Greg Cote

Panthers' blown-lead Game 1 loss to Islanders heaps early pressure on Cats

Now we see about the Florida Panthers.

We find out about the fight in them — the life and the pride and the belief in them.

Because games like Thursday night can crush a team. Not just the timing of the loss, but the way the game kept unraveling, kept skating away from you.

You are an NHL division champion and series favorite to open the Stanley Cup playoffs. You have worked all season to earn home-ice advantage.

Then, on the playoff stage for the first time in four years, your worshipping home fans roaring, you blow a lead, not once or twice but three times, and lose, 5-4, in a pratfall of defensive lapses.

It doesn’t get much worse.

So now we see about the Panthers, all right, and we need not wait, because Game 2 of this Eastern Conference quarterfinal is right back in the Sunrise arena on Friday night in a rare back-to-back to open Florida’s postseason.

Now the Panthers must show more resolve than the team that failed to protect three leads in Game 1 — or else.

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The pregame pump-up video promised the Panthers were ready to “wage war” in these NHL playoffs. Erik Gudbranson’s right jab to the face of the New York Islanders’ Shane Prince suggested the Cats were ready to get physical.

But nothing will tell us if the Cats are ready for a fight more than how they respond in Game 2.

Panthers team leader and leading scorer Jaromir Jagr lost a tooth (one of his false ones) when slammed into the boards Thursday night, which is no way to treat a 44-year-old man. But he kept on playing, just like the Heat’s Goran Dragic did a couple of nights earlier.

Maybe what’s missing in Jagr’s smile, or the missing smile itself, will represent Florida’s resolve to pick itself back up moving forward after Thursday’s humbling loss.

The wonderful, roller-coaster-y drama of a seven-game series is that every result takes the narrative and changes it all around.

Losing the opener at home strips away the home-ice edge and heaps all of the pressure onto Florida now. Call it a must-win if obviously not literally, because teams that go 0-2 at home and then travel to face consecutive road games are on thin ice indeed.

The Panthers were 36-6-6 this season when scoring first. They were 37-2-3 when scoring at least three goals and 27-0-2 when scoring at least four. But none of those trends could rescue the team Thursday night.

The adrenaline of a playoff-opening home crowd seemed to carry the Cats at times Thursday night, but not as much as defensive issues plagued them.

By the way, a Canadian TV broadcast from the arena reported the crowd was about 12,000, a ludicrously low guesstimate that had Panthers general manager Dale Tallon fuming in the press box.

Poor Canada has no team in the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time since 1970, or else that TV station might have been covering one of its own teams instead of being in South Florida. Anyway, the attendance was 17,422, credible, though surprisingly some 2,000 shy of a sellout.

It turns out Panthers fans, like their team, weren’t quite good enough as the playoffs began. You wait four years for another playoff shot and you can’t fill the barn?

The loyalists were thrilled fast when Florida scored 115 seconds into the game, but on this night the joy was always short-lived.

At 2-2 after the first period the only home fans feeling good were the ones who might have bet the “over” on total goals, because twice Florida squandered a lead with slovenly defense.

After a Teddy Purcell goal put the Cats up 1-0 within the game’s first two minutes the lead was soon lost when a breakaway caught the Panthers sloppy on a line change.

Then, after Jussi Jokinen put the Cats back up 2-1, more shabby defense allowed the Isles an uncontested shot that top-shelfed Roberto Luongo. The Isles’ John Tavares weaved through Cats defenders for the goal-producing pass as if slaloming down a mountainside around stationary poles.

Again the Panthers regained the lead, 3-2, on a Reilly Smith put-in from a tough angle off a deflection. But again the Cats allowed the equalizer when defensive malfeasance left Tavares alone near the net for an unbothered shot.

The Islanders took their first lead at 4-3 when Luongo got top-shelfed again after veteran defenseman Brian Campbell lost the puck.

Then it was 5-3 Isles, the building turned silent, as Luongo made a stop but no defender was there to clear the puck.

Florida fought to within the final score on another Smith goal, but the damage had been done.

Only the coldest heart or most near-sighted eyes might blame Luongo specifically for the five goals that flew past him. Nobody in the losing dressing room was. Although it also is fair to say a heroic save on any of them — the kind that makes the crowd say, “Luuuuuu!” — was not at his disposal this night.

Luongo certainly must be better if Florida is to fight back into this series and make a lengthy playoff run. He must be in 2016 what John Vanbiesbrouck was in the Year of the Rat in 1996.

The rallying point.

The sure thing.

The savior, quite literally, when called upon.

“My goaltending has been strong all season,” Panthers coach Gerard Gallant said.

It must be again. Right now. But the defense in front of Luongo, there to make his life easier, was the biggest culprit in Thursday’s gradual but unrelenting collapse.

The questions coming at the Panthers now are hard and fast as a slapshot.

Is a team that was last in the playoffs four years ago ready to win in them?

Is a franchise that hasn’t advanced in an NHL postseason since ’96 ready to bust out of that ignominy?

Is a roster full of so many young playoff newbies up to hockey’s big stage?

None of those questions was answered the way fans would like in Game 1.

The Panthers had better have all the answers, the right ones, on Friday night.

Read Greg’s Random Evidence blog daily at MiamiHerald.com and follow on Twitter @gregcote.

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