Battle of Florida Round 2: Series Preview

The panthers will face the lightning n round 2. Here’s what to expect from the latest iteration of the battle of Florida

battle of florida
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For the first time in 26 years, the Panthers are on to the second round. After a hard fought series with the Washington Capitals, the road only gets tougher for the Cats. The good news is that they finally got over the mental hurdle of winning a playoff series. Now, they must get over another mental hurdle: the battle of Florida.

Indeed, it is that the defending champs are waiting on the other side.

The battle of Florida, Panthers vs Lightning round two, commences this week. Both teams have a tremendous amount to prove in what will almost certainly be the premier matchup of the second round. Here’s how the teams match up.

Forward Battle

If there’s anyone out there who is unfamiliar with the embarrassment of riches the Lightning possess at forward, know this: they’re really good. Steven Stamkos is in the midst of a resurgent season in which he’s tallied a career high in points. 2019 MVP Nikita Kucherov has struggled with injuries this season, but had an impressive first round of the playoffs. Scoring wingers Ondrej Palat, Anthony Cirelli, and Alex Killorn round out an experienced and talented top six.

That list even excludes Brayden Point, who may be the player the Panthers struggle to contain the most. The speedy 26 year old will likely be sidelined for the first few games with a lower body injury.

As scary as that group looks on paper, the Panthers still likely have the edge in the forward department. Many of Tampa’s forwards are on the wrong side of 30 and starting to decline. They also lost much of their bottom six depth last offseason. While they did a decent job replacing much of it, this is a watered down version of the team they lost to last year.

The biggest hurdle for the Panthers will be limiting the Tampa power play. In last year’s battle of Florida, the Lightning went 8/20 (40%) on the power play. That was the Panthers’ Achilles heel in that series. Tampa’s chemistry on the man advantage kept Florida on their toes throughout.

To mitigate their scoring chances on the power play, the focus for the Panthers should be clogging up the middle of the ice. It is vital they don’t overreact to a Stamkos or Kucherov slap shot from the outside, as that will open up passes to the slot area. As long as they stay disciplined on the penalty kill, the Panthers have the edge in the forward department.

Defense Corps

Without a doubt, the Lightning have the best defenseman in this series, and possibly the league, Victor Hedman. The 2018 Norris Trophy winner amassed 85 points (20 G 65 A) this past season, the highest of his career, while also playing shutdown defense. The Panthers will notice his presence on the ice and will need to constantly account for it.

Their number two and three defensemen, Ryan Mcdonagh and Mikhail Sergachev, do have holes. They’re incredibly talented and reliable players in their own right, but they are slow-footed. It does open some opportunities for the Panthers to get their speedy players some scoring chances against the two of them.

Their other three defensemen are solid, but nothing special. Jan Rutta, Cal Foote, and Zach Bogosian have all had their moments, but it would be unreasonable to expect for them to slow down the elite offense Florida boasts. They also do not offer enough offensively to counter their defensive limitations. It is certainly a step down from the defensive depth they saw against Washington, and it would behoove Florida to take advantage of that.

Goaltending For The Battle of Florida

The battle in net may be the most obvious advantage Tampa has in this series. Sergei Bobrovsky has been excellent for the Panthers thus far, but Andrei Vasilevskiy has been the league’s best goaltender for the past four years. He looked mortal in their first round series against Toronto, but shut the door in their closeout game seven.

On the series, Vasilevskiy said “many goals were scored because I couldn’t see anything. I’m pretty sure that was the game plan for them, to get in front.”

Screens are a goalie’s worst nightmare, regardless of their skill level. That needs to be an adjustment the Panthers make in this series. The Panthers love passing to get clean looks at the net, but Vasy is too big and too mobile for that to be a viable primary scoring option. The goals in this series need to be dirty and gritty in front of the net goals. Easier said than done of course, but the Panthers are no strangers to finding different ways to score.

Final Prediction

This will likely be the best series of the second round, and I fully expect it to go the distance. Whoever comes out of this series will likely be the favorite to make it to the cup final. The Panthers improved greatly after last year’s defeat, and are ready to win at all costs. Tampa knows how to handle any situation they find themselves in, but they will feel the absences from players who moved on in the offseason. In this year’s battle of Florida, it will be the Florida Panthers in seven games.

