SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — The chants of fans in Florida drowned out the public-address announcer at the end of the game Monday night, making it impossible to hear his call of the first star of the game.
Then again, they already knew who it was going to be.
Sergei Bobrovsky earned those cries from the 20,000 or so who chanted in unison, after leaving no doubt in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference final — and putting the Panthers are on the brink of their first trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 27 years. Bobrovsky stopped 32 shots for his first playoff shutout, and the Panthers blanked the Carolina Hurricanes 1-0 on Monday night.
“No matter what the score is, we’re just trying to make it as easy as possible for him,” said Panthers forward Sam Reinhart, who got the game’s lone goal on the power play midway through the second period.
He’s rewarded their work, and then some. Bobrovsky is now 10-1 in his last 11 appearances and has been almost perfect in the last eight games. Going back to Game 1 of Round 2 against Toronto, Bobrovsky has not allowed more than two goals in any contest, with 296 saves on 309 shots — a .958 save percentage.
And if that doesn’t sound absurd enough, try this one: Out of the last 110 shots he’s faced, Bobrovsky has stopped 109 — starting in the third period of the four-OT win in Game 1.
“We’re happy with the ‘W,’ we’re happy with the win, but the next game is going to be a big game,” Bobrovsky said.
It could be Florida’s biggest since 1996. That was the last year in which the Panthers played for the Stanley Cup, but they can clinch a trip to the title round with a win in Game 4 on Wednesday.
This marks the 205th time that a team has taken a 3-0 series lead in NHL playoff history. Of the first 204, 200 went on to win the series. The Panthers are 2-0 when taking the first three games of a series; the Hurricanes are 0-5 when dropping the first three.
“We can’t do much more,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “We like how we’re playing, clearly. It’s just, we’ve got to find a way to put one in.”
Matthew Tkachuk and Sam Bennett had the assists on Reinhart’s goal for Florida. It wasn’t a perfect night for Florida, however: Captain Aleksander Barkov left with about 7 minutes left in the first period with a lower-body injury and did not return, even though the team listed him as questionable. Panthers coach Paul Maurice did not have an update on Barkov’s condition after the game.
Frederik Andersen stopped 16 shots for Carolina. The Hurricanes pulled him with 3:22 left, desperate for the tying goal, but barely even managed to test Bobrovsky the rest of the way. And when it was over, the Hurricanes’ Jesperi Kotkaniemi was seen smashing his stick on the way to the locker room, the frustration so obvious.
That’s what a night of facing Bobrovsky does right now.
“He’s been incredible, all playoffs long,” Bennett said.
The 3-0 lead matches the one that the eighth-seeded Miami Heat have in their Eastern Conference final against the Boston Celtics, with a chance for South Florida’s other storybook team right now to clinch an NBA Finals trip and a matchup with the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday night. Monday’s contest was the first East final game in the Panthers’ current arena — the franchise’s only other time going this deep into the playoffs was 1996, when it played in Miami at a building that was demolished long ago.
It also likely was the first time that they played with the Wanamaker Trophy in attendance. Newly crowned PGA champion Brooks Koepka — a South Florida native and Panthers fan — put on a jersey and brought the big silver cup to the game.
The crowd roared when they saw him displaying the trophy he won Sunday. Of course, there is another silver trophy that Panthers fans would prefer seeing someone in their jersey hoisting before too long. And the eighth-seeded Panthers are only five wins away now, tantalizingly close to the trip to the final – a trip that few could have seen coming after barely making the playoffs and then having to get past a record-setting Boston team in Round 1 and Toronto in Round 2.
A pair of overtime wins in Carolina, with Tkachuk getting the winner both nights, and the win Monday now have Florida on the brink of June hockey. And Carolina now needs something pretty close to a miracle.
“It’s tough,” Brind’Amour said, “because we have played really well.”
AROUND THE RINK
Bobrovsky got the shutout in his 58th playoff start. … Jeff Conine, who won two World Series titles with the then-Florida Marlins, beat the drum to get the crowd going just before game time. … It was the Panthers’ 98th game of the season. This will be the second season in which Florida has more than 100 games; the most was 104 in the 1995-96 season that ended in the Stanley Cup Final. … Carolina was shut out for the seventh time this season, with two of those coming at Florida. The Hurricanes lost 3-0 in Sunrise on Nov. 9.
There has been 261 minutes, 38 seconds of hockey in this series — just over 13 periods, thanks to all the overtimes — and neither team has led by more than one goal at any time.
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