‘We took that as motivation’: Panthers steal home ice with defensive clinic

Matthew Tkachuk scored the opening goal and Sergei Bobrovsky locked down the crease with a 23-save shutout as the Florida Panthers topped the New York Rangers 3-0 in the first game of the Eastern Conference Final.

NEW YORK — New York City wanted to explode but was never given a reason to.

Even before the national anthem, thunderous “I-GOR!” chants and “Let’s! Go! Raaaan-gers!” and choruses bounced off Madison Square Garden’s iconic roof.

The locals have a good team here, tops in the regular season, and the New York Rangers cruised to the Stanley Cup semis with the fewest losses (two) of any of the final four teams standing.

And then, on Wednesday, they ran headfirst into a hardened, disciplined opponent who cleared this stage with flying colours just one year ago. 

The Rangers couldn’t score a single goal. They failed to give a star-studded home crowd much reason to whoop and cheer. And they lost home ice to the formidable Florida Panthers, shut out 3-0 and now trailing a series for the first time all spring.

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“Coming here in a hostile environment, playing against the best team in the league, it’s stacked up against you pretty good,” said game-winning goal scorer Matthew Tkachuk, playing an underdog card maybe only he believes not to be counterfeit. 

“But we took that as motivation.”

Whatever their source, make no mistake: The Panthers are motivated.

And their performance in Game 1 was downright clinical.

About that frothing crowd we mentioned? 

Well, over the course of 60 slogging minutes, we witnessed 18,006 hopeful locals grow increasingly quiet. Then restless. A touch irritable. Then plod to the exits sometime between a tough Alexis Lafreniere own-goal and a Sam Bennett empty-netter padded a 23-save Sergei Bobrovsky shutout.

“I guess it was kind of your ideal road win for us in how we want to play,” Tkachuk summed. “We’re very comfortable in the low-scoring games. We’ve got a lot of offensive guys on the team, but guys have bought into a certain style of play that has worked for us. That’s the best way to win in playoffs. It’s a hard style to play, but it’s a hard style to play against. 

“Just playing really hard defensively. That’s how we got to be.”

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Hard, to be sure. Nineteen blocks and two diligent penalty kills back that up.

But strategic as well. The scratch-and-claw wild-card Cats of 2023 barged into dance with more of a recklessness.

This new, improved version has learned from its Cup Final scars.

They didn’t bait or scrum or sway from their system; they focused on tornado forechecks, snappy D-zone exits, and waited for New York to cough up pucks.

The Rangers had 12 giveaways. The Panthers, just two.

“They play a pretty smart, simple game,” Rangers captain Jacob Trouba said. “They do a good job gaining the zone, getting pucks deep and getting in on the forecheck. We gotta do the same. That’s kind of the game that’s going to be played. It’s not going to be a ton of a run-and-gun. It’s going to be advancing the puck through zones and capitalizing on mistakes.

“We got to do a better job breaking out.”

Lamented Chris Kreider: “They put everything behind us, and they went to work.”

This is coach Paul Maurice’s game plan — his exhausting training camp and exhaustive video sessions — come to life.

It’s the buy-in that stems from a leading point-getter (Tkachuk) who says he doesn’t care about individual stats in a way that you actually believe him and dressing two of the top-four Selke vote-getters in the same uniform.

Florida was the league’s stingiest club all season, allowing 2.41 goals per game. Now it’s the stingiest team still alive in the playoffs, clamping up to just 2.25 goals against per game.

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New York mustered just five shots on Bobrovsky in the first frame and suffered through a 14:25 stretch without a shot in the second period. That’s when the life got sucked out of the barn.

And Florida, whose plan works best with a lead, didn’t allow its early momentum to get sidetracked by post-whistle nonsense, careless penalties or whining to the refs.

“We’d like to think it’s maturity,” Maurice said. “The New York Rangers are a veteran enough team that you are not intimidating them.”

Yep, Florida quietly pitched a defensive masterpiece. Bottle a few more 19-man efforts like this, and the series could be over quicker than imagined.

“Guys on our team that didn’t score tonight were some of our best players,” Tkachuk said.

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“There was so much buy-in from everybody that nobody cares who’s producing, who’s doing whatever, who’s doing the hittin’. At the end of the day, we’re here for wins.”

And they need only seven more.

Fox’s Fast Five

• Maurice on the officials’ decision to wipe an apparent Oliver Ekman-Larsson goal off the board due to Ryan Lomberg’s goalie interference:

“I thought it was right. Because it’s the call I would want on Sergei. But the best goalies in the world need a bit of protection. I don’t think there was any malice in what Ryan did. But you get in that deep in the crease — and then he’s trying to get out, and he gets pushed in (to Igor Shesterkin by Ryan Lindgren). I get all that. But you start that by starting in the crease fairly deep. … I thought that was fair.”

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• To a man, the Rangers had Lafreniere’s back on a tough own-goal (on a play caused in part by a hasty Shesterkin giveaway). 

“He’s in the right spot. He works so hard to get back to that spot. Stop in the crease. That’s what we want,” Kreider said.

“It’s a bad bounce, but that’s hockey. We said a couple of things to him, but he’ll respond. He’ll pick himself up, and we’ll pick him up too.”

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• Ekman-Larsson came into the league in 2010 and is just now participating in his second post-season.

He was asked how closely he’s been following Team Sweden’s success at the world championships.

The answer: Not one bit.

“I’ve been doing that for 12 years,” he quipped.

OEL has repped the Tre Kronor at seven worlds, for those scoring at home, earning two golds, a silver and a bronze. At 32, he couldn’t be happier for his first taste of the third round of the Stanley Cup tournament.

• Matt Rempe must lead the playoffs in most replica sweaters worn by fans to games in which he’s a healthy scratch.

• All the stars of my favourite boyhood movies came out to the hockey game …

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