Playoff Takeaways: Never-say-die Panthers showing the best of post-season chaos

Matthew Tkachuk scored twice including the game-tying goal midway through the third period, and Eetu Luostarinen scored the eventual game-winning goal with 5:38 to go in the third period to force an improbable Game 7 vs. the top-seed Boston Bruins.

And the rats rained down.

When was the last time we saw a series so perfectly encapsulate the chaos of the Stanley Cup Playoffs? It’s not even what happened in Friday’s Game 6 between the Boston Bruins and the Florida Panthers. It’s not even Game 5. It’s the whole thing.

The Original Six squad, led by some of the game’s most respected veterans, by one of the sport’s most dynamic offensive talents, by the goalie who lit the league on fire this season — this squad that stitched together the greatest regular season in NHL history, that made all the right deadline decisions, that looked unstoppable. 

And across from them, the 30-year-old franchise still looking for their first chip, the one routinely mocked for their attendance numbers, the one that had to scratch and claw their way into the playoffs, only getting there on the back of a hot goalie who was run out of the net three games into this series.

By Game 4’s final buzzer, this matchup looked done and dusted — the B’s up 3-1, heading back home for the final blow, the Bruins faithful and the hockey world at large already projecting how Boston might fare in Round 2.

And then the Cats made fools of us all.

Ten goals by Linus Ullmark in two games, a resilient effort to outlast Boston in Game 5, and then in Game 6, and these Panthers have pushed the Bruins to Game 7, with all the pressure shoved back in the Presidents’ Trophy winners’ faces. Just like we all drew it up. 

It can’t be understated just how monumental a moment this is for the Panthers. Whether they see it through to the end in Game 7 or not, they’ve already done far more than anyone gave them credit for. They’re the story of the first round, no doubt.

And at the centre of it all was No. 19 in red. While the regular season seems a poor predictor on one side of the ledger, with Boston’s dominance being dismantled as quickly as it was built, it’s served as a good indication for how crucially important Matthew Tkachuk is to this new iteration of the Panthers.

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After a career-best 109-point campaign for his new club, the 25-year-old has been money for Florida in the post-season, too. Fresh off potting the OT goal that kept his club’s season alive in Game 5, Tkachuk was front and centre to do the same in Game 6. He was there early, setting up Florida’s opening goal to earn their first lead of the night, then scoring himself to restore that lead once Boston had erased it. He was there late, coming up with clutch defensive plays to hold the Bruins at bay, and then battling in the crease to tie the game late after a shorthanded Boston goal had seemed a final backbreaker.

The former Flame heads into Game 7 with five goals and 10 points through six games, both totals sitting in the top three league-wide, both already the highest of any Panthers player in their debut playoff series for the club, and his 10 points just two shy of the most any Panthers player has ever collected in one series.

Who would be shocked to see his name all over a Game 7 win Sunday?

Andersen stands tall, upends disappointing streak as Canes close out Islanders

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If the Bruins need any inspiration when it comes to trusting their gut and picking the ‘tender who will hold down the fort with everything on the line, tell them to give Rod Brind’Amour a call.

Coming into their own Game 6, Carolina found themselves in a similar spot: after building up a 3-1 series lead on the New York Islanders, the Canes got dropped in Game 5 in their first attempt to close out the matchup. Friday night, they too got one more crack at it, one more chance to end it before inviting in the anxiety of an all-or-nothing Game 7.

And in that situation, with the stakes as high as they could be, Brind’Amour turned the net over to Frederik Andersen — for his first start of these playoffs.

Limited by injuries again this season, the 33-year-old netminder hadn’t played a hockey game in two weeks. And in this particular type of game, his track record hasn’t exactly been stellar, the former Maple Leaf having lost his last eight straight games in which his team had a chance to clinch a playoff series.

Still, Brind’Amour rolled the dice. Ten minutes into Andersen’s night, dicey is exactly how it looked, the veteran beaten by a clean chance from Cal Clutterbuck — for his first goal, and point, of the series — on the Islanders’ fifth shot of the game. But after the lone early gaffe, Andersen settled in. And he never looked back.

By the end of the night, he’d turned away 33-of-34 shots from the Isles, besting likely Vezina nominee Ilya Sorokin and giving his club every chance to finish the series on the other side of the rink. Six minutes into overtime, Paul Stastny did just that, beating Sorokin with a bold shot from a sharp angle to clinch the series win.

In doing so, Stastny also completed one of the wildest full-circle moments in NHL history: 

There’s no moving on without giving Sebastian Aho his flowers, too. With all the talk of clutch performances, of marquee names delivering when it’s needed most, how’s this for clutch: by scoring midway through the third period on Friday to tie up Game 6 — after his Canes trailed all night long — Aho’s now amassed eight goals and 12 points in the 10 elimination games he’s played. 

