Greg Cote

Panthers need Jagr to bust out of his goal-scoring drought, and time is running out

Florida Panthers right wing Jaromir Jagr (68) goes up against New York Islanders center John Tavares (91) in the first period as the Panthers host the New York Islanders in Game 5 of the playoffs at the BB&T Center on Fri., April 22, 2016.
Florida Panthers right wing Jaromir Jagr (68) goes up against New York Islanders center John Tavares (91) in the first period as the Panthers host the New York Islanders in Game 5 of the playoffs at the BB&T Center on Fri., April 22, 2016. adiaz@miamiherald.com

It ended past midnight into early Saturday morning, and it ended with the arena far too quiet, and with Florida Panthers goaltender Roberto Luongo flat on his back in front of his goal net. He lay motionless, exhausted, until finally he lifted himself up and skated slowly off the ice, padded shoulders slumped.

Nearby the New York Islanders were celebrating amid the incongruous sight of dozens of rubber rats — normally deployed postgame only to toast home victories — went flying from the emptying seats, aimed at the visiting revelers.

The Isles had beaten the Cats 2-1 in double-overtime here in an epic game with echoes of the triple-overtime Florida loss that ended the Panthers’ 1996 run to the Stanley Cup Finals.

This loss may have more. The Panthers trailed 3-0 entering that distant Finals Game 4, with no real shot of coming back.

This game tipped a series that very much was teetering.

It was a Game 5 that felt like a Game 7. Sounded like one, too, in a jammed-tight Sunrise arena filled to the rafters with 20,247 hockey fanatics all roaring with every Panthers chance or near miss.

South Florida sports fans have lucked to enjoy a rare concurrent postseason run by the Panthers and Miami Heat, except only one of these first-round series is delivering on the high-voltage intensity you associate with the playoffs.

The Heat leads its NBA series 2-0 after consecutive comfortable wins over the Charlotte Hornets, Miami fans leaving the downtown bayside arena anxiety-free as they amble into the postgame night.

Well, whatever anxiety they aren’t feeling, Panthers fans are feeling double now, in a tight, taut best-of-seven set vs. Islanders that has been the best and certainly most competitive of the NHL’s eight first-round series.

Every one of the first five games has been decided by a one-goal margin if you throw out one meaningless, last second empty-net goal. You couldn’t slide a sheet of notebook paper between what has separated the Cats and Isles.

“It’s a tough loss. I think we played great,” said Cats coach Gerard Gallant. “I think we’re playing great hockey.”

If only Isles goalie Michael Greiss weren’t playing even better.

Again Friday night here, the pace was frenetic and the separation in the teams negligible.

It was only fitting that, in a series tied 2-2, Game 5 was tied 1-1 heading into a second overtime, both teams fighting for an edge heading into Game 6 Sunday at 7 p.m. back up in Brooklyn and — if necessary, which seems inevitable — a Game 7 back in Sunrise on Tuesday.

New York led much of the night after a first-period shot by Frans Nielsen slipped past Luongo.

Home magic happened early in the third period, though, when a 44-year-old man started something that a 20-year-old kid finished.

The hockey-ancient Jaromir Jagr found an open Alex Petrovic on the right wing near the boards, and he slid a perfect pass to find Sasha Barkov, 20,alone near the net. The big horn blasted: 1-1.

Florida could have won eight minutes into overtime when the Cats were awarded a rare penalty shot after the Islanders (not the goaltender) covered the puck in the goal crease. But Barkov was denied by Isles goalie Thomas Greiss – a huge opportunity missed.

“A tough situation. A .lot of pressure on him,” said defenseman Brian Campbell. “But of all the guys on the ice, he’s the right guy to pick.”

Hearts stopped early in the second OT period when young Panthers star Nick Bjugstad slammed head-first into a side wall. He was prone and did not move for about three minutes before slowly rising to cheers and woozily skating off under his own power as teammates moved with him.

“All I know is he got stitches in his head and he didn’t come back,” said coach Gerard Gallant, offering no clue if Bjugstad would be ready for Sunday.

That Jagr helped create the tying goal seemed fitting.

Watching him perform on ice is a little like watching Dwayne Wade do his thing on the hardwood as we enjoy this unusual double postseason run.

With both you are seeing something special, something you want to make a memory of because you know it won’t last.

They are two veterans who know as much about their craft as anybody out there. They draw on every ounce and iota of experience to find a way, some way. They are both marvels for their age, except that Jagr happens to be 44, which I guess makes him 10 years even more marvelous.

That Jagr kick-started the game-tying goal mirrors his resolve and fight, because this playoff series has been a struggle for him. He has not scored a goal, and Friday’s assist was only his second.

It does not feel entirely fair to say, but the Cats need more from Jagr moving forward.

He has done so, so much, and now his team needs more.

Jagr is old enough to be several teammates’ father. He could be seven or eight years into a cushy analyst’s job on a Canadian or Czech hockey network by now. Instead he was leading Florida with 66 points scored this season and one off the Cats’ goals lead with 27. He was, for me, the team MVP for the division champions.

He needs to be that again now, with the Stanley Cup trophy in play. Jagr has picked a heck of a time to continue a personal postseason slump with a quiet opening series, and he could be running out of time to make some noise.

Can Jagr be the difference in this super-even series?

History tells us Game 5 winners in a 2-2 series go on to win the series and advance 78.4 percent of the time, the odds weighing now against Florida.

The Cats and Isles are so close, though, that Florida does not need a miracle to win two in a row now. It just needs a spark, somebody to step up and show the way.

Jagr, anyone?

The team leader must lead, and not in some intangible way, but by doing what he has done better than almost everyone to every play this sport: Score goals.

The Panthers were 19-1-2 this season in games Jagr scored a goal. He is the Cat-alyst, and now — either in the balance of this series or moving forward — his team will need that regular-season mojo of his to reappear and join the playoffs.

It has been missing. Jagr has zero goals in five playoff games. Just twice all season did he have a goal drought this long, only now it matters more.

As for that personal postseason slump, inexplicably, astoundingly, Friday marked Jagr’s 36th consecutive playoff game without a goal.

More than hour before the puck dropped Friday, the arena still mostly empty, Jagr was the only player skating out on the ice, alone in his thoughts. No player works harder, or knows the game better. His playoff slump is unfathomable.

Believe hard now in the law of averages if nothing else, Panthers fans.

Jagr and the Cats will need his postseason goals drought to end in the worst way — and in the best way — come Sunday.

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

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