SUNRISE, Fla. – With a crowd of 20,247 cheering fans breathing new life into their tired legs, a victory almost began to feel inevitable for the Florida Panthers in Game 5 of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinals series with the New York Islanders on Friday.
Florida had amassed 96 shot attempts to New York’s 68 by the time the final horn had sounded, but simply couldn’t sneak anything past goaltender Thomas Greiss, who held on just long enough for rookie forward Alan Quine to bury a power play goal in double overtime, giving New York to a 2-1 win and a 3-2 lead in the tightly contested series.
“Yeah, it’s a good battle, it’s obviously frustrating how it ends,” defenseman Brian Campbell said after the loss. “We had our chances and are going to continue to have chances, so it’s just a tough break trying to kill off a couple of penalties in overtime there, it’s not fun.”
Now, as they prepare for a win-or-go-home matchup with the Islanders in Game 6 at the Barclays Center on Sunday, the Panthers don’t feel as if they need to make too many adjustments to their game plan, instead hoping that their consistently good play will eventually be rewarded with a few timely goals.
"I'd be a lot more concerned if we weren't playing well,” head coach Gerard Gallant said via teleconference before his team boarded a flight to Brooklyn on Saturday.
“I can't tell the guys to try any harder to score,” he continued. “We're getting opportunities to score and we're not giving up much. So if I assessed the last five games our record is 2-3, but we didn't play one bad game in that whole stretch.
"So, what can you do? You play your game and work hard. If we're getting outplayed or outmatched it's a different story, but the way we're playing we just need a couple of breaks to get [a few] in the back of the net."
The last time the Panthers trailed a series 3-2 heading into Game 6 was in the 1996 Eastern Conference Finals against the Pittsburgh Penguins – a series Florida would go on to win.
Having already won Game 4 in Brooklyn, the Panthers are confident that they will be able to even-up their series on the road just as their ’96 counterparts did, thus setting up a Game 7 showdown at the BB&T Center on Tuesday.
“I think we have been playing great this series and have had a lot of chances,” center Aleksander Barkov said. “We have been playing good defensive game and offensive game so we have a pretty good chance to win.”
The Panthers currently rank first in the NHL in shots per game (38.6) and second in total shots (193) during the playoffs, but have managed to get just 13 goals past the 30-year-old Greiss, who boasts a 2.09 goals-against average and .938 save percentage over all five contests.
As it stands now, Barkov and linemate Jonathan Huberdeau, who combined to score 48 goals during the regular season, are averaging a staggering 10 shots per game as a duo in these playoffs, but have only managed to score two goals on the Fussen, Germany native.
On the brink of elimination, the Panthers know they’ll first need to learn how to solve New York’s surprisingly stalwart netminder if they hope to begin their comeback in this series.
“He’s been mostly a backup his whole career,” Campbell said of Greiss. “He’s getting a shot now and he’s playing great hockey. We’ve got to find a way of not hitting him as much.
“We’re doing a lot of things right. We’ve got to keep at it.”