WASHINGTON – Aaron Ekblad paused for almost 10 seconds to consider what the Florida Panthers need to do better to even their series against the Washington Capitals.
“I think there’s a lot of things that we could do better,” he said. “I think to sum it up simply is: Find the game that we had in the regular season and mold it into a playoff game that we can play.”
It’s no longer the regular season, where the Panthers were the best team in the NHL. Now the pressure is on the Presidents’ Trophy winners and two other favorites all trailing their respective series 2-1 going into Game 3 Monday. The Pacific Division-champion Calgary Flames are in the same spot against the Dallas Stars, as are the New York Rangers against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“Pressure you can handle two ways,” Florida interim coach Andrew Brunette said. “It can beat you down, or you could pick it up a notch and work harder and bring that level of battle and intensity to a higher level.”
Intensity has been lacking and nervousness high for the Panthers against an opponent with much more playoff experience and a history of success this time of year. They need to find a remedy for that in Game 4 Monday night (7 p.m. EDT, TBS) or they’ll be on the brink of elimination and another early postseason exit.
“If we win a game, we’re evened up and we’re on home ice again,” forward Sam Reinhart said. “It’s a seven-game series. We’re three games in, and we know our best hockey is yet to be played and it’s right there for us.”
Asked if he might consider inserting veteran Joe Thornton or other lineup changes, Brunette said the Panthers were “considering everything.” A demotion could also be in order for top-pairing defenseman MacKenzie Weegar, who has struggled in the series.
“Everything’s on the table,” Brunette said after a short, intense practice full of battle drills. “It’s kind of nice to have a day reprieve here, really a day and a half, and go over a few things. We’re going to make some decisions.”
The decisions seem easy on the Capitals side after Ilya Samsonov stopped 29 of 30 shots in his first start this series. It’s status quo for Washington with right winger Tom Wilson still expected to be out and no reason for major changes.
RANGERS at PENGUINS (7 p.m., ESPN)
The Rangers went into the playoffs with a slight edge on the Penguins in large part because of Igor Shesterkin, who was one of the best goaltenders in the league this season. They lost Game 3 at Pittsburgh in large part because Shesterkin allowed four goals on 15 shots and got the hook after the first period.
“He’s not an easy goalie to beat,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said. “I think our guys so far have done a really good job at trying to create the net traffic and making the sightlines difficult for Shesterkin.”
For the Rangers to overcome their deficit in playoff experience against Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the Penguins, they’ll almost certainly need Shesterkin to return to Vezina Trophy-caliber form. He showed he could do it in the playoffs by making 79 saves in Game 1, which went to triple overtime.
Teammates in front of Shesterkin also need to be better.
“I don’t think we were playing together, especially at this point of the season,” forward Chris Kreider said. “Effort is not something you question. It’s a matter of working smart, not hard.”
FLAMES at STARS (9:30 p.m., TBS)
The Flames are working plenty hard, but they’re in a tough battle against Dallas, which plays a similar style. The series has had only seven goals, not counting empty-netters, and offense is difficult to come by.
Confidence, on the other hand, is not an issue for Calgary, which had 111 points in the regular season — 13 more than the Stars.
“I have more than enough belief in this group to know that we can come out of this,” winger Matthew Tkachuk said. “We know that this series, ultimately the way the two teams play and how competitive it is and similar styles, it’ll probably go the distance, if not really close. We’ve got to come in here and win one game.”
MVP candidate Johnny Gaudreau, who led the league in even-strength points, has just two assists in the series. Like Tkachuk, he’s not concerned about the Flames trailing in the first round and suggests they flip the script despite going in as favorites.
“We’ve been underdogs all year,” Gaudreau said. “No one expected us to be where we’re at right now, so we’ll just keep that same mindset that we’ve had all year and we’ll be fine.”
Not if the Stars have anything to do about it. Much like the Capitals and Penguins, they have more recent playoff success to draw from after reaching the Stanley Cup Final in 2020 and understand how to handle the ups and downs from game to game.
“As the series goes on, it gets more and more intense,” coach Rick Bowness said. “Calgary doesn’t want to go down 3-1. We want to put them down 3-1. We want to put them down 3-1, so the intensity just goes along with the predicament that the teams find themselves in. We’ll handle it.”
AVALANCHE at PREDATORS, Colorado leads 3-0 (9:30 p.m., ESPN)
The predicament the Nashville Predators find themselves in is on the brink of being swept by the Avalanche. Colorado has looked every bit like the Cup favorite it was supposed to be and is one victory away from advancing to the second round for a fourth consecutive year.
Forward Logan O’Connor said the Avalanche have a swagger they’re trying to bring each game. That includes the second one of this series that went to overtime.
“At the start of the year, if we would have had a game like we did in Game 2, we might have got frustrated and guys might have gone on their own page a little bit, try and do things individually a little more,” O’Connor said. “And in that Game 2, I think we exemplified how far we’ve come because everyone was just determined to keep doing what we’re doing."
Colorado got a scare when goaltender Darcy Kuemper took an inadvertent stick to his right eye from Nashville’s Ryan Johansen on Saturday and left the game. Avs coach Jared Bednar said Sunday after further evaluation Kuemper’s eye was fine with no vision loss and the only problem was swelling.
Kuemper could play in Game 4 if the swelling goes down, but with a 3-0 series lead the Avalanche could play it safe and start Pavel Francouz. No matter who’s in goal, the aim remains the same.
“We got to continue to play the same way we have the first three games of the series,” Bednar said. “I’ve liked all three games with our group. Just you know stay resilient.”
AP Sports Writers Will Graves in Pittsburgh, Teresa M. Walker in Nashville and Stephen Hawkins in Dallas contributed.
Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno
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