That’s more than any other Hurricanes (or Whalers) player, and leaves him with the third-most goals, and third-most points, in elimination games league-wide since he made his post-season debut.

Oettinger continues writing playoff legacy as Stars bounce Wild

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A year ago, the Dallas Stars’ brief post-season run became the Jake Oettinger Show. 

It was the culmination of a wild 2021-22 ride that started in the minors and finished with Oettinger playing out of his mind as he pushed the then-division-champion Flames to seven games, his Stars ousted only after an absurd 64-save night from the young goalie. That 64-spot ranked as the ninth-most saves ever amassed in one playoff game. Oettinger finished those playoffs with a ridiculous .954 save percentage.

And for his follow-up act? The 24-year-old did it again.

In his second first-round appearance, Oettinger was once again the difference for his Stars, this time allowing them to see it through to the end and close out the Minnesota Wild in six games.

It wasn’t always as easy as it looked Friday night, though. The Lakeville, Minn., native got off to a strong start in Game 1 of this matchup, turning aside 48 shots to keep his Stars in the mix as long as he could. Still, the Wild outlasted him in that series opener, taking the win in double overtime. Over the next two, he looked solid but not exceptional, allowing seven goals over the pair of games as the two clubs traded wins.

In the final three games of the series, though, Oettinger simply shut the door.

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In a nail-biter of a Game 4, he did it with a 32-save performance, holding off a Wild side that outshot Dallas and looked primed for a comeback right to the end, Oettinger preserving his club’s one-goal lead through a third period that saw Minny double the Stars in shots.

In Game 5, he ensured a much calmer affair, stuffing the Wild’s attempts to take the series lead and instead putting up a 27-save shutout to earn Dallas the edge.

Friday night, in Game 6, it was more of the same, Oettinger extending his shutout streak to just over 114 minutes before it was snapped in the latter half of the third, with the game already out of reach for Minnesota. The young netminder’s sterling streak ranks as the longest of this post-season so far, and his Stars are moving on to Round 2.

The defence in front of him is owed plenty of praise, too, after limiting Minnesota to just 24 shots in the series-clincher. And heap some more on Roope Hintz’s name as well, as the unexpected engine of this Stars offence took over the playoff scoring lead with his 12th point of the post-season.

Erik Johnson’s redemption arc helps Avs push Kraken to Game 7

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Take a quick glance at Colorado’s depth chart and it should be clear how far the 2023 iteration of this group is from the one that lifted the Cup 10 months ago.

Without two of their best wingers in Gabriel Landeskog and Valeri Nichushkin, without Cale Makar for one game of this series, without 2022 Cup-run hero Nazem Kadri, the new-look Avs are having a much tougher go this time around. That they entered Game 6 on Friday fighting for their playoff lives against the league’s newest club is evidence enough.

To get back to where they’re expected to be, the thinking went, Colorado would need more of that age-old ingredient, pivotal to all meaningful playoff runs — some unexpected heroics from the quiet corners of the lineup.

In Game 6, with their season on the line, they got it — and from the longest-tenured member of their squad, no less: 35-year-old defender Erik Johnson.

When the night started, it looked like it was going to be a miserable one for the Avs’ elder statesman. Fifteen minutes into the tilt, Johnson found himself on the wrong side of the action, gifting the Kraken an easy opening goal via an aimless pass off the boards in his own zone, picked up by Seattle’s Vince Dunn and fired straight into the cage.

Putting his club on the back foot early, Johnson was bailed out by the Avalanche leader who’s been bailing his team out all series, Mikko Rantanen netting his league-leading sixth goal of the playoffs to get Colorado back to level ground.

Seven minutes into the next period, though, with both clubs fighting for every inch of ice, Johnson redeemed himself. 

Manning the point as Nathan MacKinnon and Rantanen waded through a gutsy battle in the corner, deep in Seattle’s zone, the puck was dug out and flipped Johnson’s way. The veteran rearguard drifted to the slot, loaded up a shot, and flung it on net, the puck careening off a stick, off the ice, and past Philipp Grubauer.

The goal stood as the game winner, Artturi Lehkonen adding a pair of insurance tallies and the Kraken held to Dunn’s lone score.

That Johnson picked the perfect time to rediscover his scoring touch would be a colossal understatement — his game winner Friday, to force Game 7, wasn’t just his first of these playoffs, it was his first goal of the season. The last time No. 6 fluttered the twine: 11 months ago, when he scored during the 2022 playoffs. That one finished as his only tally of the Cup run.

With Johnson’s annual playoff goal in the books, Colorado will get another chance to keep their repeat bid alive two days from now, amid what’s turned out to be a wild Game 7 Sunday.

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