LeBrun: Panthers proving they are built for the moment, using a formula 2 years in the making


SUNRISE, Fla. —  Two summers ago, the Florida Panthers were coming off a Presidents’ Trophy-winning season.

And playing a high-octane, entertaining brand of hockey.

Then they went ahead and made major changes to their team, including a coaching change and a blockbuster trade dealing away their top scorer.

Which puzzled some people. But not those inside the Panthers organization.

“Our goal is to build a Stanley Cup-winning franchise,’” Panthers GM Bill Zito told The Athletic in an interview back in October 2022. “And along the way, we have to continue to improve in all aspects. We have to continue to evolve.”

The hiring of head coach Paul Maurice was a huge part of that. The mission once he arrived two years ago?

“Play a style of game that you can play in the playoffs,” Maurice said Monday night after his Panthers took a 2-0 series lead with a 4-1 win over the Oilers. “Playoff hockey is different. We talk about this in training camp, and it’s hard. The buy-in isn’t from the coach. It’s nothing I’ve done. It is the players’ willingness, so the running joke in the coaches’ office here is, ‘Be careful what you tell them to do because they’re going to do exactly that.’ We have worked very hard.

“I believe for our veteran core over the last two years, this is game 204 and we’ve been working really, really hard for 204 games to get to this.”

The objective two years ago was to transform a free-wheeling, offensive team into a defensively conscious, grinding team whose idea of an ideal playoff game is a 2-1 win.

The last four periods of the Stanley Cup Final against the high-octane Oilers is further proof of that transformation. They have completely suffocated Edmonton over the past 80 minutes of hockey.

“We’ve got two years of doing it,” said Maurice. “We play tight games. We’ve always played tight, hard games. We don’t necessarily score easily. That’s not a function of not skill or talent.”

No, it’s a function of a mindset. There’s no cheat in their game.

Consider that according to Natural Stat Trick, the Oilers had zero high-danger scoring chances in Game 2 Monday night.

Total shutdown hockey.

“I thought it was a continuation of our third period from Game 1,” Maurice said. “I thought our gap was good, and the effort was outstanding.”

What does Florida do that’s so tough on the opposition?

“They just check, they mark their man and play the body,” Oilers head coach Kris Knoblauch said. “They’re a tenacious group and they make it tough to get any space out there.”

Oilers superstars Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl have one assist between them through two games of the Cup Final. They’ve had some looks, but they’re clearly out of their comfort zone right now.

“They’re doing a good job defending, but we can do a better job of creating offense and being harder on pucks,” Draisaitl said.

“They’re a great team,” McDavid said. “They defend really well, they’ve got a great goalie — doing a lot of really good things, obviously. They’re playing (in) the Stanley Cup Final. They’re making it tough, for sure.”

Both superstars need to step up come Game 3 in Edmonton, and they know that. Although their coach came to their defense postgame Monday night.

“I think our best players have been pretty good,” Knoblauch said. “We’re talking about a different story, we hit three goal posts on the power play, we’re probably telling how good our top players were. Yeah, we’d like some more goals but I’m not calling … I think our top guys have been very good.”

The Oilers’ lethal power play is 0-for-7 in the series now. While they had a number of dangerous looks in Game 1 on the man advantage, that wasn’t as true in Game 2.

“Just the puck’s not going in,” Knoblauch said of his team’s power play. “We’ve had some good chances. They put pressure on, so you’re not set up as much as you are against the L.A. Kings (more passive PK). But when there is a breakdown, we’ve had some really good looks. Like tonight, we could be talking about how good our power play is if those three that go off the goal posts go in.”

And now for the Oilers, if they don’t end up winning four of the next five games to win the Cup, will they look back at the opening 40 minutes of Game 1 and feel they blew a huge opportunity than when they had wave after wave of chances but couldn’t beat Sergei Bobrovsky?

“We feel we came here and we played enough to get a split,” said Knoblauch. “That doesn’t always happen. We just have to take it one game at a time. I don’t see any reason to panic or do anything drastic. You know, if we win one of these, which I think we’re capable of doing, we’re really happy. I don’t want to get too caught up in ‘we’re down 2-0 and we’re in a whole lot of trouble.’ We just have to win the next game.’’

What could potentially impact the balance of power in this series is the health of Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov, who left the game midway through the third period after taking a hit from Draisaitl. A show of frustration from Draisaitl if you ask me. Out of character to be sure, but not a smart play.

Maurice didn’t have an update on Barkov postgame. He didn’t share his view of the hit when first asked for it.

I decided to ask Maurice a second time because his facial expressions suggested the hit didn’t sit well with him.

“This isn’t ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show.’ My feelings don’t matter,’’ he said.

But when asked if he kept Barkov out of the game to be safe, Maurice’s answer through clenched teeth said much.

“There was 9:28 on the clock, I believe, in a 2-1 game. I’m not holding him,’’ the Panthers coach said with a death stare.

GO DEEPER

‘This isn’t The Oprah Winfrey Show’: Panthers and Oilers react to the Draisaitl-Barkov hit

Barkov aside, everything else continues to be as planned for a Panthers team built for this moment. They’re two wins away from their first Stanley Cup in franchise history. They’ve never looked out of their depth once in these entire playoffs.

The Oilers will have an electric home crowd Thursday night willing them back into a series.

It’s the biggest moment of McDavid’s career. I would never count out No. 97.

But winning four of five games against this defensive juggernaut seems awfully daunting.

(Photo: Jim Rassol / USA Today)





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