Panthers don’t roll over for Bruins, Devils vs Lightning set

Give the Panthers a lot of credit. They didn’t roll over for the Bruins. It might not have meant anything for Florida after having been eliminated from postseason contention by the Flyers on Saturday. But you wouldn’t have known it by the way they played.

If this were a different year, Panthers coach Bob Boughner would deserve the Jack Adams. He probably won’t even be nominated with Gerard Gallant, John Hynes and Dave Hakstol prime candidates along with Jared Bednar.

What the Panthers proved is that even though their final two games didn’t mean the playoffs, they didn’t care. They played the same way getting timely scoring and great goaltending from both James Reiner and proud veteran Roberto Luongo, who came in ice cold to stuff the Bruins’ chances of winning the Atlantic Division and clinching home ice in the Eastern Conference.

Florida went into Boston and defeated them 4-2 at TD Garden. A game that meant a lot more to the Bruins due to a big difference in first round opponents. Had they won in regulation, overtime or shootout, they would’ve passed the Lightning in total points and earned the number one seed which would’ve meant a match-up against final wildcard the Devils. Instead, they’ll have to deal with arch enemy Toronto in a very intriguing 2 vs 3 first round in the Atlantic semifinals. One which isn’t the easiest match-up against the high flying Maple Leafs.

Leading by a 3-1 score after outplaying a surprisingly flat Boston team, the Panthers were on their collective heels in a lopsided third period controlled by the more desperate Bruins. Boston outshot the Cats 26-6 as they gave every effort to get the game tied for a chance at first place.

A hi-sticking double minor that drew blood on captain Zdeno Chara allowed Boston to creep back within one thanks to some wonderful passing down low. Ryan Donato made a nice one touch pass to Patrice Bergeron, who swung the puck right to a open David Backes for a power play goal by Reimer with 10:06 remaining. It came on the first half meaning they still had another two minutes to work with.

During it, they continued to apply the pressure on Florida’s penalty killers and forced Reimer into some difficult stops. The Panthers backup was writhing in pain after two saves. Both which brought out the trainer to boos from classless fans who should’ve realized he wasn’t faking. The second save saw him bent over in obvious discomfort which NESN’s Jack Edwards noted to color analyst Andy Brickley that that was it for Reimer.

Having already stretched, Luongo came in relief giving a tap to Reimer with eight minutes left. It would’ve been easy for the 39-year old legend to spit the bit. But a couple of close calls from Boston near his post never got past him. He came up with a big pad save to deny a tying bid. Following the brilliance of Reimer stopping 33 of 35 shots including over half before giving way, Luongo was a perfect eight for eight in relief.

Evgenii Dadonov put it away when he got to a loose puck in front and swept home a backhand past Tuukka Rask for his 28th with 1:49 to go in regulation. A terrific read by a gifted scorer who had a very good year in his return to Florida after spending the past several seasons in the KHL. He really was tremendous during their playoff push and a big reason the Panthers didn’t wilt down the stretch.

Even without inspirational leading scorer Aleksander Barkov the final two games due to injury, the Panthers had enough heart to beat both the Sabres and much better Bruins to finish out the season winning their last five including twice over Boston and a impressive one goal win over Nashville.

The Panthers finished the 82-game schedule with 96 points in Boughner’s first year. In other seasons, that would be enough to make the playoffs. But a Flyers 5-0 laugher against the Rangers along with a Devils 5-2 laugher over the same Rangers allowed both I-95 rivals to make it. The Flyers earned third place in the Metro Division jumping over the Blue Jackets into a appetizing first round Battle of Pennsylvania against bitter nemesis the Penguins.

Meanwhile, Columbus will play Metro first seed Washington as a first wildcard. That means the Devils get who they wanted in the East’s top seeded Lightning. Even though Tampa had a conference best 113 points, they lost the season series to the Devils 3-0. What will it mean? If you’re NJDevs blogger Hasan, probably nothing. But you can’t deny that these determined and gritty Devils could have a mental edge entering the first round series which starts on Thursday.

New Jersey boasts Hart candidate Taylor Hall, who has been on a mission. He posted career bests in goals (39) and points (93) narrowly missing on Patrik Elias’ single season franchise record 96 points in ’00-01. Hall has formed unreal chemistry with superb rookie Nico Hischier and a sizzling Kyle Palmieri. The trio must be a big factor to pull the upset.

The Devils are looking for secondary scorers Miles Wood and Patrick Maroon to be royal pains in front of Lightning Vezina contender Andrei Vasilevskiy. He had a outstanding season and can make the great save that swings the momentum.

Keith Kinkaid has been on a special run the past two months making clutch stops when his team needs it most. He’ll have to duplicate it against the Lightning Bolts’ dangerous scorers Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos and a loaded lineup that features Brayden Point, J.T. Miller, Tyler Johnson, Alex Killorn, Ondrej Palat, Yanni Gourde and Norris favorite Victor Hedman.

It’s gonna take a Herculean effort from checkers Brian Boyle, Stefan Noesen, Blake Coleman, Travis Zajac and Michael Grabner. Sami Vatanen, Andy Greene have their work cut out for them along with Mirco Mueller and Will Butcher.

The Devils can frustrate opponents with their tenaciousness. They don’t back Diem which might explain their success against Tampa and Pittsburgh. But it’s one thing to do it in the regular season and quite another to accomplish it over a best-of-seven series.

Either way, in resting Hall and Kinkaid in a loss to the Caps, Hynes got the match-up he wanted. We’ll see what happens.

Along with the Bruins/Leafs, Pens/Flyers and Caps/Jackets, every series could go either way. It speaks to the parity. The bottom teams have a chance. It should be a exciting first round.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of New York administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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