Roberto Luongo leads Florida Panthers in must-win Game 4

NEW YORK -- There was a tendency at different points this season to want to stick a fork in the Florida Panthers.

Yep. That's it. They're done. Nice run, but let's move on.

And there was definitely a bit of a weird vibe emanating from the Florida locker room after their 4-3 loss in Game 3 here Sunday that gave the New York Islanders a 2-1 series lead.

There was veteran goaltender Roberto Luongo looking more than a little disconsolate after the Panthers had blown a 3-1 lead in the game, the second time in the series they'd allowed the Islanders to come from behind to win.

Luongo complained of being exhausted and you wondered if this was it, the moment when the wondering turned to reality, the moment when the feel-good Panthers who won the Atlantic Division in spite of the skepticism, when they finally made a final turn left and off the map.

After all, Luongo's recent playoff history, such as it is, hasn't been all that pretty, dating back to his tumultuous final postseason days with the Vancouver Canucks.

Certainly a loss in Game 4 on Wednesday night would have pretty much done it, putting the Panthers in a 3-1 series hole.

Instead, the Panthers withstood another John Tavares power-play goal -- the Islanders are averaging a power-play goal through the first four games, and the scorching Tavares has seven points -- before getting the winner from young defenseman Alex Petrovic midway through the third period.

As for Luongo, he bounced back from two off-performances in the two losses to backstop his team to a victory they absolutely had to have.

"Huge character win for our club," Luongo said. "We played the type of road game we wanted to play. Just simple hard-nosed chipping away and we found a way to win.

"That's what playoffs are all about. You've got to gut it out. A lot of guys did a lot of good things tonight."

Luongo ended up with 26 saves on 27 shots. He stopped all 10 of the third-period shots he faced, including a flurry when Jonathan Huberdeau took an ill-advised high-sticking penalty with 3:33 left in regulation.

Given the fact the Isles had tied the game with 15.3 left in the second period at the tail end of a five-on-three created by more foolish penalties, it wouldn't have been all that big a surprise if the game had gone to overtime, just like Game 3 did.

"[That's] the worst thing you want to have at the end of the game," Huberdeau said afterward, shaking his head at the play. "Stupid play by me and it could have cost us a goal. You don't feel good going to the box. Glad the guys did the work."

And so at another fork in the road of this compelling series, the Panthers took the road less traveled and now have home ice for a best-of-three competition.

It's not a stretch to say the Panthers have been the better team for the better part of all four games, but the team that plays better doesn't always win, at least not every night.

But over the course of a seven-game series? More often than not, the team that plays better usually prevails.

I spoke to a veteran scout and longtime NHLer early in the season and he said he knew the Panthers were going to be a playoff team early on because they were so tough to play against. Big, fast, committed to playing the way head coach Gerard Gallant wants them to play. And they had the goaltending.

That same scout this week was a bit dismayed at how loose they were playing.

Maybe it's nerves. Maybe it was the playing three games in four nights that put Luongo off his feed.

Regardless, for a pivotal Game 4, the old Panthers seemed to have reassembled in Brooklyn.

Standing in the hallway outside the locker room as the players packed up and did their media duties before flying back to South Florida for Game 5 on Friday night, GM Dale Tallon was relieved yet unsurprised.

"We've been resilient all year," Tallon said. "Whenever it looks like it's going to go south, our guys, this group, somehow finds a way to battle back."

Tallon also believed that Luongo would bounce back to create the calm that has been so important for this young team all year.

"He hadn't played many back-to-backs all year," Tallon said. "Every time that Loui's had a tough time, he's bounced back too. He's been terrific. He's a real pro and I knew he was going to have a good day today."

This is a team that's had lots of good days the skeptics didn't think were possible. If they keep playing like they did in Game 4, it will mean putting that fork away. Again.