Nervous now?

Maybe a little?

This is something else missing all those empty years, this nervous twitch of playoff hockey, this clammy-palmed anxiety that ups the Florida Panthers’ stakes and your invested symptoms even after one game.

“I like to think we’re going to learn a valuable lesson from this,” Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad said after their disappointing 4-2 loss in Game 1 against Washington on Tuesday night.

Here’s the lesson: It’s different in playoff hockey. More physical. Less scoring. Cut the cute from your play and keep everything direct and simple in your game in the manner interim coach Andrew Burnette talks.

“We kind of self-destructed,” Burnette said of the Panthers’ rough third period.

No franchise has more at stake these playoffs than the Panthers. It’s not just how they looked in the regular season, scoring at will, entertaining like the Harlem Globetrotters some nights and delivering the best season not just in the league but in their sad-sack history.

It’s also what these playoffs can do for this sagging franchise. It can make them relevant in South Florida. It can give them the kind of bandwagon boost they desperately need.

That’s what is really at stake here more than a series win. So is this: If they can’t build off that great regular season, if they don’t even win a series for a 26th straight year, you might as well lock up the arena because it’s sitting on some cursed Everglades land.

This series, you see, isn’t just about a winning team and a losing team. It’s about a franchise getting full life breathed back into it. Washington’s players bemoaned before the playoffs how they hadn’t won a post-season series since 2018 when they won the Stanley Cup.

Three barren years? That’s nothing. The Panthers haven’t won a playoff series in 26 years. They’ve allowed everyone to ignore them. Former coach Doug MacLean tells of asking a restaurant to turn the Panthers game on the television in Delray Beach and being told the NFL’s Carolina Panthers weren’t playing that night.

So this is their chance. The Panthers have a great team now — a great regular-season team, anyway. They scored more goals than any team since the powerful Pittsburgh Penguins in 1995-96.

You know that year? That’s when the Panthers last won a playoff series. MacLean was the coach. They made the kind of magic in advancing to the Stanley Cup Finals that Panthers fans still talk about. Then again, what else can they talk about?

This team can change all that. They got a crowd unlike any in years for this playoff opener. They had a 2-1 lead entering the third period — and they not only tied for the best home record this year but were 39-0-1 when entering the third period with a lead.

Those numbers melted away in one Mackenzie Weegar turnover.

Washington’s Alex Ovechkin poked the puck from the Panthers defenseman at his blue line. Teammate Evgeny Kuznetsov took it in for a breakaway and beat Panthers goalie Sergei Bobrovsky.

Less than three minutes later, Washington’s T.J. Oshie tipped in a pass for the lead. An empty net goal clinched it.

“I think we had to figure out this is going to be hard,” Burnette said. “We haven’t had a lot of hard games. We didn’t handle it as well as we’d like to. We weren’t as sharp we wanted to. We lost a little energy.

“This is a good eye-opener. I could talk until I’m blue in the face, but until they go through it and remind themselves how hard it was last year (in a playoff loss to Tampa Bay), how hard you have to play and that every puck and every play means something — this was a good reminder.”

The reminder came at a cost.

“We’re still in good spirits,” said center Sam Bennett, who scored the Panthers’ first goal. “We still know how good of a team we are. There’s no panic in the locker room whatsoever. Everyone’s still positive. We’ll learn from that game and move on. It’s a long series.”

The first loss only adds consequence to Thursday’s Game 2. Washington has the aging parts of a one-time champion, too. Playoff hockey has arrived.

Nervous yet?


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