The NHL playoffs begin May 2 and there appears to be one certainty.
Whichever team gets the pleasure of facing the Florida Panthers is going to have a difficult time winning four of seven games in a series. It’s simply not going to be easy.
The Red Wings saw first-hand how formidable the Eastern Conference-leading Panthers are Thursday, as Florida exploded in the first period on its way to a 5-2 victory.
“They can create offense out of nothing,” forward Sam Gagner said. “Even if you feel like you’re playing well against them, they find ways to odd-man breaks. They have a lot of firepower and the way they play offensively allows them to have the puck a lot and limits your offense.”
Florida (56-15-6) tied the franchise record with a 12th consecutive victory and swept the four-game season series against the Wings.
The loss left the Wings with a split on their quick two-game trip through the Sunshine State, including Tuesday’s upset win in Tampa.
The Wings actually took an early 1-0 lead Thursday on Gagner’s 13th goal, and were carrying the play early in the first period. They were matching the Panthers, or outplaying them, in various categories and Gagner’s goal only heightened the momentum.
BOX SCORE: Panthers 5, Red Wings 2
But the Panthers roared back with three first-period goals, and before you knew it, the Wings were struggling upstream again.
Filip Zadina (ill) being a late scratch Thursday, joining the already missing Dylan Larkin (core surgery) and Robby Fabbri (knee surgery) up front didn’t help the Wings.
“We’re undermanned right now and Zadina’s illness doesn’t help that,” Blashill said. “We had to play the right way, and we came out in the first period and played as well as we could have expected until the the next thing you know, it’s 3-1 and it’s unfortunate because we did a lot of good stuff.”
It was the second time in five days the Wings faced the Panthers, who also downed the Wings Sunday at Little Caesars Arena 6-1.
Tyler Bertuzzi scored the other Wings’ goal, while goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic stopped 22 shots. The Wings fell to 30-38-10, with four games remaining in the season.
“They’re a good team with lots of firepower and you have to find ways to limit their opportunities and create your own,” Gagner said.
Noel Acciari, Aleksander Barkov (power play) and Mason Marchment had first-period goals, while MacKenzie Weegar and Sam Reinhart (power play) added later goals. Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky stopped 27 shots.
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The Wings stayed even early, outplaying the Panthers at both ends of the ice, and got s further spark when Gagner made it 1-0 at 4:08 with a snap shot from the slot.
But soon enough, the Panthers started rolling.
Acciari opened the Florida surge with his second goal at 9:19, converting a pass from Brandon Montour from the side of the net and Acciari scoring from the high slot.
Barkov made it 2-1 at 18:53 on the power play. Barkov got the puck near the high slot, worked his way down, and snapped a shot past Nedelkovic for his 38th goal.
The Panthers capped the onslaught with Marchment scoring with 21 seconds left in the first period. Marchment was credited for his 17th goal, but it appeared on video that Lucas Raymond poked the puck past Nedeljkovic during a scramble near the crease, giving the Panthers a 3-1 lead.
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“We didn’t give up a whole bunch against a highly explosive team,” Blashill said. “The grade A chances were fairly close back and forth. We just have to be perfect in our game and we weren’t perfect long enough.”
Bertuzzi got the Wings back in the game with his 28th goal, at 6:15 of the second period with a highlight reel goal.
Bertuzzi carried the puck through the slot, wheeled near the dot, and after looking like he was about to pass, Bertuzzi snapped a shot while fading away that froze Bobrovsky.
But the Panthers, again, didn’t fade.
After several shifts of Panthers dominance Weegar finally extended the Florida lead to 4-2. Weegar trailed down the slot unobstructed and converted a pass from Marchment, cleanly beating Nedeljkovic at 16:05 of the second period.
“In the first peirod we stayed above them and didn’t allow them to have those chances, and it allowed us to have the puck a little more,” Gagner said. “They found a way to break through and it’s just another learning experience for us.”