performance for the Panthers.
“I saw a group of people get hit, they didn’t fall, and then they started fighting back,” he said. “Give up a late goal, that’s a heartbreaking moment. They can really affect you, it can kill momentum, it can do a lot of things, we took the punch again, we got up, and we started fighting back. The epitome of an entire season.”
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