FLA winning ugly TONIGHT bug

NEW YORK – Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

The Florida Panthers know that when they are playing at their absolute best, the fans in the stands -- especially on the road -- are not in awe for the most part, unable to discern the beauty in their game.

“I don’t think our game is based on us feeling good,” Florida coach Paul Maurice said.

For the opponent, the Panthers are not ooh-inducing, rather ouch-inducing.

“Our game is pretty straight forward,” fourth-line forward Ryan Lomberg said.

But for the Panthers, there is beauty in the blocked shot, the big hit, the sacrificing of the body to make a play, the perfect chip in or chip out.

Those are the plays to be savored, just as much as the backhand-forehand deke, the toe drag or the bar-down shot.

The Panthers took Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final on Wednesday, winning 3-0 against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden with a near-perfect representation of who they want to be on the ice.

They did it by suffocating the high-powered Rangers, who managed 12 shots on goal through two periods before finishing with 24.

The Panthers blocked 19 shots and their attempts to block more played a big part in the Rangers missing another 20 shots. They committed two turnovers but forced 12. They threw 38 hits and won more face-offs than they lost (51.7 percent to 48.3 percent).

The Panthers are ruthlessly efficient, especially on the road. It’s why they are 5-1 in these playoffs after going 8-4 away from home last postseason when they reached the Cup Final.

The ugliness becomes more beautiful away from home.

“When we are on the road we don’t have to worry too much about the special play or satisfying fans or anything like that,” said Lomberg, who had a Panthers-high seven hits in Game 1. “We just put our heads down, work and grind it out. A lot of times it’s not pretty; it’s 1-0 or 2-1, but that’s how we get down on the road.”

They will try to do it again Friday in Game 2 in New York (8 p.m. ET; ESPN+, ESPN, SN, TVAS, CBC).

Teams have won the first two games of a best-of-7 series on the road 109 times, with 87 of them winning the series (89.7 percent). When a series is tied after two games, the team that opens on the road has won the series 44.3 percent of the time (160-201).

The best example of what the Panthers are about came during a stretch of almost 15 minutes in the second period when the Rangers were held without a shot.

Goalie Sergei Bobrovsky stopped a 45-foot wrist shot from Rangers forward Kaapo Kakko at 1:55. New York did not have another shot on net until 16:18 when defenseman Adam Fox took a long-range snap shot off a face-off win.

Meanwhile, the Panthers had eight shots on net and another six blocks, won 10-of-13 face-offs and had four hits. The Rangers did miss six shots in that time frame.

Forward Matthew Tkachuk, who scored the game-opening goal, said he was not aware that it had been that long between shots by the Rangers in a scoreless second period, but he was aware of the elements that went into the lull for his opponent.

“I thought the forwards and especially the [defensemen] did a great job of blocking shots, boxing guys out,” Tkachuk said. “[Bobrovsky] was able to see most of the shots. We were very disciplined tonight staying out of the box, and when we did take penalties, our penalty kill was so good.”

Every player on the Panthers has come to appreciate beauty in the sacrifices made for the good of the team.

Each time Bobrovsky covered a puck and there wasn’t a Ranger hacking and whacking at him, he got up and patted his teammates with his blocker or a tap of the stick. Players offered stick taps and high-fives for blocked shots. Words of encouragement were offered on the bench to those suffering from the efforts being made and the cost they were exacting.

“What I like,” Maurice said, “is that they celebrate each other. They celebrate on the bench and the fact that they recognize is important.”

It’s also contagious. Each of them wants to be appreciated.

With only a few seconds left in the game, defenseman Niko Mikkola, a former member of the Rangers, plastered New York forward Filip Chytil into the boards as he made a last attempt at a goal for the home team. Mikkola said he just wanted to help preserve the shutout for his goalie by erasing the threat.

“That’s how we roll,” Lomberg said. “We play as hard as we can until there is no more time left on the clock. Then we take our recovery and do it again. It was great to see all the guys selling out toward the end of the game. We want it so bad.”