The Panthers got a finish lesson

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Aleksander Barkov and the Panthers got bopped.
Aleksander Barkov and the Panthers got bopped.
Photo: Getty Images

It sounds stupid to almost everyone who loosely followed the Panthers-Lightning Game 4 yesterday, considering that the Cats gave up six goals and lost by four. But for most of the game, especially in the first period, Florida kicked the absolute shit out of the Lightning. They relentlessly attacked what can still be a slowish Tampa defense (especially when Victor Hedman is carrying something, An injury, emotional ennui, both). They forced turnover after turnover. Pressured Lightning d-men under that furious forecheck simply flung the puck for the red line, gasping for air like a thrashing child in the pool whose swimming skills didn’t quite match his bravado. They peppered Andrei Vasilevskiy with shots, amassing 15 in the first and 19 in the second and 52 attempts in those periods as well.

And they headed to the dressing room after 20 minutes down 3-1 and 5-2 after 40 minutes. This is the true lesson of hockey. Process is great, but if you don’t finish, it matters not.

Tampa was allowed to thumb their nose at process and analytics in Game 4 because the Panthers don’t have the weapons up front that the Bolts do. They’re not bereft, as most teams would light a few digits on fire to start their team with Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau. But it doesn’t match the three lines of firepower that Tampa throws out there on a nightly basis.

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They let Anthony Cirelli loose on a breakaway in the midst of their dominance. Cirelli isn’t a star, but a 15-20 goal scorer with blinding speed who hangs out bouncing their second and third lines. Yanni Gourde, a bottom-six nuisance that also can boast three 20-goal paced seasons in his career (he had 17 in this shortened one) was allowed to camp in front of the net when Nikita Kucherov flung one in from the blue line for him to tip. Ondřej Palát, who has been doing a pretty impressive Marian Hossa impression for a good portion of his career, added to the Panthers’ opening frame misery.

It can be such a cruel sport, when you do everything right and everything you’d hoped to do, and the other team simply scores because it’s what it’s built to do. And it’s not Stamkos, or Kucherov, or Point, or Hedman.

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That’s what makes still archaic NHL front office thinking so infuriating. Why Brian Burke somehow waking up from the fart-fog he’s lived in in Pittsburgh with a job and proclaiming the Lightning won a Cup because they’re “heavy,” landing any true analyst’s head onto their desk if not through it. While the hockey press, and front offices, are still so desperate to hold up some slobbering swamp person as the difference between any team winning and losing, it’s about the scoring depth you can create. It’s about finish. Especially in playoff hockey, chances become more and more of a premium. Teams simply need more guys who can convert them, no matter who they fall to. It’s not always your top line, as the Edmonton Oilers learned in their first two games.

That doesn’t mean loading up your team with 40-goal scorers because that would be impossible and expensive even if it weren’t, but finding guys or developing them who can do the things you want your bottom-six forwards to do (forecheck well, be responsible defensively, kill penalties), but also not fill their hockey pants whenever presented with a look at net. You’d think teams would learn lessons from multiple Cup winners, and yet somehow hold the St. Louis Blues lone triumph in 2019 as the paragon. And even that was achieved when the Blues pivoted away from their war-like rock people history and packed the lineup with skill.

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How dispiriting was it for teams when they could somehow keep Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin at bay, but see Bryan Rust or Carl Hagelin score a big goal in the third? Or when the Hawks were racking up Cups and they muzzled Kane or Toews or Hossa but Andrew Shaw or Dave Bolland or Micheal Frolik scored series-changing goals? And these weren’t rare occurrences for any of these players.

There are too many moles on the Lightning for most teams to whack. The Panthers are learning that the hard way. Sadly, they’re not taking it well, based on their pretty embarrassing, petulant, childish lashing-out in yesterday’s third period. It’s rare for a Joel Quenneville team, as his Hawks teams were famous for shrugging their shoulders at most any situation, good or bad, and getting on with the job and usually finishing it. Only in hockey is it considered right and proper to forget the game when you’re down big in the playoffs and try and turn everything into the Royal Rumble. Any baseball manager that let his pitchers bean guys late in a game they were losing simply because they were losing would be suspended. Hard fouls in basketball would make you a mockery.

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The Lightning won’t care. They have a 3-1 lead, an opponent that’s pretty much admitted it’s in deep shit, and still an arsenal of scorers to frighten whatever comes next.