Well, well, well. The Presidents’ Trophy–winning Florida Panthers were swept by the Tampa Bay Lightning. Their sad final game Monday, incredibly, doubled as the first game they’d been shut out all season. Andrei Vasilevskiy made 49 saves to finish the series with a .980 save percentage, allowing only three goals in four games to the highest-scoring offense in the league. In front of him last night, Tampa scored two disallowed goals and then eventually a legal one—the only one they got past Sergei Bobrovsky, before adding an empty-netter. You’ll have trouble convincing me the waved-off goals weren’t part of some championship mind game. Neurotransmitters, synapses, you know. Surely in every hockey player’s brain there’s a DEJECTION chemical triggered by a goal horn heard on the road.
By the time they arrived in the second round, the sheen of Florida’s high-octane (it’s not a piece of writing about the Panthers without the word “high-octane”) regular season had worn off. An older, slower Capitals team gave them some trouble in the first round. If the Capitals couldn’t actually finish the job themselves, they sort of showed you how it might be done: limit Florida’s rush offense by mucking up the neutral zone and see if you can’t gain the special teams edge. Tampa lives to do that. (Just ask the Leafs about the way the Lightning kill with special teams, even when they’re not clicking elsewhere.) And that is what Tampa did! Florida’s power play, converting at 24 percent in the regular season, went totally cold. Funny enough, going 1-for-13 on the power play in this series was actually an improvement over the last round, where the Panthers were 0-for-18. “It’s already caused me sleepless nights,” said interim head coach Andrew Brunette last night, fully taking the blame for the sorry special teams. “It might cause me a sleepless summer.”
In the regular season, I often watched the Panthers outclass some bad team or other and thought, Wow, how do you guys ever lose? They wore down defenses with their speed. They never let an opponent’s mistake go unpunished. The transition game achieved amazing things: It felt like a Panthers D-man would gain possession and BAM!, just like that, everyone’s feet were moving, and they were on an odd-man rush. When the Panthers played good teams, the losses—if still rare—became a little easier to imagine. The goaltending came and went. The defensemen were prone to weird puck management decisions and dumb penalties; both, I’d say, proved fatal against Tampa. The Panthers’ star players all had an unimpressive series, too. I would dispute any claims that Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau were invisible by arguing that they were, at times, visibly bad. Carter Verhaeghe, Florida’s hero in the first round, finished pointless, with only seven shots on goal across four games. It tracks that an offense that scored, by a rough estimate, 80 or 90 goals off the Detroit Red Wings’ defensive breakdowns might dry up in the playoffs, where there are fewer breakdowns and no Detroit Red Wings to exploit.
Don’t feel too bad, Panthers. By advancing to the second round, you exceeded my expectations; I picked Washington to win in six. I wish I’d put this skepticism in writing before the playoffs started so as to look more like a BRAIN GENIUS and less like someone swooping in after the fact to say they are “mentally fragile” and “don’t know how to win.” But let me swoop anyway. Please. I’ve been waiting months to do this: Jonathan Huberdeau is a secondary assist merchant. Anton Lundell was carried by Mason Marchment. Mason Marchment was carried by Sam Reinhart. Barkov? Yeah, I’ll say the bark is off; he does not have that dawg in him. MacKenzie Weegar lacks true feel for the game. Claude Gi-who? Only one Panther made it onto my Guys List this year: Maxim Mamin. The Rangers had more regulation wins. A dumb sports radio mini-scandal was entirely wasted on them! You could buy lower-bowl tickets to the first two games of the series for $100 apiece. Unserious franchise. Mentally fragile. And if you ask me, they don’t know how to win.