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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The Claude Giroux Trade and Possible Panthers Forward Combinations

With Claude Giroux acquired by the Florida Panthers, the team has to figure out how best to fit him into the lineup.

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Claude Giroux is headed to South Florida. The Florida Panthers acquired the 34 year old centreman from Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for Owen Tippett, a first round pick in 2024, and a third round pick in 2023. Florida also received a 2024 fifth round pick, Connor Bunnaman, and German Rubtsov in the deal.

In 57 games this year, Giroux has tallied 18 goals and 24 assists. The Claude Giroux trade opens up a world of possibilities for the Cats. The versatile forward can slide in almost anywhere in the top 6. Since Sam Reinhart has found a home on that third line, Giroux’s top 6 spot is secure. With that being said, however, head coach Andrew Brunette has options. Here are a few of the line combinations to look out for in the coming weeks.

First Line Right Wing

This choice appears to be the most obvious. Andrew Brunette’s words after Monday’s practice seem to indicate this will be the option he chooses to start with. In this scenario, Giroux replaces Maxim Mamin on the first line, and Carter Verhaeghe moves over to the left wing. This creates a top line of Verhaeghe-Barkov-Giroux while keeping the Huberdeau-Bennett-Duclair line intact.

The benefits to this are obvious. It adds a new dimension to that first line and gives Aleksander Barkov another scoring threat to set up. It also keeps the rest of the forward group together, which has found so much success thus far. It may not cover up many team weaknesses, but it enhances a formula which has worked wonderfully this season. An extremely low risk move.

Second Line Center

One underappreciated benefit of the Claude Giroux trade for the Panthers is the added center depth. Claude Giroux has been an extremely effective two-way center for over a decade in the NHL. This scenario allows the Panthers to use his rare talents to their advantage.

Here, Giroux will take over as the second line center and push Sam Bennett out to the right wing. Anthony Duclair will slide up to the first line, a combination which worked well last season. Thus, the top six will consist of a Verhaeghe-Barkov-Duclair first line and a Huberdeau-Giroux-Bennett second line.

This option may be slightly more risky, but it also potentially solves more problems. Claude Giroux’s responsible defensive game can cover for Sam Bennett’s lapses on that side of the ice. It also keeps Johnathan Huberdeau and Sam Bennett together, as the two have found great chemistry over the past year.

The Verhaeghe-Barkov-Duclair line has proven to be extremely effective in the past, and should have no problem reclaiming that magic. Of course, this option may put too much pressure on Giroux out of the gate, and it is unclear if Bennett will be as effective on the wing, but it may be worth trying if the offense hits a skid.

The Scorched Earth Option

The Panthers have the firepower, and its time to show it.

This season Andrew Brunette has not been afraid to pair Barkov and Huberdeau together on the top line when things go stagnant. This scenario takes that concept to the extreme. Claude Giroux takes the right wing, Barkov takes center, and Huberdeau gets deployed on the left wing. That leaves Verhaeghe-Bennett-Duclair is as the second line here.

That combination creates quite possibly the best line in hockey today. Opposing teams would have nightmares trying to stop that line offensively, or finding a weakness defensively. No team would have any answers — if it works as well as advertised.

Of course, this does not distribute the talent equally throughout the lineup, so I would not expect for it to be the standard line. In certain situations, however, this option could give the offense a jolt and leaves opponents’ heads spinning. I would expect to see this line at least a few times this season.

The Panthers are all in on this season without a doubt. Winning the cup will take versatility and resilience. The Claude Giroux trade gives them much more of both. The line options at Andre Brunette’s disposal gives him few excuses to not put a championship-caliber team on the ice. The Panthers are a juggernaut, and hopefully the rest of their season reflects that.

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The Curious Case of Owen Tippett

While Owen Tippett has struggled this season, his skill and potential means he can turn it around

Owen Tippett with the Florida Panthers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)
Owen Tippett, Florida Panthers Oct. 17, 2017 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

During this stellar panthers season, very few players would be considered disappointments by most. One player this cannot be said for is Owen Tippett. The fourth year winger was poised to have a top 6 spot secured for the Panthers, but has failed to capture a permanent spot in the lineup thus far.

The former lottery pick was expected to be a big part of this team’s season. His recent play, however, has warranted the healthy scratches he has been receiving. Without a doubt the talent is there, but the production has not been. Poor puck luck has factored into his underwhelming season, but he has also not been himself. Let’s dive into how we got here with Owen Tippett.

How we got here

The Florida Panthers selected Owen Tippett 10th overall in the 2017 NHL draft. Most draft experts agreed that Tippett had the best goal scoring skills of any prospect in the draft. Coming out of juniors, his game had holes –particularly defensively– but little doubt existed as to whether or not he would be an NHL caliber player.

