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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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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Florida Panthers Defense showing signs of improvement

Florida Panthers celebrate after a win over the Anaheim Ducks, thanks to the defense
Photo Credit: FloridaPanthersPR

Following Florida’s 7-6 comeback win over Toronto on April 5, most fans felt nothing but elation. For the Panthers themselves, that game marked a need for change. The Florida Panthers defense had been struggling mightily in the first eight games Aaron Ekblad missed due to injury, and that game marked the tipping point for the team’s coaching staff.

After the game against Toronto, head coach Andrew Brunette mentioned the need for stronger defensive showings. He knows the importance of a formidable defense in the playoffs. With the regular season winding down, the team needed to begin to shut down their opponents. Even with Ekblad presumably returning for the playoffs, the team needed defensive answers with the current group.

In the four games since that shift, the team has allowed only seven goals. Excluding the first period against Buffalo, the team surrendered only four goals in the past 11 periods of hockey. That impressive turnaround can be attributed to several factors which have re-energized the Florida Panthers defense.

New Florida Panthers Defensive Pairings

One change Bruno implemented with the Florida Panthers defense was to change up the pairings. For these combinations, Bruno decided to pair strength with strength. He paired offensive defensemen Gustav Forsling and Brandon Montour together, as well as physical defensemen Robert Hagg and Radko Gudas.

These changes create some interesting wrinkles for opponents. The high-powered offensive duo have used their collective speed to grab the puck and push it out of their own zone. In the past four games the pair each have four points (Forsling 3g 1a, Montour 0g 4a.)

Conversely, Hagg and Gudas use their physical nature to shut down opposing chances. Because neither are offensively gifted, the team opts for a separation of responsibilities when they come on the ice. Indeed, the duo disrupts all opposing chances and the forwards do the heavy lifting on offense. So far, it has worked to perfection. In the 27 minutes of the Hagg-Gudas pairing thus far, the tandem boasts a remarkable 72.4 expected goals percentage.

Improved Goalie Play

Of course, none of this would be possible without the goalies. Both Sergei Bobrovsky and Spencer Knight have given amazing performances this past week. Bob was 3-0-0 with a 0.931 save percentage while Knight stopped 24 of 25 shots and won his lone appearance.

Specifically, this last start for Bobrovsky stands out. Against Winnipeg, Bobrovsky stopped 30 of 31 shots. He finished with a goals saved above expected of 1.43. After a horrible couple of starts against New Jersey and Toronto, these games have meaning. They help build confidence and rhythm going into the playoffs. Bobrovsky will likely be the team’s starting goalie come playoffs, and his play can make or break the cup run.

However, if Bobrovsky’s inconsistency proves to be Florida’s weakness in the playoffs, the team should feel encouraged about Spencer Knight’s progress. Knight played one of the best games in his career against Nashville last week. He finished with 1.45 goals saved above expected, which brought his total number for the year into the positive.

After a terrible start to the year, Knight has given the team very consistent play in net. While he likely won’t be the starter, he will end up in net at some point come the playoffs.

New Additions Getting Comfortable

When looking back at the terrible two-week defensive stretch, it is clear that working in some new additions played a part in it. Earlier this year, Sam Reinhart discussed the difficulties of getting acclimated to Florida’s unique system. After 15 games, he became one of the teams best players. His slow start was quickly forgotten by fans and media alike.

The same should have been expected of the deadline acquisitions, namely Ben Chairot and Roberg Hagg. We talked earlier about Hagg finding his fit with Gudas, and the same could be said for Chairot. Now spending his time with Weegar, the two increased their expected goals percentage together from 55% to 62%. Chairot also has two assists over his last four games.

With the chemistry this Florida Panthers defense gained in the past week, the team may have solved its biggest problem. If the team regains its strong defensive play AND adds Aaron Ekblad going into the playoffs, they instantly become the team to beat. Indeed, the ceiling is high, but the team needs to make tweaks in these last few games more than most in their position.

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Aaron Ekblad Injury Leaves a Crater on the Panthers’ Blue Line

Since Aaron Ekblad’s injury, the Panthers have not been as consistent defensively, they will need him to return to be the cup contenders they want to be.

Aaron Ekblad skating off the ice after an injury
Photo Credit: Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Ask anyone what this Panthers season has been about, they’ll tell you the offense. And rightfully so. This forward group has put together the greatest offensive season since Mario Lemieux’s Penguins. However, the player who should be considered the MVP of their season is Aaron Ekblad.

While the offense hummed, Ekblad stabilized the back end. He allowed this team to be more than your typical run-and-gun shootout team; he made them dominant. This most recent Aaron Ekblad injury shows his importance to this team, and why he will need to come back if the Panthers want to have any chance at winning the cup.

Defensive numbers faltering

Since the Aaron Ekblad injury against Anaheim on March 18, the Panthers have gone 7-1-0. Certainly not the mark of a team feeling the absence of a star player, but the underlying numbers tell a different story.

Prior to Ekblad’s departure, the Panthers gave up 2.84 goals per game, a top-10 defensive ranking (Vancouver currently ranks 10th in the league with 2.84 GA/GP.) In the eight games he’s missed, the team is giving up 3.75 goals per game. This mark would have them 30th, ahead of only bottom feeders Montreal and Detroit.

