By BILL WHITEHEAD
SUNRISE, Fla. — Growing up in eastern North Carolina during those formative, single-digit years of my youth, I spent my Sundays in a stuffy, hot Baptist church with wood pews that weren’t much of an improvement, from a comfort standpoint at least, over the trees they came from. Nor was there any hockey with Doc Emrick or John Forslund to get through those lazy afternoons.
Our fire-and-brimstone preacher’s message was a monotonous but stern one, drilled over and over like some backwoods mantra, but hey, here we are some four decades later and it still applies to a certain extent.
The message in that church that leaped out, cat-like from the doldrum of that sermon that had me zoning out as a youngster, rings true for Florida Panthers fans after the first two games of the club’s Eastern Conference quarterfinal series against the New York Islanders.
Keep the faith.
It isn’t easy to stay calm, be positive and look forward when a game like Thursday night’s 5-4 loss unfolds. It isn’t easy to be a fan at all — especially of team that is making just its fourth postseason appearance in the organization’s history.
With all the pressure of a great season, a strong home crowd and suddenly becoming Canada’s darling in the playoffs in the absence of any teams from above the border qualifying for the postseason, Florida simply made too many mistakes against a skillful New York team to earn the Game 1 W.
Slipping up like that only added to the pressure and anxiety of Friday.
Did that two-goal lead in the last 20 minutes — honestly, the middle third of the final period seemingly took 45 minutes to play and was constantly somewhere between the 8-minute and 10-minute mark — ever feel comfortable? As fans of this team, did you ever feel safe and keep the faith that Florida would hold on to the advantage and knot this series at 1-1?
That little seed of doubt in the back of your brain from bad Panther teams of the past likely started to throb and sprout a few roots. Would it become full-blown and blossom into something horrible if New York tied it 2-2 with Thomas Greiss on the bench, forcing overtime with the series and potential 2-0 deficit hanging in the balance?
Even when Jussi Jokinen’s backhander toward New York’s empty net skittered just wide and there were less that 15 seconds left in the game, no level of comfort ever appeared.
That’s where the keeping the faith part comes in.
Unlike former Florida teams, even the last playoff one in the 2011-12 season, these current Cats have a different makeup and mentality. The work is hard like back then, but more talent, skilled depth and better goalkeeping abound. And it’s not just one top line making a difference like the Versteeg-Weiss-Fleischmann line did early four years ago; it’s three solid lines that can score.
In fact, Florida’s No. 1 line hasn’t scored a goal.
But Dmitry Kulikov has — and did with his empty-netter — to end all the drama and stifle the rising doubt that often comes when confronting faith.
His goal to make it 3-1 was simply the kernel of that sermon: Whenever you doubt faith, something comes along to get you back on track. As the line from The Godfather goes, “Just when I thought I was out…they pull me back in.”
However, the biggest aberration so far was the blowing of leads in the Game 1 loss, which forced the Panthers to look at themselves and their defensive game, reset a bit and, well, keep the faith in and get back to doing what they have done all year in the organization’s most successful season ever.
“The goals we gave (up) in Game 1 were great A++ chances that … we can’t do that,” said defenseman Brian Campbell. “Tonight, there was nothing as over-the-top as in Game 1. We did a lot of good things in Game 1; we just made bad, bad mistakes.”
Now the tide has turned. Instead of being down 2-0 to New York, Florida will take the momentum to the Barclays Center. Sure, the Islanders stole the home-ice edge, but the Cats have won plenty of times on Long Island, and that building isn’t the most intimidating.
If Florida can manage to snag just one of the two games up there, the series returns to South Florida next Friday just like it was in Game 1 — all even and with the Panthers having the advantage of maybe two more games at BB&T Center.
Just keep the faith.
**Follow Bill on Twitter @BillWhiteheadFL and in newspapers at TCPalm.com