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Slow starts, OT futility, injuries lead to Panthers' end

by Alain Poupart /

The Florida Panthers returned to the playoffs after a 12-year absence and came within a game of winning its first playoff series since 1996.

In the end, though, the Panthers fell just short and lost their fourth consecutive playoff series, dating back to the 1996 Stanley Cup Final against the Colorado Avalanche.

Here are five biggest reasons the Panthers couldn't extend their rebound season:

1. Extra painful: The Panthers were able to capture the first division title in franchise history in 2011-12 despite poor records in the shootout (6-11) and overtime (1-7).

While they didn't have to worry about the shootout in the playoffs, overtime proved just as futile for Florida.

All that stood between the Panthers and a spot in the Eastern Conference Semifinals was one goal in the overtime in Game 6 or one of the two overtimes in Game 7. Instead, the Panthers watched Travis Zajac and Adam Henrique, respectively, play the role of hero for the Devils as they came back from a 3-2 series deficit.

Tomas Kopecky
Tomas Kopecky
Right Wing - FLA
GOALS: 1 | ASST: 0 | PTS: 1
SOG: 10 | +/-: -3
2. Fourth-line failures: The fourth line isn't expected to contribute much offensively for any team in the playoffs, but the Panthers let New Jersey's fourth line do a lot of damage in this series.

The trio of Ryan Carter, Stephen Gionta and Steve Bernier combined for five goals and four assists in the series, and some of them were big goals.

Gionta gave New Jersey a 2-0 lead in Game 7, while Bernier's goal early in the third period of Game 4 began a three-goal barrage that turned a 1-0 Devils lead into a 4-0 shutout victory.

Compounding the problem for Florida was the fact it got virtually nothing offensively from its fourth line of Marco Sturm, John Madden and Tomas Kopecky. The three combined for only one point, that coming in Game 5 when Kopecky was awarded a goal after he was hooked from behind by Ilya Kovalchuk while skating toward an empty net.

3. Slow starts: The Panthers showed remarkable resiliency throughout the series, coming back from a 3-0 deficit to win Game 3 and rallying from down 2-0 in the third period to force overtime in Game 7.

The problem was that Florida got itself in trouble early too often.

In that area, the tone was set in the opener when the Devils blitzed the Panthers for three goals in the first period. The Panthers also had to play from behind in Game 6 after allowing a first-period goal.

In all, Florida allowed the first goal in five of the seven games, not a recipe for success for a team lacking an explosive attack.

Kris Versteeg
Kris Versteeg
Right Wing - FLA
GOALS: 3 | ASST: 2 | PTS: 5
SOG: 18 | +/-: 2
4. Even weakness: Florida's power play bordered on spectacular in the series, a fact made even more impressive when considering New Jersey's penalty killing was set a League record for effectiveness in the regular season.

If not for the Panthers' power-play success, this likely would have been a short series because Florida struggled to generate much offense at even strength.

Florida had 17 goals in the seven games, nine of which came with the man-advantage. Two other goals were empty-netters -- Tomas Fleischmann's buzzer beater in Game 2 and Kopecky's unusual goal in Game 5.

That means Florida managed only six goals at even strength with a Devils goalie on the ice in seven games.

The Panthers did get contributions from just about everyone on their top two lines, but Fleischmann, their leading scorer in the regular season, only had the empty-net goal.

Linemate Kris Versteeg said after Game 7 that Fleischmann played the entire series with a broken hand, so perhaps that would explain the lack of production, and also Fleischmann sitting out virtually every practice and morning skate.

5. Gimpy Garrison: Throughout the season, the Panthers relied on getting offensive help from their defensemen, most notably Brian Campbell, Jason Garrison and Dmitry Kulikov.

So when Garrison had to sit out Games 4, 5 and 6 because of a lower-body injury, it did little to help an offensively challenged team.

It's not just offensively where Garrison was missed, though -- he was second only to Campbell on the team in average ice time per game in the regular season and in the playoffs.

Keaton Ellerby started in place of Garrison in Game 4, but left the game with a lower-body injury of his own in the second period. Tyson Strachan then was called up from San Antonio of the American Hockey League and did a solid job in the fifth and sixth games. However, he couldn't supply the same level of play as Garrison.

The Panthers ended up losing two of the three games Garrison missed. Who knows? Maybe he could have made the difference in one of those losses with one of his booming slap shots from the point.

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