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Colorado Avalanche set to face St. Louis Blues in Round 2 of NHL Playoffs

The Colorado Avalanche playoff run started off really well. After sweeping the Nashville Predators in the first round of the NHL Playoffs, the team had to wait four days to find out who their next opponent will be. Once again, they will meet the St. Louis Blues.

The Blues took Game 6 against the Minnesota Wild on a 5-1 win. Now, they move on to face one of the Stanley Cup favorites for this year. And, the Avalanche playoff history against the Blues is very favorable.

Blues Find Themselves As Colorado Avalanche Playoff Obstacle Once Again

Avalanche vs Nashville

Everyone knew — or at least had an idea — that this series would not end well for Nashville. They started off by losing their #1 goaltender, Juuse Saros, even before the regular season ended. And he didn’t recover from his lower-body injury on time to help the team. David Rittich, their backup, didn’t have a good regular season with a 6-3-4 record and a .886 save percentage. He started Game 1, but allowed five goals in 13 shots and got pulled in favor of Connor Ingram.

Now, here’s the thing: if a team is not very well structured defensively and offensively, they can’t hold Colorado back. That definitely won’t happen when a third-string goalie is in net. That’s not saying that Ingram is bad, and he wasn’t the problem throughout this series. But making saves is not enough when the team can’t score. Nashville had a lot of problems scoring, with only nine goals in four games.

Colorado did an amazing job holding them back, and an even better job at finding chances to score. Defenceman and Norris Trophy finalist Cale Makar had three goals and 10 points in four games, Nathan MacKinnon had five goals and six points. Everyone was contributing! That’s what they’ll need as the Avalanche playoff run continues.

Blues vs Wild

The Blues started off the series against Minnesota with a 5-0 win, and that should’ve been a look into the future on how this would end. However, in Game 2 defenceman Nick Leddy was hurt. In Game 3, defenceman Torey Krug was also injured — and the Blues lost both games.

They bounced back in Game 4, but lost Marco Scandella for Game 5. Again, the Blues were facing a series full of injuries that could seriously hurt their playoff chances. But they managed to stick together and win three straight games to take the series, even without both Krug and Scandella, two of their main defencemen.

Now, here are a few key factors that will influence a second round between the Avalanche and the blues.

Key factors for Colorado Avalanche vs St. Louis Blues

Goaltending

Both teams have amazing goaltenders. Even though Ville Husso struggled a bit in the first round, he still had a .906 save percentage. Jordan Binnington went back to the 2019 Blues playoff run and got his game back together. He had a .943 save percentage against the Wild and won all three games, allowing only five goals. Both were great in the first round and were key factors for the Blues advancing to the second round.

For Colorado, it is a very similar situation. Darcy Kuemper, their starter, was injured in the first period of Game 3 and Pavel Francouz had to take over. However, Francouz had stellar performances on both Games 3 and 4 to finish the series, holding Nashville winless. Now, Kuemper is good to go, according to Jared Bednar after Thursday’s practice, which is good news for the team.

Even though it is still unknown, this probably means he will be the starter against the Blues. Against the Predators, Kuemper had a .934 save percentage, only allowing four goals in three games started. He’ll try to help the Colorado Avalanche playoff run continue and the team move on from the second round for the first time since 2002.

Special Teams

Something to keep an eye on is the special teams for both teams. Colorado has a better power play, with a 30.8% success throughout four games in the playoffs. However, the Blues also have a better penalty kill, with 83.3% success in six games. This should be an interesting match-up. When these teams faced each other in the first round of last year’s playoffs, the Avalanche had a 50% success on the power play, which didn’t make much of a difference — they still swept the Blues. However, it shows how strong the Blues’ penalty kill was.

Now, they’re without both Scandella and Krug, both being huge factors for their PK. But, to succeed in stopping the Colorado Avalanche playoff run from continuing beyond the second round, they’ll have to find a way to stop Colorado’s power play first.

Cale Makar #8 of the Colorado Avalanche advances the puck against Nathan Walker  #26 of the St Louis Blues in the second period at Ball Arena on April 26, 2022 in Denver, Colorado.
Photo Credit: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

What to expect from this series

As we wait for the rest of the first round to finish and the second to start, there are a few things to know about Colorado vs. St. Louis. The first one is that this will be a physical series, with the Avalanche trying to repeat last year’s success and the Blues trying to get their revenge.

But this shouldn’t be a high-scoring series. Both teams have amazing goaltending and a solid defensive system which means that, if everything works out well and no injuries happen, we should have some very close games. A seven-game series is likely between these two — unlike last year’s first round.

