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SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — The Florida Panthers are aware of the narratives.
The franchise hasn’t won a playoff series in 26 years going back to the 1996 Eastern Conference finals, by far the longest active drought in the NHL. They won the Presidents’ Trophy this season, and the last 10 teams that finished a full 82-game season with the league’s best record failed to win the Stanley Cup. And almost nobody on Florida’s roster knows what it’s like to win a title.
Florida has a chance to put all those storylines to bed forever. The Panthers face the Washington Capitals — a roster loaded with players who have hoisted the Cup — in a first-round series that starts Tuesday night.
“We kind of ignore the noise,” Panthers interim coach Andrew Brunette said. “We know, to get to where we want to go, it’s going to take a lot. And we’re just worried about that process right now, that day to day, and that’s been our mindset all year. We haven’t worried big picture. We just worry about the next game.”
The Caps won the Cup in 2018, and still have nine players whose names were etched on the side of hockey’s chalice after that season along with four other players who won titles with other teams. Florida has two players that have been part of championships, Patric Hornqvist and Carter Verhaeghe.
“It’s going to be totally different games than the regular season, obviously,” Capitals star Alex Ovechkin said. “They are solid group of guys, best team in the regular season, but in the playoffs, it’s a different mindset, different speed, different battle level.”
Those were lessons Florida learned the hard way a year ago.
The Panthers played in-state rival Tampa Bay in the first round of the playoffs. Expectations were sky high, in part because Florida had a home-ice advantage that turned out to be meaningless. The Lightning won Games 1 and 2 ín Florida’s rink, won the series in six games and the Panthers had to watch them go on to win their second straight Stanley Cup.
“I don’t think we really think about that anymore,” Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov said. “We thought about it when we lost, for two months, the whole summer, whatever. You think about it, you learn from it, and you move on. We had a good regular season. And now the regular season is over.”
Florida finished with 122 points, the seventh-most in NHL history. Of the six teams that had more, three won the Cup — all Montreal teams in the mid-1970s, three decades before this current NHL salary cap era began — and three fell short.
Chicago won the Presidents’ Trophy and the Cup in 2013, albeit in a shortened season. The last full-season Presidents’ Trophy winner to be the last team standing was Detroit in 2008. Winning the Cup is obviously the hardest mission in hockey, and for whatever reason the best regular-season team rarely seems to be the best team at the end.
“I always feel that the playoffs are wide open,” said Caps coach Peter Laviolette, a Cup winner himself. “Any team that gets in there, if they get everybody playing well, anything is possible.”
The teams played three times, all in November, all one-goal games, all won by the home team — Florida got both of its wins 5-4, Washington prevailed by a 4-3 count.
Ovechkin had four goals in the three games, twice as many as any other player did in the season series. Both teams were dealing with injuries at the end of the season, but Ovechkin sounds good to go for Washington, as does Florida leading scorer Jonathan Huberdeau. The Panthers might go until game time before deciding the status of defenseman Aaron Ekblad, who has missed the last 21 games with a knee injury but is very close to being cleared.
BEST HOME VS. BEST ROAD
Florida tied with Colorado for the NHL’s best home record this season, with the Panthers going 34-7-0 and the Avalanche going 32-5-4, each adding up to 68 points. Washington had the league’s best road mark, going 25-10-6 for 56 points — just ahead of Florida (24-11-6), Carolina (25-12-4) and Calgary (25-12-4), all getting 54 points. Washington was just 21st-best in the league at home (19-16-6, 44 points).
Most goals. Most assists. Most points. Nobody has victimized the Panthers more than Ovechkin. He’s scored 43 goals (Steven Stamkos has the second-most with 40), added 45 assists (Vincent Lecavalier had 44), which adds up to 88 points (seven more than Stamkos). Game 1 will be Ovechkin’s 69th game against Florida, tying Mark Recchi, Sergei Gonchar and Jaromir Jagr for 10th-most all time.
Neither side had a goalie with great numbers against the other team this season. The team save percentages were virtually identical in the three games — .878 for Florida, .877 for Washington.
Florida’s Sergei Bobrovsky and Washington’s Ilya Samsonov had the bulk of the work for their clubs in the three games, but no goalie in the season series (Florida also used Spencer Knight, Washington also used Vitek Vanecek) stopped 90% of the shots he faced. Bobrovsky will start Game 1 for Florida. Laviolette says he's keeping his choice close to the vest.
The Panthers haven’t won a Game 1 since April 17, 1997 — losing all four since, plus one in the qualifying round in the bubble in 2020, and all five of those defeats came by one goal.
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Tim Reynolds, The Associated Press