Before this season began, the Florida Panthers were projected to end up fighting for a playoff spot. Fans in South Florida were expecting to feel the tension that recently took hold in Boston and Philadelphia. Somehow, though, this team came together to surprise everyone—possibly even themselves—by winning the Atlantic Division title. And with the rigors of the regular season now behind them, it is time for this Florida Panthers team to make a run at the Cup.
The Panthers have only made the playoffs a handful of times in their history and last won a playoff series 20 years ago. This year will be different. The 2016 Panthers are a historic team, having gone on a 12 game winning streak, setting the franchise record for points, and setting the franchise record for wins. The combination of hungry youngsters and battle-tested veterans has turned this team into a true contender that has a legitimate chance at playoff success. The question is…how far will they go?
Round 1 – Islanders
This should make for a very exciting first series. Although the teams are far apart in the standings, statistically, they are very similar. If momentum plays any role in round one, the Panthers have the upper hand—winning their last game in decisive fashion while the Islanders lost their last two regular season games to fall into the wild card position. Head-to-head this season, the Panthers have won twice and lost once to the Isles earning 3.33 goals for per game and 2.00 goals against per game averages (hockey-reference.com).
Aside from the top line of Huberdeau-Barkov-Jagr generating the second most goals in the league this season (according to leftwinglock.com) as well as having five different 20 goals scorers, the Panthers benefit from a stingy defense, featuring Brian Campbell, Aaron Ekblad, and Erik Gudbranson, as well as a dynamic goalie in Roberto Luongo. This foundation has enabled the Panthers to score goals and win games in efficient fashion.
While Tavares and Nelson will do what they can to keep the Isles in this one, ultimately, the Panthers’ home ice advantage and distributed offense will prove too much for Greiss in net. Panthers in 5.
Round 2 – Lightning/Red Wings
Once the Panthers make it past the first round, they will face the winner of the other Atlantic Division matchup between Tampa Bay and Detroit. A cross-state series would be a fantastic event for both teams and would be the first time in the postseason. Unfortunately, the Lightning are suffering from multiple injuries, including the loss of Steven Stamkos for the rest of the season, making the Governor’s Cup meeting an unlikely scenario.
This season, the Panthers have two wins and two losses against Detroit with 2.75 goals for and 3.00 goals against per game averages. Again, Florida has a distinct advantage when it comes to offensive firepower. The team has four, 25 goals scorers this season, while Detroit only had two skaters hit the 20 goal mark. Additionally, the Panthers should benefit from having a completely healed Vincent Trocheck back for the entirety of this series. Prior to his injury two weeks ago, he had been lighting up the league with his scoring. His line of Jokinen-Trocheck-Smith ended up with the seventh most goals this season.
This series will be another great one, with both teams matching up their youngest players, like Dylan Larkin and Ekblad, as well as their oldest players such as Pavel Datsyuk and Jagr. This one looks like it will go a little longer but in the end, the Panthers will grind it out. Panthers in 6.
Round 3 – Capitals, Flyers, Penguins, Rangers
Now things are getting interesting. Quick prediction—Panthers will be facing the Capitals in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Capitals also benefit from having the potent mix of offensive power, a solid defensive core, and this year’s best goalie. Such a matchup would be thrilling to watch.
The Panthers hold a 2-0-1 record against Washington this season averaging 3.33 goals for per game and 1.67 goals against per game. It is important to note, that Ovechkin only played in two of the three games while Holtby did not play in any. Regardless, this series would be defined by two of the best goalies in the game.
If the Panthers build upon their momentum from the first two series, it would not be surprising to see them pull off the upset. Especially with a healthy lineup, the Panthers may be able to put up enough goals to counter the Capitals. As of now, however, the Caps maintain the advantage. Capitals in 7.
History is Made
This is setting up to be a historic postseason for the Florida Panthers. Although they have already defied expectations for the regular season, the fans’ expectations are far greater. The feeling around this franchise is that they are the greatest version of the team in Panthers’ history, and as such, should make a deep playoff run. They have the goalie, they have the defense, they have the forwards, and for the first time in a long time, they have the fans. This could be the year of the rat.