What’s Wrong with the Panthers’ Special Teams?

The Panthers’ special teams have been the teams greatest weakness so far in the playoffs. What do they need to do to fix it?

Panthers' special teams have struggled to perform in this series
Photo Credit: @CapitalsPR

The Florida Panthers are in a dogfight of a first round. Currently up 3-2 in the series, the games have been far more competitive than many expected. The strange thing, however, is that the Panthers are dominating Washington at even strength. So far in the series, the Panthers are outscoring the Capitals 15-8 at even strength. The only thing keeping the series close thus far has been the struggles of the Panthers’ special teams.

Through the first five games of the series, the Panthers are 0-16 (not a typo) on the power play. Yes, the league’s number five power play on the year has yet to score a goal on SIXTEEN tries. Doing some quick math, that equates to a conversion rate of roughly 0 percent.

By contrast, the Washington Capitals have scored on six of their 20 chances for a success rate of 30 percent. That number is significantly higher than their regular season average of 18.8 percent.

Unsurprisingly, the Panthers performance on special teams has made winning these games significantly harder. The Panthers need to flip their special teams play around if they want to make a deep run in the playoffs. Let’s look at the play of the Panthers special teams and see what is causing this drop in performance, and how it can be fixed.

Power Play Woes

As a hockey fan, I think a disproportionate amount of hockey discourse centers around teams or players being cursed. It acts as a scapegoat for inexplicable playoff performances or uncanny strings of bad luck. Most of the time, it’s just popular pundits ignoring the obvious, or fans living in denial as to why their team lost.

With that being said, I don’t think I’ve seen evidence of a curse as compelling as this one.

I’m only half joking, of course, but this is getting absurd. The Panthers power play struggled early on in the year, but finished as the fifth best in the league. The team was so red hot towards the end of the year they sustained a league best power play percentage of 30.9 percent since February.

Then suddenly, it all vanished.

There are a few moving parts that could explain this. The biggest adjustment for the team has been trying to reincorporate Aaron Ekblad back on the first power play unit. The team found a groove with the five forward power play, and it looks to be a struggle trying to reinstall Ekblad as the quarterback.

Whether it has more to do with Ekblad shaking off some rust coming off the injury or the lack of chemistry with a group that has never played together before, there is simply not enough time to figure it out now. When deployed, the five forward power play has generated the most pressure for the Panthers this postseason. The plan should be to stick with that for now and figure out the Ekblad piece over the summer.

Besides that, better results will just come down to getting some more puck luck and playing with less fear. The Panthers are clearly the more talented team. Because of that, high-event hockey plays to their advantage. Even if they give up more shorthanded chances, the talent on the roster affords them that luxury. If they play more aggressively and with more movement, more goals will follow.

Penalty kill struggles

To their credit, the Panthers have done an excellent job limiting Alexander Ovechkin’s impact on the power play. They have over-committed to his one timer and forced him to pass out of his usual spots. He has only scored one power play goal all series, and it came on a broken play.

Obviously, over-committing to one player opens up plenty of other options for the opponent, and the Capitals are taking advantage of that. The main benefactor of this strategy has been T.J. Oshie. Oshie has scored four power play goals this series. The connection between Oshie and quarterback John Carlson has been superb. Oshie tipping and redirecting Carlson’s soft shots has made the Panthers penalty kill look silly all series.

As seen below, the Panthers pressure Ovechkin out of the zone, but some quick puck movement leads to a Capitals goal.

Fixing this one will be tricky. Washington is fortunate enough to have the greatest shooter of our lifetime on their team and three guys (Carlson, Backstrom, Kuznetsov) who excel at getting him the puck. Over-committing to him is the right call, but the defense relaxes too much when the puck isn’t in the vicinity of the Great 8.

Washington does have a fatal flaw, however, and that is predictability. Their M.O. has John Carlson setting the table for everything and everybody else at the top of the zone. Florida can counter this by putting pressure on the slow-footed Carlson and make him move the puck before he is ready.

Look how much space the Panthers give Carlson to take the shot in the clip below. The Capitals want to feed him at the point, and the Panthers let it happen, which leads to a goal.

It may seem counter-intuitive to play aggressively that high in the zone when shorthanded, but Carlson has destroyed the conservative approach. Carlson may still be an excellent power play QB, but he is not the player he used to be physically. The Panthers have excellent speed and need to use that to their advantage here. The key is to be proactive rather than reactive. The Capitals are too experienced for the Panthers to be playing catch up.

