It isn’t men against boys. That wouldn’t be fair. No, what we are seeing so far, two games into this Florida-Tampa Bay second-round NHL playoff series, is a fully grown Lightning franchise with a champion’s pedigree against a still-growing Panthers team trying to be what their rival is and get what it has.
The playoff hockey learning curve is on full display.
It was in Tampa’s first-round elimination of Florida a year ago.
And it is now, after Thursday night’s 2-1 Lightning win in the Cat’s Sunrise rink gave Tampa a big 2-0 series lead heading back upstate for Games 3 and 4 back-to-back Sunday afternoon and Monday night.
One team travels desperate and looking for answers.
The other travels looking for its third consecutive Stanley Cup.
This was a crusher.
How does a team recover from this? From 2-0 down in double home losses? And from the way this one ended?
We shall find out.
Florida lost a game (that seemed) headed to overtime, when the Lightning’s Ross Colton stunned the home crowd with 3.8 seconds to go.
It was a mess-up in the critical final 20 or so seconds on the defensive end.
“Made a fatal mistake,” coach Andrew Brunette called it. “Didn’t manage [the puck]. We threw it away. Then we threw it away again.”
If there has been a more-heart breaking loss, dare say one more devastating, with such stakes in Panthers franchise history, I am taking nominees. This feels like it.
“Now we must stay together,” said goaltendser Sergei Bobrovsky, who played really well, and made the save of the game with four minutes left, before being betrayed by his own squad.
The Panthers had finally scored to even it at 1-1 just 1:53 before the end of the second period, on a shot by Eetu Luostarinen, the 23-year-old Finn who has to scrap for ice time but made the most of his Thursday.
It was relief as much as elation for home fans, whose frustration had begun to be heard.
A familiar refrain this postseason, and a sad one for Florida, saw the Lightning grab a 1-0 lead mid-first period on -- of course -- a power play.
When Brandon Montour was sent off for hooking you could almost feel the crowd sag, as if fans knew what was coming.
Seconds later Corey Perry’s power-play slapshot found the net through Bobrovsky and traffic at the crease.
The penalty box has been the small off-ice piece of real estate that has proved haunted for Florida thus far in the postseason.
The Panthers have yet to score a power play goal in seven playoff games; it’s now 0-for-25) with four more oh-fers in Game 2. That’s while while giving up nine -- five in the first series vs. Washington and now four in the first two games to Tampa.
That is a colossal disparity and disadvantage for the Cats.
You heard the frustration in home fans.
There was scattered booing as each home power play fizzled with nothing to show. There was a brief “Shoot the puck!” chant.
Florida is fine in basic 5-on-5 play. Then the referees and those two-minute timeouts come into play and the Panthers unravel. It defies both logic and regular season trends. And the Lightning is feasting.
“It’s all about us, how we play,” said Aleksander Barkov. “We gotta stay out of the box.. We know [Tampa’s] power play is good.”
“Special teams have been huge,” added Carter Verhaeghe. “:Everybody has to step up for a big game.”
Said Brunette: “:We have to be a lot more cautious with our sticks.”
They call the Florida Panthers the Comeback Cats for a reason. The T-shirts say Cardiac Cats, too, if you prefer. Either works and they almost were again Thursday. Almost.
By any description, this is a hockey team that seems to almost enjoy driving its fans a little bit crazy -- the promise of joy usually the reward. Usually.
So it was during the NHL regular season, when Florida’s 29 come-from-behind wins led the league.
So it was in these Stanley Cup playoffs’ first round, when a dogfight with Washington pivoted on three Panthers comeback wins in a rows.
And so it nearly was again in this Game 2, when the latest comeback to tie wass the first shot to saving a dream season that seemed to be slipping away.
And does now.
The best regular season in the NHL and the best in Panthers history was teetering. Wobbling.
NHL historical trends say that a team that wins Game 2 at home to even a series 1-1 goes on to take the series and advance 558. percent of the time.
Lose at home to go down 0-2 and chances of winning the series plummet to 18.9 percent.
(And suffice to assume most of those beat-the-odds comebacks were not against a two-time reigning Stanley Cup champion).
Those were some of the stakes in play Thursday night. A must-win feel. A save-your-season situation.
Florida’s offense was not shut out all season and was held to one goal only three times in 82 games. It’s already been three 1-goal games in the playoffs, including the 4-1 loss to Tampa in Game 1 and now Thursdays.
The vaunted offense is stalling. he power play is futile.
And superstars Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov continue in quite (for them) postseason that must turn around fast, and dramatically. Both had a quiet three shots Thursday night.
“I have more to give,” admitted Huberdeau.
“The work boots have to be back on,” Brunette said, of the offensive end, especially with a man advantage. “Right now we want to get pretty, not attack.”
Brunette on Thursday was named one of the three finalists for the NHL Coach of the Year award., after being promoted seven games into the season when Joel Quenneville abruptly was forced to resign with news of an off-ice scandal 10 years earlier in Chicago when he was in charge.
Brunette has worked under the “interim,” head coach title all season. Winning the first-round series over Washington may have been enough to bring him back. But it may take beating Tampa Bay, too.
“I’m just trying to win a hockey game today,” he had said after Thursday’s midday skate, parrying all such awards talk.
He needs to find a way now to win four of the next five, three of them on the road.
They call them the Comeback Cats.
Down 2-0, it is all the Florida Panthers have left to save their season.