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Presidents’ Trophy-winning Panthers see parts of Lightning’s past in themselves

Florida thought it had closed the gap on its in-state rival, but for the second time in as many postseasons, the Panthers fall short.
Lightning center Steven Stamkos, left, shakes hands with Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky after Tampa Bay knocked Florida out of the second round Monday night.
Lightning center Steven Stamkos, left, shakes hands with Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky after Tampa Bay knocked Florida out of the second round Monday night. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published May 24|Updated May 24

TAMPA — After last year’s playoff series opener against the Lightning, Panthers interim coach Andrew Brunette believed his group had taken a step in the right direction.

Florida won this year’s Presidents’ Trophy (122 points) for the first time in franchise history. The Panthers also averaged 4.11 goals per game during the regular season, the highest average since the 1995-96 Penguins.

But given a second chance to slay the ghosts of their past, the Panthers couldn’t find a way to break through the Lightning’s defense or goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Their shortcomings on the ice resulted in a season-ending 2-0 Game 4 loss at Amalie Arena on Monday. It was the first time all season — and the first time since 2021′s first-round Game 6 against the Lightning — that Florida failed to get on the scoreboard.

“I just think it’s one of those things for this group, it’s another step, it’s another learning curve for them,” Brunette said. “There was one last year, and we got through one round. And then we run into Tampa again.”

Brunette drew parallels to the success his Panthers saw this year and the Lightning in 2018-19, when Tampa Bay etched a 62-win season and claimed the Presidents’ Trophy while breaking other league and franchise records with a stellar offense.

“They’re really good,” Brunette said. “I mean, they’re the Stanley Cup champions for a reason and their evolution of how they were once a high-flying kind of offensive team and they found their recipe of how to win and they stick with it. Obviously, we aspire to be them, and this was another learning experience for us and we need to be better.”

Brunette lauded the Lightning for their willingness to play defense, specifically blocking shots and having someone like captain Steven Stamkos — who scored a career-high 106 points this season — also willing to do what it takes to win.

“(Stamkos is) playing defense, blocking shots, he’s willing his team to win,” Brunette said. “And they’re all like that, and that’s the reason why they win.”

Doing the little things right this year is where Brunette saw the difference between the teams throughout the four-game series.

“We’re close, and I think last year they played a much more open game against us and I thought this year their attention to make sure they limit our rush game, slow us down, was pretty evident,” Brunette said. “I think we’re closer than ever, but, we got swept. There’s another level we have to climb, still. We’re still climbing. And I thought, I believe, that we were ready for that next step, and unfortunately we fell short.”

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The Lightning understand first-hand the growing pains of learning to play the game a different way, specifically how an abundance of scoring isn’t always the key to playoff success.

“We went through the heartbreak and we lost in 2015,” coach Jon Cooper said. “We lost in Game 7 in 2016 in the conference finals. Game 7 in 2018 in the conference finals. Got swept in 2019. But who’s counting? And trust me, it’s painful, but you take a little bit and you learn.”

One last thing about figuring out how to move on from that Columbus sweep in 2019? “Well, we haven’t lost since,” Cooper said.

Contact Mari Faiello at mfaiello@tampabay.com. Follow @faiello_mari.

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