Florida was the NHL's top-seeded team entering the playoffs, having earned the franchise's first Presidents' Trophy title on the strength of a 122-point campaign. The Panthers are now the first Presidents' Trophy winners to be swept from a playoff series since the 2019 Lightning were ousted by Columbus in the first round.
"It's a tough pill to swallow," Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad said. "Getting swept is tough. It hurts. It stings. There's no doubt about it."
Game 4 was a scoreless affair most of the way, until left winger Patrick Maroon tipped a point blast from Zach Bogosian past Sergei Bobrovsky in the third period. Ondrej Palat added an empty-netter in the final minute to seal Florida's fate.
The Panthers built their historic regular season on offensive success, pacing the NHL in average scoring (4.11 goals per game) thanks to enviable depth upfront. They were not shut out once through 82 games. In fact, the last time Florida did not score a goal in a game prior to Monday was Game 6 of their first-round series against Tampa last spring.
But all that firepower failed Florida when it mattered most.
The Panthers stumbled their way past Washington in the first round, winning in six games but requiring multiple come-from-behind performances to do so. That effort wouldn't suffice against reigning two-time Cup champion Tampa Bay.
Florida didn't score more than one goal in any of the four games against Tampa Bay. All the Panthers' top performers continuously came up empty. Jonathan Huberdeau was one of four 30-plus goal scorers in the Panthers' regular season and led the team with 115 points. He added only two assists against Tampa. Aleksander Barkov and Claude Giroux tallied one assist each. Sam Reinhart recorded a single goal, and it was the only one Florida scored on the power play the entire postseason.
The Panthers finished their postseason 1-for-31 on the man advantage.
"Special teams for me was an issue," said interim coach Andrew Brunette. "I take a lot of blame for the power play, that was my fault. Should be better, has to be better. Really disappointed in myself for that."
Andrei Vasilevskiy was spectacular for Tampa Bay in net, giving up only three goals in four games. He made 49 saves on Monday night.
In his last seven series-clinching games, Vasilevskiy has made 199 saves on 200 shots and recorded six shutouts.
Also impressive was Tampa completed its sweep of Florida without top forward Brayden Point, who's been sidelined by injury since Game 6 of the Lightning's first-round series against Toronto.
"They're Stanley Cup champions for a reason," said Brunette. "[They grew] from a high-flying offensive team and stuck with it. We aspire to be them."
Bobrovsky repeatedly gave the Panthers a chance to recover, though, not only in Game 4 but throughout the series. He registered a solid .908 SV% over the first three games and turned aside 23 shots trying to stave off elimination on Monday.
The Panthers just couldn't provide him any help.
"I think it was our best game this series," said Barkov of Game 4. "But it wasn't enough."
Florida even caught a couple breaks with two Tampa goals being disallowed in the second period.
The first review took over 10 minutes, as the NHL's situation room in Toronto tried to discern whether the puck had hit mesh prior to Lightning forward Alex Killorn's ice-breaking goal. Finally, a ruling came down that the puck had exited the surface of play. No goal for Tampa Bay.
The second review happened just minutes later. Nikita Kucherov snapped a wrister past Bobrovsky, but Florida challenged for a hand pass by Anthony Cirelli off the draw. It took less than two minutes for the verdict -- no goal.
The Panthers couldn't muster any goals of their own, and now they will face a long spring and summer ahead to examine what sent their postseason off the rails.
"I love this team," said Brunette, whose own future in Florida is still in flux. "Of course I'd love to [come back] but those are not really my decisions. I love this team, I love the group, I believe in it. I believe in them."