Panthers head to Brooklyn on high note after splitting first 2 games of the series

Image courtesy of @turbuL3NT2 / COTP Photography
Image courtesy of @turbuL3NT2 / COTP Photography

The first two games of the Panthers’ first round playoff series with the New York Islanders have come and gone. After defensive mistakes spoiled the Panthers’ strong effort in game 1, they bounced back and cleaned things up helping them take game 2 before heading to New York.

The Panthers’ game on Thursday was the franchise’s first in the playoffs in nearly 4 years and one could feel the excitement in the air. It didn’t take long for them to get things going as Teddy Purcell tallied the Panthers’ first goal  less than two minutes into the game. Our first sign of it being a back and forth game came when Brock Nelson tied things at 1 just 4 minutes later, and that would happen two more times as Jussi Jokinen made it 2-1 and Reilly Smith made it 3-2 in the 2nd.

“It’s nice to contribute, get the confidence going, feed off what our line was doing at the end of the season,” said Purcell when asked about his goal.

The Islanders it up with 22 seconds left in the 2nd period and that seemed to set the tone for the rest of the game. Smith scored again in the 3rd period to get the Panthers to within 1 goal of the Islanders, but it was too little too late as Jussi Jokinen was called for a penalty with about 3 minutes left in the game which essentially killed any chances they had to tie things up.

“It never a thing you wanna do, give up a goal in the first minute or the last minute [of a period],” said Brian Campbell.

The Islanders were incredibly opportunistic as they scored each of their 5 goals as a result of defensive errors made by the Panthers which ranged from poor coverage to turnovers to mental lapses.

“We made some big mistakes, but we did a lot of good things in the game,” said Campbell who had the puck taken off his stick deep in the defensive zone which lead to the Islanders taking the lead in the 3rd period. “It’s just we gotta clean some stuff up.”

Although the Panthers dominated the Islanders for most of the game – they put 46 shots on net – and didn’t appear to pack it in despite being down by 2 goals, they weren’t able to cover up for the miscues in the end. An otherwise strong performance in net by Roberto Luongo was spoiled by missed assignments in the defensive zone. The Panthers lineup featured 7 players – Barkov, Huberdeau, Bjugstad, Petrovic, Grimaldi, Wilson, and Ekblad – who were playing in their first career NHL playoff game.

“I think we did a good job,” said Reilly Smith. “We put a lot of pucks down low in their zone and cycled it well. There’s definitely a lot of positives tonight, a couple of mental lapses seemed to cost us the game, so that’s frustrating but we weren’t expecting this to be a short series anyway.”

“We had a lot of opportunities to score, just didn’t happen,” said a quiet Jaromir Jagr. “It’s alright, forget about it, tomorrow’s a different game.”

“Luckily we have a game [Friday], so they’ll forget that pretty quickly,” said Purcell when asked if people would look at game 1 and wonder how Luongo allowed 5 goals.

For game 2, the outcome was exactly what the Panthers wanted. Once again, they came out strong and it was Reilly Smith who scored less than 5 minutes into the 1st period for his 3rd goal in two nights to give the Panthers an early lead. What was different about Friday’s game was the Panthers didn’t sit back and wait to get the next goal, they went out and did it.

Nick Bjugstad got a beautiful pass in the slot from Smith and he was wide open for a quick shot on net thanks to some coverage issues by the Islanders, giving the Panthers a 2-0 lead. Roberto Luongo was really solid and so was the Panthers defense as it took 39 shots and nearly 3 periods before the Islanders scored their first goal of the game.

“I definitely kinda got the goosebumps after going through the line,” said Bjugstad on his first career NHL playoff goal. “We played a pretty good game, so obviously it helps scoring a goal too.”

It was the first time in Luongo’s career that he started both games of a back-to-back in the playoffs, however he did do it during the regular season against Chicago and Tampa Bay on January 22nd and 23rd. He made a huge save on a Ryan Strome one-timer in the 2nd period that put the crowd into a frenzy.

And as it turned out, Teddy Purcell was right about what he said the night before. Luongo made 41 saves in a bounce-back game to make people forget about Thursday night’s overall performance.

“They threw a lot of pucks at the net early on,” said Luongo who earned his first career playoff win with the Panthers. “Sometimes you make a couple saves and you feel like you’re right in it. I felt good tonight.”

The veteran netminder played for nearly two minutes without his stick in the 2nd period after it was knocked into the corner boards following a net-front scrum, but being the calm player that he is, he wasn’t really phased by it.

“I don’t mind it,” Luongo said jokingly when asked how he felt about playing without a stick. “I almost play better without a stick sometimes.”

After the Islanders scored with over 3 minutes left in the 3rd period, Dmitry Kulikov salted the game away with a empty-netter which he put it in from the other side of the rink. Barkov won a defensive zone face-off and Reilly Smith made a slick toe-drag move against the boards to get the puck to Kulikov who shot it all the way down into the empty net.

The Panthers will now head to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York to face the Islanders for game 3 of the best-of-7 series on Sunday night.

“We tightened it up defensively, Luongo played a great game, our D were great tonight,” said Nick Bjugstad. “I think those are the kinds of games we’re gonna have to have going forward here in the playoffs.”



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