Elsewhere in this squalid little corner of Your Internet, Comrade Haisley explains the exhilaration of escaping a well-deserved kick in the face, or as it is commonly known around here, Everton. Here, though, we will consider the Florida Panthers, who are halfway to a crushing end to a glorious season, or as it is commonly known around here, Arsenal.
The Panthers are among the most dynamic and attractive teams in the National Hockey League; they handled the canning of their coach in the middle of a 10-game winning streak and still crushed the field. They finished with the best record in the NHL, scored 25 more goals than anyone else, and revivified a long-comatose market to the great delight of noted commissioner-ferret Gary Bettman. Theirs was the win-win sitiuation to beat them all.
But here comes the kicker: They drew as their second-round opponent the ultra-pragmatic and Cup-tempered Tampa Bay Lightning. Against anyone else, Florida’s talent would probably have been enough to carry them through in a relative breeze. Against Les Bolts, they are learning not the joy of flight but the essence of cruelty.
Florida lost Game 1 of this series at home, 4-1, because Tampa’s done this before and Florida hasn’t. They then came back, played significantly better, even controlling most of a Game 2 that seemed bound for a long and glorious overtime, only to give it all up horrifically on a single error performed by two Panthers simultaneously. Nikita Kucherov, whose gifts were examined earlier this week in The Solar System’s Favorite Website, chased a hope-more-than-purpose pass by Ondrej Palat behind the net and backhanded an inspired pass to the utterly unattended Ross Colton for the game winner with 3.8 seconds left, exactly enough time to line up for a face-off and feel bad. It was originally thought to be with 0.9 seconds left before referee Chris Rooney, a vicious old bastard who just likes pouring the salt in, added another 2.9 second of spit-twisting agony to the Panthers’ evening.
Colton was unattended because both Gustav Forsling and MacKenzie Weegar went behind the net to chase Kuznetsov when there was no compelling need for either of them to do so, the kind of mistake that the Lightning somehow mind-meld onto opponents at the most opportune time.
And with a potentially franchise-energizing reward awaiting them, the Panthers are now two to the bad and going to Tampa for Game 3 and Game Maybe The Last, because no team does surgical hope extractions quite like the ‘Ning. Even Colton’s very origin story seems typically Tampastic—he was a fourth-round pick from Vermont seven draft classes ago who just this year found himself as the regular third-line center between the younger Brandon Hagel (drafted by Buffalo in the same draft two rounds later) and the spectacularly older Corey Perry (taken in the first round so long ago that he might’ve been on the Minnesota North Stars’ board).
Tampa does that sort of thing a lot, finding mid-round talents and finding uses for them. It also helps that they have a cheat-code goalie in Andrei Vasilevskiy, who has been part and parcel of the soul-crushing Tampa experience throiugh two Cups and an Eastern Conference Final. He catches, guts, breads, salts and eats your hope with a side salad and a frothy cup of Old Overcoat.
And this time, it’s all being done to what the NHL hopes will become Tampa’s archest of rivals. It may be early to count this as the Lightning’s 10th consecutive victorious series because Hockey and all that, but this is a first-rate gut-punch that young and coming teams like Florida tend not to recover from until the 14th tee at Predator Ridge in mid-July. In Liverpool, fans in various states of shitfacedness poured joyfully from the stands at Goodison Park because their year of unremitting suck had an end date and Thursday was it. Panthers fans shuffled sullenly from their depress-o-torium fearing that the best year they’ve had in nearly three decades is close to the end because they ran into the one team that knows more than all the other students in the class. Today, finishing 17th in a field of 20 is infinitely better than finishing seventh in a field of 32. Sport can be a real bastard that way.