Tippett impressed during his first training camp with the Panthers. So much so that he made the opening night roster, an exceedingly rare feat for a teenager. During his seven games in the NHL in the 2017-2018 season, Tippett only scored a single goal, but his confidence and swagger on the offensive end were evident.

Tippett drove offensive play so impressively that many began thinking that the Panthers got a steal at pick number ten. The Panthers sent Tippett back to juniors after his seven game stint in the show, but most believed his game would be complete enough to be an NHL regular by next season.

Unfortunately for all involved, progression is not always linear

Tippett failed to make the NHL roster in either the 2018-19 or 2019-20 seasons. While he had some impressive stints in the minor and junior leagues, he could never get over the hump into the NHL. Tippett finally became a regular NHLer during the shortened 2020-21 season. It was then when the flashes became more apparent. In the final six games of the regular season, Tippett tallied six points (2g, 4a) and continued that production into the playoffs with four points (2g 2a) in six games.

So Where are we now

Playing on a line with Sam Bennett and Johnathan Huberdeau seemed to have unlocked Tippett’s offensive upside. With an offseason to grow, the Panthers expected big things from Tippett going into this season.

Before the season, Sam Bennett said about Tippett: “When he starts to realize how good he is, he’s going to be even better. I love playing with him, he brings so much to the table. He’s a player that’s going to have a really good year.”

Before the season, I suggested that Tippett was the odd man out of this forward group, and noted that Duclair would be the better linemate for Bennett and Huberdeau. Now at the beginning of this year I was more than ready to eat my words on that one, but as the season progressed and the lines shifted, so did the bigger picture.

Tippett began the season paired with Huberdeau and Bennett as expected, the line put up decent production but nothing earth shattering. Tippett himself put up eight points (3g 5a) in 13 games. When injuries and losing streaks necessitated changes, however, concern for Tippett’s production grew.

When replaced with Reinhart, that line generates an expected goals percentage of 63.1%, compared to 52.1% with Tippett. Replacing Tippett with Duclair gives that line a 57.8% expected goals percentage (Not to mention the insane chemistry between Huberdeau and Duclair that could win Huberdeau a hart trophy, but that is a story for another day.)

Tippett, now playing mostly on a third line centered by Anton Lundell, has managed just one assist in his last sixteen games. His offensive swagger has been nonexistent, and his play driving relies heavily on others.

To his credit, Tippett’s defense has improved dramatically, and he has played reliably in the defensive and neutral zones. What’s missing is his fearless, gutsy, always looking for the goal attitude he was drafted for. Surely that player still exists, but it has been some time since Tippett showed it.

What’s next for Owen Tippett

Has the Panther’s organization stunted his growth by not letting him be himself? Possibly. Could a change of scenery be good for Tippett? Probably. Is this marriage between play and organization unsalvageable? Absolutely not.

Fortunately for Owen Tippett, the team does not need him to live up to his potential right now. Plenty of other offense exists around him while he figures out how to get his killer mentality back.

Of course, if the Panthers are truly committed to bringing back that version of Owen Tippett, it will take some deliberate coaching. Brunette will have to pair him with a pass first playmaker and get him lots of time in the offensive zone (with Lundell he gets mostly defensive zone starts.) It will also mean consistent playing time, which has not been the case recently.

The Panthers could also opt to trade him, but his trade value is likely much lower than the Panthers view it as. As of this moment, a trade (persumably for a defenseman) would not help the team as much as many think.

Regardless, a change would help all parties involved. Tippett is only 22 years old and has all the talent in the world. The coaching staff and the front office must decide if they prefer to work to reenergize the winger, or look for a new home for him. His talent is too big to be wasted.

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Panthers vs Rangers postgame thoughts: finally healthy and it shows

The Panthers were fully healthy for the first time in over a month. Their full potential showed tonight.

Panthers vs Rangers
Photo credit: AP Photo/Lynne Sladky

When the NHL season paused over a week ago, few teams needed that break more than the Panthers. Between injuries and a COVID breakout, the team played a lineup consisting mostly of AHL regulars. The subsequent three game skid had some fans begging for a pause or postponement of games.

The fans got their wish, and after almost two weeks off, the Panthers resumed their season Wednesday against the Rangers. The Panthers vs Rangers game gave Cats fans a reminder of what they were missing, and how much fun this season has been.

Panthers vs Rangers game recap

Even with their full team playing for the first time in almost a month, the Panthers faced as difficult of a challenge as their is in this league. The Rangers have been one of the best teams in the league all season, and their speed presented problems for the Cats in their last meeting on November 8.

The first period looked like more of the same. Artemi Panarin beat Bobrovsky five-hole after a beautiful deke on Aaron Ekblad. Whether it was strong defense or rust, the Panthers struggled to generate chances early on, and the first period ended with the Panthers trailing 1-0.

