The NHL playoffs are a cruel beast.
The New York Islanders are headed to the second round for the first time in 23 years, and it's hard to argue that they were the better team in their first-round series. In fact, good luck arguing that either the Florida Panthers or the Isles were better than the other. This six-game series was the tightest of the playoffs so far: three games ended in overtime, two ended in double-overtime and five of them were decided by one goal.
New York simply survived longer.
Unless you're a Panthers fan. In that case, you're probably convinced your team was eliminated by the referees in Game 6.
Florida led, 1-0, late in the third period. The Islanders pulled their goalie. Panthers center Vincent Trocheck looked ready to put the game away on an empty-net until ...
Right before the Tavares goal. pic.twitter.com/HppjOXYWBQ— Matt Porter (@mattyports) April 25, 2016
... he was tripped. No penalty was called. The Islanders tied the game and won it in double-overtime.
Nobody will argue that it was a horrible missed call. Trocheck didn't dive (why would he when there's an EMPTY NET in front of him?). He was cleanly and wrongly removed from the play.
But pinning that moment as the reason the Panthers are booking tee times right now is both incorrect and a colossal waste of time. And the Panthers are on record saying as much.
Let's start with the obvious reason.
HOLD A LEAD
The problem that doomed Florida all series long. The Panthers blew five leads in six games:
Game 1: Up 3-2, lost 5-4.
Game 2: Hey, they held a lead and won!
Game 3: Up 3-2 and lost 4-3 in overtime.
Game 4: Up 1-0 early, let New York tie it. Still won, 2-1
Game 5: Never led.
Game 6: Up 1-0 until the final seconds, blew it and began their offseason.
Before the sixth game even began the Panthers had wasted so many chances to put the Islanders away. That they were in position (without confidence) to blow another game was their own doing. The missed call had nothing to do with that.
THE TYING GOAL WAS AVOIDABLE
Yet again, the Panthers get preoccupied with chasing the puck and the play and let a player wade in all alone to finish off the goal. John Tavares should've been picked up.
THEY HAD TWO MORE PERIODS TO TIE THE GAME
The game wasn't over when Trocheck was tripped. It wasn't over when the Islanders tied the game. A period and a half separated the rest of the game from the missed call. At that point, complaining about a missed call isn't worth it.
You need to take care of business. And the Panthers, like they had most of the series, failed to do that in the final 25 minutes.
The counterargument to the last two points will probably be "None of those things would've happened if the Panthers had gotten the power play they deserved."
And that argument is absolutely correct. If the call is made, the Panthers get a power play and the series heads to a Game 7.
But you know what? The call wasn't made. That alternate timeline never came to pass.
Fans will always get upset about referee mistakes, especially when it seemingly costs their team their season. I get that. But that's the adversity every team faces in the playoffs, in every sport. Players get injured. Goalies give up awful goals. And referees miss crucial calls or lay off the whistles more often.
It happens. And then you deal with it, move on and focus on what you can control. The Panthers weren't dwelling on the call and won't for the rest of the summer. After the game, Trocheck himself told The Miami Herald the Panthers left their goalie hanging for much of the series:
"We counted on Luongo way too much,'' said Vincent Trocheck, who had a chance to ice the game in the final minute before Tavares scored with 53.2 seconds left in regulation to force overtime.
"I know he's a world-class goaltender, but you can't rely on just your goaltender to win games for you. Two games in a row we didn't score more than a goal. That's on us.''
And coach Gerard Gallant had a chance to lay the blame on the refs but seemingly deferred, chalking it up to the pace of the game:
"Yeah, but it wasn't (called), so what do you do?,'' coach Gerard Gallant said when asked. "Obviously, you know, if they thought they would have scored on the other end they would have called it. It's a tough call, it's a fast game. It wasn't much but the game would have been over. It's tough to swallow.''
The Panthers will remember the mistakes they made, the games they let slip out from under them and what they could've done in the final 25 minutes of Game 6.
Because that is healthy and productive for a young team with so much promise. There are lessons to learn for the Panthers in Game 6. They won't find any of them by focusing on the referees.