Overall, the Panthers have shown some good and some bad in this first round match-up. They’ve been the better team 5v5, but they’ve also made this series much harder than it needed to be. Hopefully it will serve as a learning experience for them and they can make the adjustments to win this round — and more rounds going forward. Only time will tell.

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Panthers vs Capitals: first round preview

Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin vs Panthers
Photo Credit: Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The regular season has finally ended. With the playoff match-ups set, the real season is about to begin. It will be Panthers vs Capitals in round one. Each playoff team in the Eastern Conference finished with more than 100 points on the season for the first time in history. Because of that, this may end up being the most competitive first round in recent memory. Despite this being the 1-8 match-up, both teams will need to earn this win. This is how the two teams stack up.

Panthers vs Capitals: Forwards

For Panthers vs Capitals, the forward battle really is strength vs strength.

Any conversation about the Capitals’ forward corps begins with Alexander Ovechkin. The 36-year-old winger shows no signs of slowing down, as he notched his ninth 50 goal season in 2022.

For the Panthers, he should be their primary defensive focus. Easier said than done of course, but containing the Great 8 is the key to a series win. Ovechkin has shown this year he can still win a series for a team.

Although he is coming into the playoffs banged up, it should not hold him out of the series. The Panthers need to play him physically and knock him off of his preferred spots, specifically that left circle.

The Panthers must also account for forwards Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson. Both finished the season with 24 goals, but present completely different challenges.

Kuznetsov centers the first line with Ovechkin, the 28-year-old is a skilled play-maker and excels at getting Ovi the puck in his favored spots. The game plan against him should be similar to the game plan many teams deploy against Huberdeau: cut off the passing lanes and dare him to shoot. Not that Kuznetsov is a bad shooter, but his preference would be to pass.

As for Tom Wilson, he plays opposite Ovechkin and his role is to intimidate. The bruiser has a reputation for dirty hits and foul play. He loves to get to the dirty areas of the ice and use his 6’4″ frame to bully his way into goals. The Panthers will need to be physical with Wilson, and keep him on the outside of the ice where he can be neutralized.

The old guards for Washington, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie, have both had cursed seasons. Both played a huge role in their 2018 Stanley Cup win, but have been plagued with injuries this season. Despite their age, the talent remains for both these players and both bring the type of playoff experience that cannot be quantified.

Undeniably, this team has offensive depth. More so, the depth has cup experience. Their one weakness as a group is that most of their forwards do not have a great two way game. That is one area the Panthers can exploit with their plethora of two way guards.

Panthers vs Capitals: Defense

While not the strength for either team, neither defense should be taken lightly.

The Capitals most highly-regarded defenseman is John Carlson. He quarterbacks their power play and has a knack for setting up the offense with 54 assists on the year. However, for a number one defenseman, his play in his own zone leaves much to be desired. The 32-year-old does not have the foot speed or strength he once did to keep opposing players away from the net. He should be attacked at every opportunity in an attempt to wear him out.

Their defensive depth, on the other hand, may be one of the more underrated groups in the league. Trevor van Riemsdyk has been one of the best shutdown bottom pair defensemen for quite some time now. Dmitry Orlov has an extremely strong two-way game. Justin Schultz is not having his best year, but has been very effective in the past.

That defensive depth may be an area of concern for the Panthers. It will be tougher to score against this bottom four than most. Generating offense has never been a problem for the Panthers this season, but this group will not give up good looks often.

Panthers vs Capitals: Goaltending

Much like the Panthers, the Capitals biggest question mark is their goaltending. Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov have split the games fairly evenly this season, but Vanecek is the likely starter based on his numbers this season. He has a save percentage of .908 and a GAA of 2.67. Those numbers are far better than Samsonov’s, but still not great for a playoff goaltender. His negative goals saved above expected (-5.4) also suggests he does not provide enough of a presence during the playoffs.

Goaltending may end up proving to be the Achilles heel for both these teams. Even with Bobrovsky’s inconsistency, he has greatly outperformed Vanecek this season. With the way the Panthers generate offense, it will take elite goaltending to slow them down, and Vanecek is far from elite.

Final Prediction

Washington is no cakewalk. Their potent offense and playoff experience confirm they will not be broken easily. Still, I do not think they do enough to counteract the Panthers’ strengths. It’ll be the Florida Panthers in six games.

