Panthers suddenly under pressure as Oilers drag them north

Florida Panthers head coach Paul Maurice explains why he doesn't think pressure is back on them after losing two straight to the Oilers.

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — To understand how pressure has swung in this oh-now-you-have-our-attention Stanley Cup Final, one needn’t look any further than the composure of one team’s general manager before Game 5, and the other one afterward.

As Edmonton Oilers GM Ken Holland and his staff stood in the back of the Amerant Bank Arena elevator, making their way up from the pre-game buffet to the pressbox Tuesday night, a giddy and all-decked-out Florida fan entered the elevator and took note of the well-dressed gaggle of executives.

“Oh, you guys look handsome in your suits!” the fan exclaimed. “You must be important. Are you with the Panthers?!”

A pause befell the moving lift.

“Yep,” Holland fibbed, a wide grin spreading across his face.

How relaxed Holland appeared before facing a second elimination game is how, uh, unrelaxed GM Bill Zito — actually with the Panthers — appeared 60 minutes of game clock later.

After seeing Oilers captain Connor McDavid slam home the Game 6–forcing empty-netter and watching his roster miss two chances at glory, Zito picked up a water bottle and chucked it against a press-box wall like some Livan Hernandez high heat.

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The Panthers will tell you frustration isn’t creeping in, that the pressure has not shifted.

But how can it not be?

“Absolutely nothing has changed for our situation in the last two games, except we learned some things. Some lessons we don’t need to learn; we’ve learned them enough. But we keep getting taught those lessons,” a humourless head coach Paul Maurice said post-loss.

“But nothing’s changed for us. Not one thing.”

What’s changed in the series, however, is major.

McDavid has stacked eight points in 120 minutes and is flirting with god level status.

The stingiest defensive club in hockey has allowed 15 goals over the past eight periods and has stopped dominating the 50/50s along the boards.

The previously impenetrable Sergei Bobrovsky (.896 save percentage in the series) is now losing a goaltending contest to Stuart Skinner (.902) and seeing his short side leak and his Conn Smythe odds spiral.

Florida’s 1-0 advantage in the specialty-teams battle through its 3-0 series stranglehold has dissolved into a 5-1 deficit (thanks to a pair of Oilers’ short-handed goals).

And, oh, yeah … the next match takes place in Edmonton, where the rabid locals are primed to party like it’s 1990.

“Yeah, it’s hard. But I don’t feel deflated,” Maurice said. “I didn’t mind our game. I thought we were all right. We should be intensely interested in the next one and see how that’s played.”

How it cannot be played is with defenceman Brandon Montour floating a pizza across the offensive blueline and watching the Oilers’ Connor Brown intercept the puck, then go screaming in for a short-handed breakaway goal and an early lead. Which is how the Panthers dug themselves a hole in Game 5.

“Yeah. It was a similar start to Game 4, giving up the shorty there, which is just unacceptable. We’ve got to start better,” the Panthers’ Matthew Tkachuk said.

“They played well. They put the puck in the net when they had their chances. We had a good push. Thought 5-on-5, we played really well tonight. That’s something to build off.

“We want to keep it 5-on-5. We want to stay out of the box. If we do get a power play, capitalize on it, but try to keep it 5-on-5 as much as possible.”

There is a logical explanation for the Panthers cracking a bit here.

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In Game 5, they put the world’s deadliest power play on the ice five times. A team that prides itself on rugged physical play can’t suddenly skate passive and sit back or deviate from the formula that earned them a cushion in the first place. But it can quit embellishing and slashing the hands and turn its own man-advantage into an advantage.

But there is a mental hurdle at play as well. Only two Cats — wingers Vladimir Tarasenko and Carter Verhaeghe — have ever reached the mountaintop. Most of the men getting dragged back to Alberta are in unchartered territory.

It showed in Game 4. It showed a little less in Game 5, easily the most entertaining night of the series.

“We were gripping the sticks a little tight,” Panthers defenceman Oliver Ekman-Larsson said. “We wanted it a little too bad.”

Therein lies the challenge for the Panthers, who must channel their desire but smartly Friday. Because we all know how unpredictable Game 7s can be, and the Panthers built their season on predictability.

Does Florida feel pressure to close this out in Game 6, to not turn this contest into a best-of-one?

“No. No. No. It’s not an elimination game for us. We’re going up there with a 3-2 series lead,” Tkachuk says. “Just got to take care of business like we did in Game 3.”

And if they don’t?

Well, heads up for flying water bottles.

“It shifts quickly,” says Oilers sage defenceman Mattias Ekholm.

“That’s the beauty of the playoffs. You can feel really safe with a 3-0 lead. But two games later, it’s maybe not.”

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