Panthers bringing ‘killer instinct’ to Game 5 in Toronto
SUNRISE — The Panthers could not stamp out the Maple Leafs’ hopes with a four-game sweep on Wednesday, but as the series heads back to Toronto for Friday’s Game 5, they have an opportunity to end a second straight playoff series by clinching in front of a hostile road crowd.
“In the situation we’re in right now, obviously, you want to have that killer instinct and continue to do what has made you successful at this point,” center Eric Staal said. “But you’ve also got to enjoy it. You’ve got to enjoy playing, being out on the ice, enjoying the atmospheres. Every rink is really loud, phenomenal atmosphere and energy. This is the best time of year to play. This is why we lace up.”
The Maple Leafs forced a fifth game with a 2-1 win over the Panthers at FLA Live Arena on Wednesday night, but Florida’s mood after the game was far from dire. Panthers coach Paul Maurice was quoting Will Ferrell’s 2008 basketball movie “Semi-Pro” in the postgame press conference.
“We lost a game today, that happens in the playoffs,” Maurice said after the loss. “I think to everybody so far. And we get to play the next one. OK, we’re all good with that?”
Florida, the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, was due for a loss, having reeled off six straight playoff wins prior to Wednesday’s defeat. Although the Panthers lost Game 4, they still have a two-game cushion over the Maple Leafs. They need to win just one of the next three potential games to advance to the franchise’s first Eastern Conference Finals since 1996.
“We’re living the best time of our lives right now,” center Aleksander Barkov said. “Every day is the best day of your life. This is why we play hockey. We want to be in the playoffs, and we want to go as far as possible. With this group of guys, nothing’s better than that. . . . We have amazing crowds for every game in the playoffs and a lot of support for us, so it couldn’t be better.”
The Panthers’ joyful play and proclaimed lack of pressure has carried them to the verge of the conference finals, but Maurice said that stems from a seriousness “on the matters that are important to us.”
“We judge ourselves by how hard we are to play against, by how hard we play,” Maurice said. “And that’s a very serious matter. So if it’s not there, it’s not all giggles. But you’ve got to be able to enjoy it.”
Florida does have areas it needs to improve on in Game 5. Toronto clogged shooting lanes and stymied the Panthers’ offense for much of Game 4. Florida did not score until more than halfway through the third period, by which point it already trailed by two goals.
“They block a lot of shots,” Barkov said. “They played really good, defensively. But we can be better, offensively. We can keep the puck more in the zone and just work a little harder. I think (Wednesday) we didn’t do our job as well as possible, but it’s over now. We’re concentrated on the next game.”
The Panthers will need to concentrate. The Maple Leafs are in the same position that Florida was in two weeks ago. Down 3-1 against the Boston Bruins, the Panthers battled back to win three straight and upset the heavily favored Bruins. But those recent events won’t loom large in the Panthers’ minds, Maurice said.
“We have a certain mindset built that’s not related to those things, so it won’t be: ‘Hey, we can’t . . . do what Boston did.’ That won’t be part of our day. We want to try to play as hard as we can. We want to play a little better than we played last game, fix some things, because if we don’t, it doesn’t really matter whether you win a series or not. If you don’t learn and get better, you’re not winning anything.”