They managed to hold their opponent under three goals only once in those eight games, and they have surrendered six twice. These eight games increased their goals against average from 2.84 to 2.94, which ranks 14th.

The Panthers have a historically great offense and, with Ekblad, a strong enough defense to force any opponents to work hard for their goals. That is what makes them special. Without him, games have shown to be more or less a shootout. Sure, the comebacks are fun, but we have to wonder why this team falls behind so frequently. For the Panthers to have success in the playoffs, their defense needs to be formidable. That hinges on an Ekblad return.

Defensive pairs do not work without him

Obviously, losing a Norris Trophy candidate would make any team’s defense worse. However, for the Panthers specifically, there is simply no viable replacement for him. The Panthers were hoping trade deadline acquisition Ben Chairot would be able to eat up much Ekblad’s defensive responsibilities, but he has disappointed thus far.

Of course, it would have been unreasonable to expect for him to duplicate Ekblad’s production, but his lack of a natural fit on the roster raises concerns. Over the eight games Chairot has played, he has been paired with both Mackenzie Weegar and Radko Gudas. When paired with Weegar, the two give up 4.56 goals against per 60 minutes. With Gudas, the pair surrenders a slightly better 3.7 goals against per 60 minutes. Obviously, the small sample size should be noted, but the eye test backs the numbers up.

Unlike the offensive core, the defensive players have not shown the ability to step up when a star goes down. When Barkov missed six weeks, players such as Jonathan Huberdeau, Sam Reinhart, and Anthony Duclair all took advantage of increased opportunities to make sure the offense stayed level.

When Ekblad went out, it has been up to the offense to score even more goals. To be clear, all of Florida’s defensemen have shown to be more than capable in their roles, but not out of them. For them to go back to their roles, Ekblad must return for the playoffs.

Special teams slumping

One underrated loss for the Panthers since the Aaron Ekblad injury has been the loss of their special teams maestro. A fixture on both the power play and the penalty kill, Ekblad’s presence has been missed on both. The penalty kill has stopped 19 of 27 opponent chances over the last eight games, a 70% success rate.

That mark would be last in the league over a full season. This also includes giving up multiple power play goals in three of the eight games. Simply not good enough for a cup contender.

The same is true for the power play unit. Despite its many admirers, the five forward power play the Panthers have been using recently has some inherent weaknesses. Namely, the increased likelihood of surrendering shorthanded goals. Over the past eight games, the Panthers have given up two shorthanded goals at crucial junctures in the game, and should be thankful they have yet to give up more.

The Panthers may still choose to experiment with five forwards on the power play in the playoffs. Their unique collection of talent affords them that opportunity. Still, they miss the option of a reliable two-way defenseman out there as a security blanket.

Aaron Ekblad is one of the best defensemen in the league. Of course, the team needs him for their best shot at a deep playoff run. Over these last few games, it has become increasingly clear what his absence truly means to this team. It takes them from genuine cup contender to another high variance team. The kind of team that flames out in the playoffs. After years of heartache, that is the last thing this franchise needs.

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Comeback Cats: Saturday’s may be team’s most impressive comeback

Gustav Forsling scores the game winning goal for the Panthers, AKA the Comeback Cats
Photo Credit: FlaPanthersPR

The game was all but over, until the Comeback Cats showed up.

Down 6-2 to start the third period in New Jersey, fans of both teams would have told you to put this game on ice. The Panthers have staged several comebacks this season, but this game felt different. Whether it was the 12:30 start or a late night before, the team simply had no juice through the first 40 minutes.

Whatever was wrong, they fixed it during the second intermission.

The Panthers reminded everyone a game is never over against the Comeback Cats, and turned what might have been the worst showing of the season into their greatest resilience story to date. Four goals in the third and the game winner in overtime left the home crowd stunned. For the Cats, it was nothing they didn’t already know they were capable of.

“There was no doubt in the room. We’ve been doing that all year. This was a big win for us” said Brandon Montour, who’s third period goal started the comeback. “The game’s not over until the 60 minutes are done. We believe in each other in that room.”

Admittedly, the team did not earn the “Comeback Cats” moniker for nothing, but this game is likely their most impressive. For 40 minutes, the team earned the 6-2 score they faced. In fact, one could argue that this was one of their worst games of the season. Knowing that another game awaits them tomorrow, most teams would not have even had the energy or ability to make this game competitive.

The Panthers are not most teams, and this year has proven that. They have their eyes set on a much bigger prize than winning their first round series for the first time since 1996 — they want to win it all. They want their names etched on the Stanley Cup for eternity. Games like Saturday’s show they can do just that.

Managing to beat a young and motivated Devils team on their home ice by only showing up for the third period marks a team confident and talented enough to go deep into the playoffs. They’re good and they know it. Head coach Andrew Brunette said after the game, “We’ve shown we’re a gritty team, we have resilience… You felt it on the bench after we made it 6-4 that anything was possible. A proud group of guys that are never out of it.”

If anyone needs more of a reason to believe in this team, just look at Saturday’s game. While the true test for this team lies in the playoffs, they have earned their status as a legitimate cup contender. In a season that has raised the bar for the franchise, the team keeps finding new ways to impress.

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