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Anton Lundell and his case for the Calder

Anton Lundell has had a stellar rookie season for the Panthers, yet he has not received the national attention he deserves.

Florida Panthers rookie and Calder Trophy hopeful Anton Lundell
Anton Lundell fights off checker Oliver Bjorkstrand in a game against Columbus (via @FLAPanthersPR)

In a season highlighted by breakout rookie seasons across the league, Anton Lundell has managed to fly under the radar. As the season wraps up and awards conversations pick up, his name has not been mentioned enough.

Each year, the NHL awards the Calder Memorial Trophy (known colloquially as the Calder) to the best rookie performer in the NHL. Former winners include Panthers Aaron Ekblad and Johnathan Huberdeau. This year, the Panthers have yet another rookie worthy of receiving this award: Anton Lundell.

In all likelihood, Lundell will not win the Calder. The likes of Trevor Zegras, Lucas Raymond, and Moritz Seider have received too much national attention comparatively. Still, his impact matches, and maybe even exceeds, that of his peers. Hypothetically, if the league wanted to give the Calder to Lundell, this would be the case.

Anton Lundell has the raw stats

Currently, Lundell has 18 goals and 25 assists on the year. This puts him fifth among rookies with 43 points. While that may not stand out initially, keep in mind injuries have limited Lundell to 61 games this season. All the players above him have played over 70.

Additionally, Lundell averages less than 16 minutes on ice per game. Compare that to Zegras and Raymond who average about 18 minutes per game. I am ignoring Seider’s TOI numbers since defensemen typically play more minutes on average. Once the points are adjusted for ice time, the stats become eerily similar. Lundell scores 2.66 points per 60 minutes, almost a dead lock with Zegras’s 2.68 points per 60, and well above Raymond’s 2.41.

This discrepancy is a product of the team around him. The Florida Panthers have an other-worldly forward corps, which means he gets less ice time. It also means he gets no regular power play time, unlike his counterparts. Seider, Zegras, and Raymond all average over two and a half minutes of power play time a game.

Simply put, factors out of Lundell’s control contributed to the points discrepancy shown. Given the same opportunity, Lundell would match, if not exceed, the production of the other Calder contenders.

He is also a defensive specialist

When people call Anton Lundell a miniature Aleksander Barkov, this is the sticking point. On the defensive side of the puck, few rookies have been as effective as Lundell. The coaching staff has taken notice, and use him as a regular on the penalty kill.

Lundell averages almost two and a half minutes of penalty kill time per game. This number is fourth among rookies, and far more than any other rookie in the Calder race. That defensive responsibility does not show up in the box score, but should be considered in the discussion. Lundell has also notched four short-handed points this season, a top-10 mark in the league.

This strong defensive play contributes to winning more than any single statistic can show. Lundell’s ability to shut down opposing attacks while not sacrificing any offensive output puts him in a rare class of player. His +33 rating leads all rookies by a landslide, and shows the type of impact he has on both ends of the ice.

Lundell makes those around him better

A big part of the Panthers’ dominance this season has been their forward depth. Specifically, the third line of Anton Lundell, Sam Reinhart, and Mason Marchment has been the best bottom 6 line in the entire league.

As the center of this line, Lundell controls much of the pace and flow they play with. His poise and control on the ice has played a huge part in his wingers having career years.

Sam Reinhart was already an established player before joining the Panthers. With Buffalo, Reinhart scored 20 goals and topped 50 points consistently. In his first season in Florida, however, Reinhart has reached new career highs with 28 goals and 48 assists in 73 games. His play has been stellar, but Lundell should receive credit for developing such good chemistry and putting him in places to succeed.

The same can be said about Mason Marchment, who is having a breakout year. In his first full year in the NHL, Marchment has totaled 42 points in 51 games. The 26 year old came to Florida two years ago in a trade with Toronto. After some flashes last year, Marchment has become a genuine offensive threat once the team placed him on a line with Lundell.

As I said earlier, there is little to no chance of Anton Lundell winning the Calder. Zegras has scored too many Michigan goals, and Seider has doled out too many big hits for Lundell to be seriously considered. All of this is to say that anyone who overlooks the impact Lundell has had on the best team in the eastern conference is doing themselves a disservice. He has the most complete game of anyone in this rookie class, and for my money, should be a Calder Trophy contender.

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