‘Phenomenal hockey’: How Panthers seized a mental edge in a tied series

SUNRISE, Fla. — A zillion statistics and feelings ran through Paul Maurice’s head 59 seconds into overtime in those moments between Blake Wheeler hooking the Florida Panthers‘ best player on a breakaway and waiting to see if the official’s raised arm would point to centre ice.

The coach weighed the chances of another goal from his deadly power play, which had already solved hockey’s hottest goalie thrice in the past two games versus a clean Aleksander Barkov breakaway against Igor Shesterkin, who’d already turned away a handful of those Tuesday.

“I don’t know, if you asked me and I got to pick one, which one I would pick,” Maurice smiled, blessed with hindsight and a newly tied Eastern Conference Final.

“If we hadn’t scored? Penalty shot all day long.”

But they did score.

The Panthers, and the hockey gods, found a way in Game 4, spoiling the New York Rangers‘ perfect OT record with a 3-2 decision.

Unlike Game 3, the deserve-to-win-o-meter and the actual winner were in lockstep.

And No. 13 Sam Reinhart‘s clock-freezing strike arrived right on time, 13 seconds into the power-play Maurice wasn’t yet certain he wanted. The NHL’s leading power-play scorer drifted to the high-slot office and pounded a one-timed shot set on a tee by Barkov down low after a flurry of tape-to-tape passes worked to widen a lane.

“It was about as well executed as you can, and their pressure was brilliant. There wasn’t a mistake there. It was just two really good teams, and we made the play,” Maurice said.

“The second and third period got us to an emotional level where you’re just playing, and it’s as fast as you can. I think that’s what we saw there. That was just a bunch of elite guys with phenomenal hands.”

Through the game’s first 20 minutes, however, those same elite guys appeared at risk of digging themselves a 3-1 series hole. The Rangers quenched their power-play drought and leaped to a first-period lead on the strength of a Vincent Trocheck bomb, while the home side whiffed on a few chances in tight and had the ice tilted in Sergei Bobrovksy’s direction.

“We wanted it so bad, I think we were gripping our sticks a little tight in the first,” admitted Sam Bennett, who tied it in the second. “We started to loosen up and just relax, started making more plays, got back to our game that we’ve had success with all year. It was good composure by our part.”

Experience and maturity made an appearance in the first intermission, because the Panthers seized total control from that point onward, their greatest obstacle being Shesterkin.

A mindset flipped.

“We’re not going to be nervous,” said Carter Verhaeghe, who scored next. “Whatever happens, happens. And that’s kind of how we played.”

At even-strength, the Cats pounced all over New York, again leading in high-danger chances (14-4), scoring chances (34-9) and shot attempts (71-29). But this time getting justly rewarded for their efforts.

“I don’t think anyone wants to play in their own zone that much,” lamented Rangers No. 1 centre Mika Zibanejad, he of zero points in the series.

So even though the series is all knotted up, and even though the Rangers’ round trip to Florida was successful in earning them home-ice advantage in a best-of-three, there is a mental edge here that now belongs to the Panthers.

Florida has controlled the run of play 5-on-5, its special teams have been sharper, plus their top-line forwards have taken turns making an impact, whereas New York’s Zibanejad, Artemi Panarin, and Chris Kreider have been relatively quiet.

Heck, Kreider’s most memorable Game 4 highlight was when he chucked Matthew Tkachuk’s mouthguard into the lower bowl. (Kreider said post-game he didn’t remember doing that.)

That his group’s momentum routinely wanes and leads to prolonged pressure by the Panthers now has Laviolette demanding more.

“We’ve got to be better. We can’t afford lapses like that. I don’t have an explanation. It was the same thing (as Game 3): They come out, they’re chasing it, they press, and I didn’t think the response was good to start the second period,” Laviolette said.

“I definitely think we need to be better.”

Win or lose, Maurice is more satisfied with how things have played out, how they’ve looked.

“We’d liked the way we’d played for big chunks of the last game. We’re right. Because last year we went as hard as we could every game, we didn’t win, and I got no problem with that. There wasn’t anything left for us to do,” Maurice said.

“For a big chunk of the games that we’ve played in our last two, we play as hard as they possibly can. They stuck together. They cared for each other. Each one of them took the lead at a different time or a different play. So, the result will be the result. There’s nothing left to do.”

‘phenomenal hockey’: how panthers seized a mental edge in a tied series

Eastern Conference Final: Rangers vs. Panthers

Keep up with the latest news and analysis as the New York Rangers take on the Florida Panthers for a chance to play in the Stanley Cup Final. All games can be watched on Sportsnet and Sportsnet+.

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So, here we go.

The Presidents’ Trophy winners, backstopped by the hottest goalie on the planet, and the defending Eastern Conference champs, throwing the kitchen sink his way. Three games or less.

“I think it’s phenomenal hockey,” Maurice said. “It’s 2-2. It’s tight. There’s great saves at both ends. There’s incredible speed, incredible skill. There’s physicality to it. But it’s also a really disciplined series. There haven’t been the blowups (we saw) in the Boston series.

“Two really good teams with good leadership and great skill. The benefactor is that both teams are going to play at least six games. And if you’re a fan of hockey, you’re gonna get entertained.”

Fox’s Fast Five

• Grinding his way back into the lineup 103 days after suffering a gruesome leg injury, 37-year-old Cup-chasing Wheeler made his playoff debut for the Rangers.

“For his first game back in a while, I thought he was good,” Laviolette said.

Until a Rangers’ turnover at the offensive blue line caught Wheeler flatfooted and he hooked Barkov, and the veteran was forced to watch the game-winner from the penalty box.

Laviolette is understandably taking heat for having his fourth-line winger on the ice in the first minute of overtime.

“We played the bench the entire game,” the coach defended. “The plan was to continue to play the bench.”

Wheeler drew in because Filip Chytil was a “healthy” scratch. The forward has been limited to just four playoff games since his Nov. 2 head injury and hasn’t registered a point. His conditioning is not where it needs to be.

“You’re asking a lot for a guy that missed six months to come back in and get up to that speed,” Laviolette said. “This is part of the plan for him.”

• The only player with more even-strength playoff goals than Alexis Lafreniere (seven) is Zach Hyman (nine).

• Once again, visiting Rangers fans invaded en masse and dominated the barn’s volume for significant stretches: “Rem-pe!” chants. “I-gor!” chants. And an audible burst of “Potvin sucks!”

Denis provided Panthers colour commentary for five years, and the poor guy is out here catching strays in his old workplace.

• If Shesterkin isn’t leading your Conn Smythe power rankings, it’s only because you don’t believe the Rangers are surviving this round. The Rangers lose in regulation if Shesterkin doesn’t stand on his head.

“Every team has a really good goalie — and he’s one of the best,” Verhaeghe says.

• Ironically, the ice has been noticeably better since the series shifted south. In New York, the playing surface was criticized publicly by Chris Kreider; in Sunrise, it’s been praised publicly by Maurice. Crisper plays. Fewer bobbles.

On the eve of Game 3, rapper NF threw a concert at Amerant Bank Arena during the final leg of his world tour.

Between songs, he stopped to comment on the temperature, calling the Panthers’ home the coldest venue he’s ever performed at: “Every time I start to sweat, it freezes.”

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