Cote: ‘No comfort in the playoffs’: Pressure shifts to Florida Panthers with Game 5 home loss | Opinion

This was like no night the Florida Panthers had ever experienced in front of their own fans — a chance, at home, to raise the franchise’s first Stanley Cup.

Twenty-thousand red-clad fans, some who’d waited 30 years for this moment, willed the storybook ending.

But the greatest unscripted reality show ever invented — it’s called sports — intervened.


And so the crowd that came for an historic celebration turned numb-quiet, and Florida’s once-safe-seeming Final lead of 3-0 over the Edmonton Oilers suddenly dissolved to a nerve-wracking 3-2 with Tuesday night’s 5-3 loss sending the best-of-7 series on the long flight back to Alberta, Canada for Game 6.

“There’s no comfort in the playoffs, man,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice had said before this game. “Maybe other people get comfortable. I haven’t had that for 30 years.”

He certainly won’t have it for the next three days.

Tuesday was the biggest game in franchise history, with the prized trophy itself at stake.

Now Friday and Game 6 will be the club’s biggest ever.

Unless there is an ultimate game, and then that will be.

From here, either the Panthers will raise the Stanley Cup in an Edmonton arena they turn tomb quiet...

...or there will be the most intoxicating, scariest two words in sport: Game 7.

“We gotta win one game,” said Panther Evan Rodrigues. “That’s our mind-set. The Stanley Cup is at stake. It’s kind of a how-badly-do-you want-it situation .”

No. Assume both teams want it with equal fervor, one team after its first Stanley Cup in its 30th season, and the other after its first since 1990.

This game ultimately tipped because the Panthers gave up two power-play goals and a dreaded short-handed goal — special teams betraying the Cats.

“It’s tough to win like that,” admitted Matthew Tkachuk afterward. “Giving up a shorty there is unacceptable.”

That certainly was the target of Maurice’s ire afterward.

“We gotta find a way to stay out of the penalty box,” he said. “That’s about it. The short-handed goals — that’s gotta stop.”

Despite his disappointment, Maurice sought to stave off any notion his team is reeling off two straight losses, or staggered.

“I’m not pumping tires. I’m not rubbing backs,” he said. “I don’t think we need that at all. I’m not feeling deflated. Neither is the hockey team. We can fix it. That’s how I feel about it. We can fix it.”

Maurice made an effort to be upbeat.

“We played a helluva game,” he said. “I didn’t mind our game. Thought we were alright. We weren’t good the game before. We were pretty darn good here tonight. We should be intensely interested in the next one and seeing how that’s played.”

Florida pulled within 4-3 just 4:04 into the third period on on a snap shot by Oliver Ekman-Larsson, a rare star turn for him, but could get no closer.

Edmonton made the final score on Connor McDavid’s empty-netter with 17 seconds left.

Edmonton had reasserted command at 4-1 on a second power-play goal eight seconds before it ended on Corey Perry’s wrist shot in an action-overload second period that saw five goals scored. But 14 seconds later the Cats’ Rodrigues reignited the crowd when his wrist shot in close made it 4-2, the score that carried into the third period.

The home crowd had gotten the jolt it dearly need when Matthew Tkachuk’s snap shot goal put Florida on the board at 3-1.

“He was fantastic,” said Maurice of Tkachuk.

Edmonton made it 3-0 and mashed the mute button on the home fans when McDavid from an extreme side angle somehow slivered the puck by Sergei Bobrovsky.

It had been 2-0, Oilers, on an Evan Bouchard unassisted slap shot with two seconds left in a power play that began the second period. It was the result of a dumb and awfully timed Niko Mikkola interference penalty as time expired in the first.

Edmonton had quieted the amped crowd early and in the worst possible way — with a short-handed goal on a Panthers power play. Connor Brown cashed at 5:38 to make it 1-0 with a backhand shot past Bobrovsky on a breakaway after an errant pass by Brandon Montour was stolen.

The Cats did not have a shot on goal the last 14 minutes of the opening period. They played better as the game wore on. If only they could have kept it 5-on-5 more than they did.

“We gotta be a little sharper at the start,” said Sam Bennett. “Our second and third periods were good. Our start needs to be better. We were gripping the stick a little tight. We wanted it too bad tonight.”

Lord Stanley’s Cup was of course in the building. all night, tantalizing.

“It’s different. Because now the goal sits in front of the game,” Maurice said. “You know [the trophy] is there.”

“You dream as a kid to be in this situation,” as Vladimir Tarasenko put it. “Good time to be alive.”

Less good for the home team as time expired Tuesday than when the puck first dropped.

Florida was 17-12 following a loss in the regular season and had been 4-1 on the rebound in the postseason and by a combined 21-10 score, until Tuesday.

By the way,the Boston Celtics, after winning the NBA Finals on Monday night, flew to Miami to party for a few days on South Beach — a none-too-subtle tweak at the bitter-rival Heat and its fans.

The Panthers had the chance Tuesday to raise the Cup at home and maybe join the party, especially with Tkachuk and Celtics star Jayson Tatum friends from high school in St. Louis.

Instead the hockey Final goes on.

Instead, two teams — and the Stanley Cup trophy — head northwest across the border.

“There’s no comfort in the playoffs, man,” Maurice said.

There surely isn’t now, not for either team or for either fan base.

This is what happens when a lopsided Final suddenly turns pretty great.