In the second period, Anton Lundell tied the game after Ryan Lomberg used his speed to create a chance. The Rangers responded shortly after with Panarin making a great defensive play to set up Mika Zibanejad for the goal. The Panthers finished that period with only seven shots on goal. A concerningly low total for a team trailing, and going into the third, it seemed like the Ranger Defense had their number.

In the third period, the Panthers began to play their brand of hockey. Three unanswered goals and overall dominance sealed it for the Cats. Weegar’s first goal of the season tied it up. Verhaghe’s snipe took the lead. Duclair’s great defense resulted in a much needed insurance marker.

That period showed what the team is capable of even against the best teams in the league. When the playoffs begin, the team will need to play that way for the full 60 minutes. For now, the team should enjoy being healthy and showing out against a great Rangers team

Panthers vs Rangers Takeaways

  • While this game was far from perfect for the Cats, this game showed that this team has the talent to beat anyone. If the team can maintain health, they can overcome most of their shortcomings through offensive firepower.
  • Special teams remains an issue for the Cats. The power play failed to generate much of anything in their two tries, while the Rangers generated lots of great looks. I still maintain hope that they can figure it out, but the later in the season it gets the more concerning it is.
  • Two preseason regulars were healthy scratches today: Frank Vatrano and Owen Tippett. Both have talent beyond a doubt, but have not delivered this year. Based on today, the team looks better with them on the outs. Look for them to be trade bait at the deadline.
  • Bobrovsky let in a soft one early on, but looked sharp the rest of the game, making key saves in the third period. That rough patch he had may have just been fatigue. His minutes should be managed until the playoffs begin.

Looking Ahead

The Panthers play against their rivals from the north on Thursday, as the Lightning come to town. That game will be must see TV and a great test for the Cats as the season ramps up again.

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St. Louis Blues: Injury Updates That You Need to Know About

The St. Louis Blues are back and practicing. After getting a chance to take a break and recover, there is a lot of new updates.

The St. Louis Blues are officially getting back to work after having an extended period of time off. After the National Hockey League was forced to postpone games, it was only a matter of time before they delayed all. Which, quite frankly, benefited the Blues big time.

With Christmas break only a couple days away, the NHL and NHLPA made an agreement to give the players some extra time off. With teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs, Calgary Flames, and Carolina Hurricanes having to get games constantly postponed, it was hard to see the end of the road. They decided it was time to let everything rest and give the players some time off.

Now, everything is starting back up and teams are starting to get back to work. Including, but not limited to, your St. Louis Blues.

The St. Louis Blues are back tomorrow against the Edmonton Oilers and there is some great news to go along with hockey being back.

The Bad News

The St. Louis Blues, before getting a break, were playing without: James Neal, Klim Kostin, David Perron, Jordan Kyrou, Robert Thomas, Oskar Sundquvist, Brayden Schenn, Jake Walman, and Ville Husso. As you can probably infer, the Blues needed some time to rest, badly. When you are without that many key players, it’s hard to go out there and compete game in-game out. But they did.

Unfourtantley, there is more bad news to talk about before getting too much further into the article. It was reported by the St. Louis Blues that they had added James Neal, Dakota Joshua, Robert Bortuzzo, and Ivan Barbashev, to COVID protocol.

Ivan Barbashev was having one of his best seasons with Russian line-mates Pavel Buchenvich and Vladimir Tarasenko. Now he’s out for the next couple games along with three other Blues.

Furthermore, it was reported by Craig Berube today that center, Brayden Schenn is not quite ready to return. He did reiterate himself to say that he is progressing and could be back soon.

Additionally, he later went on to talk about goalie, Ville Husso. He told reported after the practice today that Husso is not ready to return either and Charlie Lindgren will serve as the backup goalie against the Oilers.

I know that seeing that many names out is discouraging for tomorrow, but I promise there is good news. So without further a due, let’s talk good news:

The Good News

The St. Louis Blues had their first practice earlier this morning and there were a lot of good reports. Lou Korac, who covers the St. Louis Blues for, reported that Jordan Kyrou, David Perron, Klim Kostin, and Robert Thomas should be back for the game tomorrow against the Oilers.

Having those four Blues back gives them the depth and choices that they were once lacking. Not to mention as far as good news goes, Oskar Sundquvist could be back tomorrow against the Oilers as well. He cleared COVID protocol today and was confirmed as a possibility tomorrow night.

Head coach, Craig Breube stated that Sunny could play, but they said that they wanted to see how tomorrow’s morning skate goes.

In conclusion, the St. Louis Blues have things looking up for them. If everything goes as planned, and if nothing too unexpected happens, the Blues could be in for a great game tomorrow.