Panthers Win Atlantic Division, Will Face Lightning in First-Round

A Panthers win and Bruins loss flipped the Atlantic Division on Tuesday, clinching the title for Florida 


SUNRISE — The Panthers entered Tuesday night one point behind the Bruins in the race for the Atlantic Division title. They left Amerant Bank Arena as the first seed in the division entering the Stanley Cup Playoffs.


When the Panthers and Leafs went to the dressing room after the first period on Tuesday, it felt like the two sides would see each other in just a few days for the first round of the postseason. 


A Toronto win wouldn’t have affected their playoff seeding as they were locked in to the third spot. Florida, on the other hand, had a chance for the division title and they played their full lineup with that in mind. 


Toronto did their best to prevent Florida from doing that, leading 2-0 going into the first intermission, while outshooting and outplaying the Panthers.


The next 20 minutes was anything but a repeat of the first. 


Carter Verhaeghe — who hasn’t played since getting injured on April 1 against the Leafs — got Florida on the board 28 seconds into the second. 


Sam Bennett, Sam Reinhart and Brandon Montour all followed suit, The Panthers scored four unanswered goals in the middle frame — outshooting the Leafs 29-4 in the period. 


“We didn’t like the way we were playing in the first,” said Verhaeghe. “We knew we had a lot more potential than that… play the right way, play our game and we took it to them.”


While Florida flipped the script in their game, the faith of the Atlantic Division still remained in the hands of the Boston Bruins.


A Bruins win would have been enough for them to clinch the division, but the Ottawa Senators, a team who hasn’t thought about the playoffs for weeks, spoiled that party. 


An empty net goal with 1:48 left in regulation was the icing on the cake for the Senators, as they defeated the Bruins 3-1 in Boston. 


Back in Sunrise, the Panthers — Leafs game was about thirty minutes behind the contest in Boston. 


With the Bruins not gaining any ground, the Panthers needed just a point to win the division.


Entering the third, Florida was up two goals, but the Leafs weren’t going to sit back and hand the Panthers Atlantic — especially with Auston Matthews sitting on 69 goals with just four periods of hockey left in the regular season. 


The final period of regulation was more defensive than the opening two. Neither team had too much of an advantage offensively and both goalies kept the puck out of their net.


With 2:20 left and Toronto’s net empty, Sam Reinhart potted his 57th goal of the season — wrapping up the game and the division.


Florida’s division title sets up a first-round matchup with their cross-state rivals, the Tampa Bay Lightning.


“I just think its super fitting for us to be playing Tampa in the first-round,” Matthew Tkachuk said. “What an unbelievable run they’ve been on since Christmas or All Star Break. They’re playing well, we’re playing well, so I think it’s going to make for a great series.”


Boston, who fell to second, will host Toronto in the opening round.


Florida lost to the Lightning in consecutive playoff series in 2020-21 and 2021-22 — with the latter being a sweep. Florida didn’t play the Lightning last year on their run to the Stanley Cup Final.


With the regular season wrapped up for the Panthers, their attention is now focused on the next task at hand — the postseason.


“The regular season isn’t even close to being as much fun [as the playoffs]. This is like a continuous set of Christmas days,” Panthers head coach Paul Maurice said. “You just don’t want the lump of coal man, you just want it to be good and keep going.”

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