The Florida Panthers are not a big-game franchise. That’s largely because they have played in so few big games, and when they have, they’ve looked entirely lost. No matter the players, coaches or situation, this franchise has been absent in the few important games they’ve played in.
That’s why the dominant win over Toronto is so novel and so important for a team trying to figure out how to be a big-game team. Too often, the Florida Panthers look like what the Maple Leafs trotted out in Sunrise: a team bereft of ideas, lackluster and lost. They never have the kind of jump to put a team to the sword immediately, and play with the urgency required to not just make the playoffs but advance in them.
Think back to important games in recent Panthers seasons, or even this one: they look a lot like what the Panthers faced against Toronto. On December 23 in Tampa, that’s exactly what the Panthers looked like, and that proved to be the catalyst for the Bolts’ ten-game winning streak. No regular-season game will ever have the importance of a postseason game but consider the Panthers’ position. They have made the postseason four times since they last won a series, and when they’ve had a chance to get into the dance, they’ve fallen short because in games like Sunday’s, they are out of their depth.
Performances like the one on Sunday are not worth celebrating to any higher degree than an average regular-season win, but they do assuage fears that the Panthers cannot win games like that. In order to simply make the playoffs in the East, they’re going to have to win many more of them, especially on the road.
They have six games left against Toronto, Columbus and Philadelphia, four of them on the road. They also aren’t going to win games 8-4 against tight-checking teams like Columbus and Philadelphia, particularly away from Sunrise. Scoring goals will never be an issue for Florida, but when they need to defend for long stretches, can they keep the puck out of their net? No game in which a team is up 7-1 should ever feel uncomfortable, and that game did.
Sunday’s performance is evidence that the Panthers can break away from their big-game struggles of the past. But in order to make the postseason, they’re going to have to perform like that multiple times over. They won’t play many games against teams that sleepwalked like the Leafs did either. Can they match the intensity of another team with the same desperation and intensity that they have? Can they squeeze out enough extra effort and concentration to win 50-50 games that will determine their fate?
For once, the Panthers dominated in a big game. The central question for the rest of the regular season is how often can they pull off the same trick? The answer will determine how far they can go.