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Thursday night, the Cardiac Cats made their dramatic return, erasing their second 4-0 deficit in a matter of two weeks in a 5-4 OT win over the Anaheim Ducks.
Let’s be clear, the Florida Panthers were nowhere near their best. The comeback win was very impressive, but it’s not a game that this team can play consistently and expect to pull off results.
It’s highly improbable, there have only been four games in which a team has overcome a four-goal gap to earn a win. The Florida Panthers have done it twice.
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It came with logical lineup changes and some selfless passing, but Florida somehow got the job done, scoring five goals in a span of 24:00 to defeat the Ducks on home ice. For the first 36:00, however, the Panthers should not be proud of how they played.
It was a kind of game that Anaheim wanted to play, and Joel Quenneville‘s team were surprisingly being not just out-played, but out-coached. The game was very narrow, neither team really spreading the puck out in the neutral zone, but rather staying condensed, patient, defensive. This is not how the Florida Panthers win games, but for the Ducks, they were quite content with the pace.
It showed on the scoreboard, too. Four goals unanswered left Florida in a deep hole with less than 2:00 to go in the second. Brett Connolly‘s quickfire two goals might’ve been the spark of the comeback, but it wasn’t anything different from how the Panthers had been playing. The real change came coming out of the locker room, heading into the final 20.
In previous years of coaching, the Florida Panthers have been very gung-ho to making drastic changes when facing a huge lead. Tom Rowe and Bob Boughner are both equally as guilty to messing with all four lines over one intermission. Players like Mike Hoffman would go through three lines in one game in an effort to make something work.
Now, Joel Quenneville knows what he has in his players, and knows how to get the best out of them. Instead of trashing the first line because they’d been held scoreless by putting someone like Connolly on it, Quenneville made just one change; Frank Vatrano to line two, Mike Hoffman to line three.
The change didn’t seem too meaningful but was a stroke of genius. While he didn’t get any points in the 3rd period or OT period, Vatrano was electric in this comeback. Vatrano laid hit after hit and started chasing the pucks deep in the Anaheim zone, something Florida did very little of in the first two periods.
Anaheim’s first goal of the game came off an extended shift in which the Panthers’ forwards eventually lost focus and left Max Jones wide open at the side of the net. Florida’s 2nd, 3rd, and 4th goals all came on extended shifts, moving around in the zone, and catching the Ducks napping.
Before we get too much into the goals, two players deserve some immense credit for keeping the Ducks at bay; Mike Matheson and Sergei Bobrovsky.
Matheson, who is usually to blame on a nightly basis for a goal, was really impressive at getting back in defense. He made a great play on Derek Grant in the second period (even though Denis Malgin would trip Grant seven seconds later, leading to ANA’s third goal) to poke the puck free on a potential breakaway. In the third, he did that same thing, stripping Troy Terry of the puck when he could have iced the game.
For Bobrovsky, it’s pretty straightforward. Look at the stats tonight, you’ll think he struggled again, but see how three of the four goals really weren’t his fault (Jones wide open in the slot, Jakob Silfverberg screening the goalie on Rickard Rakell‘s power-play goal, and Keith Yandle‘s giveaway leading to Ondrej Kase‘s unassisted goal). Yet again, Bobrovsky was immense in the fourth period, saving all 12 shots on goal to keep Florida alive.
For certain, however, this comeback does not happen without Aaron Ekblad. He has been, to put it lightly, fantastic under Joel Quenneville. His defense looks improved, he’s smarter with the puck, and he finally got to flash some of his two-way value, getting two goals and a primary assist to lead the Cats’ charge.
He won the first star of the night, getting the game-winning goal and primary assist to Dominic Toninato‘s game-tying goal, but it still just doesn’t say enough about his game. He was great defensively, the only time he gave up a goal was Yandle’s giveaway, he kept multiple plays alive with his effort, and was rewarded handsomely. Also, the celebration on the game-winner was sick.
It all comes with one thing: confidence. Under Rowe, Ekblad suffered a bad concussion, in which he was rushed back into the lineup, and played well below his standard. Under Boughner, Ekblad was constantly put into bad situations and really began to lack courage on a nightly basis.
Now, Ekblad has transformed back into 2015-16 all-star Ekblad. 23:30 of time on ice, the most amongst all Panthers, two blocks, three shots on goal (two goals, one which led to a goal), two blocks, three points, arguably the best game of his career.
As I said in the beginning, the Panthers cannot continuously play like this. Coming back from 4-0 down is so improbable, there have only been four seasons in which teams have come back from 4+ goals more than three times. This is the first time of this century there have been four 4+ goal comebacks.
The Panthers, however, deserve some massive praise for this. For a team to play as bad as they did, yet still find a way to win isn’t just the sign of a good team, but a sign of champions.