SUNRISE, Fla. — The Panthers need a miracle. Again.
Such is the story of Florida’s season, and it makes all the sense in the world that the plot has reappeared in the Stanley Cup Final. The Panthers needed a furious late-season push just to get into the playoffs as the lowest seed, then needed to win three consecutive elimination games to oust a record-setting Boston team in Round 1.
And now, another huge challenge awaits. Down 2-0 in the title series to the Vegas Golden Knights, the Panthers return to home ice on Thursday night looking to spark one more epic turnaround and get right back in the hunt for hockey’s biggest prize.
“Desperation and winning a game,” Florida veteran Marc Staal said. “We’ve approached every game in the playoffs the same way. We just try to take it — like everyone says — one at a time. But our backs are against the wall, obviously. We’re down by two. But we’re coming home. Love our team, love our resiliency. We’re going to go out and give our best effort and play our best game tomorrow and go from there.”
To say the odds are stacked high against the Panthers is a bit of an understatement.
— They’ve beaten Vegas in four of 12 all-time meetings between the franchises. And now they’ve got to beat them in four of the next five games to win the Cup.
— They’ve been outscored 10-2 in the last four periods against Vegas.
— Matthew Tkachuk has two more misconduct penalties (three) than he has points (one, a goal) in the series.
— Former Panthers Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith have as many goals so far in the series (four) as all the current Panthers do in the series, combined.
— Vegas hasn’t dropped four out of five games since going 1-2-2 to start a six-game road swing that began in late January.
— Teams that start a Stanley Cup Final with two home wins have won the Cup 38 times in 41 past instances.
But by now, Florida’s penchant for pulling off the improbable is well-known. Almost expected, really.
“Of course, we’ve had three really tough series,” Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov said. “Boston is a good example. We were down, we found a way, we started playing a little better, we found a way to come back and get out of there. Same thing here — we’ve just got to work a little harder, work a little smarter and find a way to win games.”
They’ve done it before.
There was the 6-0-1 stretch late in the season to hold off Pittsburgh for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot. The winning three elimination games against a Boston team that had the best regular season in NHL history in Round 1; Game 5 there was on the road in overtime, Game 6 required a rally late in the third period to erase a 5-4 deficit and Game 7 was another road OT victory. There was a four-overtime win at Carolina in the East final, setting the table for a sweep where the Panthers got four one-goal wins and allowed only six goals.
They’ve given up 12 goals in two games against Vegas. And it’s not all on Sergei Bobrovsky, either. Panthers coach Paul Maurice found it funny that it was considered a surprise to some that Bobrovsky – who carried Florida to the final round — will remain the starter for Game 3.
“He was outstanding in Game 1,” Maurice said. “And he was as good as our team was in Game 2.”
The message was simple: Everyone has to be better. The Panthers have a history of rising to those moments.
“We never lose doubt in this room,” Florida forward Ryan Lomberg said. “Obviously, they’re a good team. They got here for a reason. We knew it wasn’t going to be easy. It’s kind of the theme of our whole year is we make it tough. Whether we wanted it this way or not, it’s this way, so we’ve got to play the hand we’re dealt now.”
NOTES: Maurice said he expects D Radko Gudas, who left Game 2 injured, to play in Game 3. Forward Eetu Luostarinen will remain out. Maurice declined to offer specifics on Luostarinen’s injury, but quipped “he’s a good human.” … Thursday will be Florida’s first Stanley Cup Final game on home ice in FLA Live Arena. The Panthers’ 1996 final appearance was at a long-demolished arena in Miami.
AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno contributed to this story.