For the first time since 2016, the Florida Panthers will be in the playoffs. Technically, not in the traditional way, though, given how 2020 has played out, but the Panthers are among the 24 teams competing for the Stanley Cup and one of 16 teams playing in the qualifying round. Just like in 2016, their opponent is the New York Islanders, only this time there is no John Tavares on the Islanders and Vincent Trocheck won’t be there to be tripped. Here are three questions the Panthers face heading into the play-in series.
Can Bobrovsky Return to Form?
This is probably the biggest one. Last July, Florida signed Sergei Bobrovsky to a seven-year, $70 million contract with an AAV of $10 million per season. The contract meant expectations were high for the new starting goaltender. Unfortunately, Bobrovsky did not live up to expectations.
He struggled in his first regular season with the Panthers, posting a 3.23 goals-against average (GAA) and a .900 save percentage (SV%). The fact that he was in a new city, new state and new surroundings might have been a contributing factor, as he mentioned to NHL.com on May 28.
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The two-time Vezina Trophy winner is poised to get back to his proper form during the play-in series against the Islanders. Last season with the Columbus Blue Jackets, he played well in the playoffs, especially in that surprise sweep over the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Tampa Bay Lightning. Bobrovsky posted a 2.41 GAA and a .925 SV% in last year’s postseason against the Lightning and the Boston Bruins.
Bobrovsky’s form could make or break the Panthers. If he returns to his old form, he could be the key to the Panthers beating the Islanders, and a hot goalie can mean further success. If he continues to struggle, then advancing would be unlikely.
Can Ekblad and the Defence Contain the Islanders?
Aaron Ekblad has taken a step forward under new head coach Joel Quenneville He had a new career-high under the new bench boss with 5 goals and 36 assists for 41 points in 67 games. That was a 50-point pace in a full 82-game season.
Ekblad has contributed well offensively but he also is heavily relied upon defensively. He logs big minutes on the top pairing and can shut down the top players on the opposition.
However, the Panthers need more than just Ekblad on the blue line. Just like goaltending, the defense was a problem in the regular season. Florida ranked 28th in even-strength goals against per 60 minutes.
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Can the success continue with the Ekblad and MacKenzie Weegar pairing? They have been probably the only bright spot on the Panthers defence. The others need to step up their game in the playoffs. Keith Yandle needs to use his shot, instincts, and skating. Guys like Anton Stralman, Mike Matheson, and Josh Brown need to step it up if the Panthers want to beat the Islanders.
Florida’s defence could be their kryptonite in the play-in series unless they improve in the regular season.
Can Barkov and Huberdeau Lead the Offence?
The Panthers offence has been led by Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau, two players who were drafted in 2011 and 2013, respectively. Many argue that they are two of the most underrated players in the league.
Barkov had 62 points including 20 goals in the regular season (on pace for 77 points and 24 goals) while Huberdeau had 78 points including 23 goals (on pace for 92 points and 28 goals). Both players were Nos. 1 and 2 on the team in scoring.
The playoffs are a different ballpark, though, and both players need to step up their games. Both were around for the six-game loss to the Islanders in 2016. They both got six points in the series.
The Panthers are going to need their A-games this time around. Barkov is a great all-round centre with excellent playmaking and poise. Huberdeau is a very creative winger that has a great shot. If both of these players start producing and scoring right out of the gate, the Panthers could be in control of the series.