The Florida Panthers looked dominant for stretches and took the lead three different times, but they just could not hold onto it in a disappointing, 5-4 playoff-opening loss to the New York Islanders at the BB&T Center.
Veteran goaltender Roberto Luongo looked shaky, surrendering five goals on just twenty-six shots, although part of the blame for that falls on Florida's accomodating defense.
The Panthers got off to a fast start, with Dmitry Kulikov's stretch pass finding Jiri Hudler wide-open at the New York blue line. Hudler moved into the offensive zone and looked off Thomas Greiss before placing a gorgeous feed across to Teddy Purcell on the door step. The goal came just 1:55 into the action.
The Islanders countered at 6:39 when Ryan Strome outworked two Panthers along the boards and passed across to Brock Nelson. The speedy Nelson blew through a gaping hole in the Cats' defense and snapped a shot by Luongo blocker-side.
Florida regained the lead at the 13:51 mark when their usually wonky power play clicked. Jussi Jokinen got the goal, coming up with a nice tip of Brian Campbell's shot from the point right after he tapped Reilly Smith's pass back to the defenseman.
New York replied with a power-play goal of their own with 3:14 left in the period. Derek MacKenzie failed to slow up John Tavares in the neutral zone and the Isles' star knifed into the Panthers' end, turning Alex Petrovic around in the process, before dishing off to Frans Nielsen, who roofed the puck to tie the game at two.
The Cats came out strong to open the second period. After Nick Bjugstad won an offensive draw, Jokinen dropped the puck back to Petrovic. His shot missed the net, but fortuitously came off the backboards and out the the other side, where Smith pounced on the rebound and swiped it past a helpless Greiss.
With the momentum back on their side, Florida dominated the next 18 minutes, repeatedly testing Greiss, but the German netminder came up with save after save to keep his outplayed team within striking distance.
Greiss' fine work was rewarded when the Panthers' defense broke down again with 22 seconds left in the stanza, leaving Tavares all alone off to right of Luongo, where he easily beat the keeper from after taking a quick pass from Kyle Okposo. Nielsen collected the second assist by freeing the puck behind the net out to Okposo.
The late goal not only quieted the crowd, it undid all the good work Florida did over the first thirty-nine minutes, leading to a disappointing sag to start the third period.
The Tavares-Okposo combination struck again 2:33 into the final frame. Tavares stole the puck from Campbell and found Okposo, who pumped the puck into the net to give the Isles their first lead.
New York did what the Panthers could not, add to the lead, at 6:01 when Luongo gave up a savory rebound of Adam Quine's forehand shot, after the rookie got by Jakub Kindl, and Strome fired it home to give the Islanders some breathing room. Travis Hamonic was credited with the second assist for springing Quine.
The goal turned to be huge because Reilly Smith wouldn't let his club go quietly into the night, bagging his second of the night 55 seconds later to pull the Panthers back within one. Smith rifled a wrister by Greiss to cap off the sharp passing off Jokinen and Bjugstad.
Florida spent the rest of the game looking for the equalizer, with their best chance coming on Jaromir Jagr's redirection of a sweet Aleksander Barkov pass with 33 seconds left, but Greiss, who stopped a whopping 42 shots, would not yield, giving Brooklyn's finest a 1-0 lead in the series.
The Panthers will need to tighten things up defensively, keep a close eye on Tavares, and get better goaltending, while showing the same type of offensive moxie, if they want to even the series tonight.
Flotsam & Jetsam
- The Panthers have now lost three straight postseason games by one goal. Their last playoff win was on April 21, 2012 in Game Five against the New Jersey Devils.
- John Tavares' three-point game was a postseason career-high for the 25-year-old.
- Aleksander Barkov came into the game with a nine-game scoring streak, but failed to produce a point. Barkov finished with a game-high six shots, dished out three hits and went 14 of 19 on draws.
- Islanders' rookie Adam Quine was playing in just third big-league game, and first in the postseason. An assist on the game-winning goal is quite the playoff debut.
- Florida rookie Rocco Grimaldi had some nice moments, but he's got to win more than one of eleven face-offs.
- Erik Gudbranson returned to the lineup and looked noticeably rusty, finishing with a -2 rating. His first period hooking penalty led to the Frans Nielsen's goal.
- The fine folks at war-on-ice have the advanced stats breakdown for you right here.
- NHL.com has a highlight package for you to see with your own eyes.
- Lighthouse Hockey shines a beacon on the other side of Game One.