On verge of another upset, persistent Panthers keep “riding the wave”

Underdogs in each Stanley Cup Playoff series they’ve entered this year, the Florida Panthers have been labeled the “Comeback Cats” by some, and the “Cardiac Cats” by others.

Perhaps by the end of tonight’s game, they’ll be called “Conference Finalists.”

Headed into the Eastern Conference Playoffs last month as the No. 8 and last seed to qualify, the Panthers erased an inconsistent regular season by defeating the NHL-best Boston Bruins, the team with the most points in NHL history, in seven games.

There’s been no letdown in Round 2, however, as the Panthers have continued their prowl at the expense of the heavily favored Toronto Maple Leafs. Florida leads the best-of-seven series, 3-0, with Game 4 on tonight at FLA Live Arena in Sunrise.

On Sunday, in Game 3, the Panthers defeated Toronto, 3-2 in overtime, in front of a frenzied Florida crowd of 19,911, moving them one win away from reaching the Eastern Conference finals for just the second time in franchise history. (Tickets are still available, but they aren’t cheap.)

“A lot of things are going our way. I think we’re just trying to take it day by day and not look at the past,” Florida defenseman Aaron Ekblad – a career Panther who had 14 goals and 38 points in the regular season – said after the Game 3 win. “Just find a way to do the right thing, day in and day out. I think that’s what makes us successful, and we’re doing it.”

They certainly did the right things quickly into overtime Sunday, as forward Sam Reinhart scored 3:02 into the period with a wrap-around goal. The Panthers trailed in the first period, 1-0, and in the second period, 2-1, before rallying in front of their fans. Anthony Duclair and Carter Verhaeghe also scored for Florida in the win, putting the Maple Leafs on the brink of elimination.

To Reinhart, this postseason run is a result of the Panthers playing with resiliency and desperation ever since January, when they headed into the All-Star break in danger of missing the playoffs.

“It’s so tough to be able to turn it on late in the season, so we’re just kind of riding the wave,” the veteran center, who now has five goals and seven points in the playoffs, said. “With our group and what we’ve been through the last couple of months, we’re living one day at a time, and we wouldn’t want it any other way.”

Taking it one day at a time, plus playing well at home, has its advantages, right? Well, Panthers coach Paul Maurice — in his first year with the club but no stranger to NHL postseason runs — certainly believes so.

“You want to bring a good game home to (the fans). They’ve been good. And now, they’re excited,” said Maurice, who’s been an NHL coach for 24 years and coached in the Stanley Cup Finals in 2002 with the Carolina Hurricanes. “And aside from the fans, you want to get a good feeling on home ice. Especially for the underdog team, you’ve got to win the home games, and you’ve got to get a good feel for playing in front of them.”

The Panthers have a golden opportunity to do so tonight in Sunrise.

Eliana Sojo is a senior majoring in digital and interactive media. After graduating, she wants to work in either the sports or entertainment industry.