The Florida Panthers won the 2022 Presidents’ Trophy, given to the NHL team that finishes with the most points during the regular season.
But as good as the Panthers were in the regular season, that doesn’t seem to matter right now.
The Panthers dropped a 4-2 decision to the Washington Capitals on Tuesday in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference first-round series. Game 2 is set for Thursday in Sunrise, Fla.
Washington, a more experienced team at its core, trailed 2-1 entering the third period on Tuesday. But the Capitals scored three straight goals – including an empty-netter — to stun the host Panthers.
“We’re still in good spirits,” Florida forward Sam Bennett said. “We still know how good a team we are.
“There’s no panic in this locker room.”
Prior to Tuesday’s game, everything was looking rosy for the Panthers. They were at home and they were getting their No. 1 defenseman, Aaron Ekblad, back from the injured list.
Early tallies from Bennett and Claude Giroux gave Florida the lead, but goalie Sergei Bobrovsky (34 saves) couldn’t keep the advantage.
It was fairly shocking because the Panthers had been 39-0-1 this season when leading after two periods.
“We let one slip away,” said Ekblad, who registered two shots and two hits, no goals in 24:11 of ice time in his first game back from his lower-body injury.
“I’d like to think we’re going to learn a valuable lesson from this and do things a little bit differently with the lead in the third period.”
Washington won, in part, by shutting down Florida’s top two players, Jonathan Huberdeau and captain Aleksander Barkov. Huberdeau led the league with 85 assists, and Barkov topped the Panthers with a career-high 39 goals, but neither man had a point on Tuesday.
“The first game is always important,” said Capitals goalie Vitek Vanecek, who made 30 stops.
“Now we’re feeling good. I hope it will go like that again (on Thursday).”
Capitals gritty forward Tom Wilson sustained a lower-body injury in the series opener. He will be a game-time decision on Thursday.
Pending Wilson’s prognosis, it’s possible the Capitals could be even better on Thursday. That’s because three-time Hart Trophy recipient Alex Ovechkin missed the last three games of the regular season due to an upper-body injury.
Ovechkin logged 17:36 of ice time in his first game back. He notched an assist to go along with four shots and four hits. His assist was crucial as he set up Evgeny Kuznetsov with the tying goal in the third period.
On that play, Ovechkin poke-checked Panthers defenseman MacKenzie Weegar, stripping him of the puck and feeding Kuznetsov for a breakaway goal.
Ovechkin has led the NHL in goals nine times, and it would come as no surprise if he returned to that role on Thursday.
Ovechkin led the Capitals in goals (50) and points (90) this season. Kuznetsov was second in points (78), and he tied defenseman John Carlson for the team lead with 54 assists.
Vanecek went 20-12-6 with a 2.67 goals-against average and a .905 save percentage.
Bobrovsky, who will be under immense pressure if he starts as expected on Thursday, went 39-7-3 with a 2.67 GAA and a .913 SP.
–Field Level Media