The Florida Panthers enter the postseason as the second seed in the Central Division with a record 35-14-5 with 75 points. Their opponent in the first round will be the defending Stanley Cup Champions in the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Panthers won the season series with a record of 5-2-1 against the Lightning. However, the playoffs are a whole new ball game altogether.
New Faces Bring Valuable Playoff Experience
When general manager Bill Zito brought in some veteran players during the offseason and the trade deadline, they all had one major thing in common: playoff experience. His vision has clearly had a positive impact on the team as it feels as if the culture has changed.
Patric Hornqvist comes in with a massive resume. He has 90 career postseason appearances, with a total of 25 goals and 21 assists through those games. In addition, he’s reached hockey’s highest mountain not once but twice as he’s earned back-to-back Stanley Cups during his time with the Pittsburgh Penguins. In his first season with Florida, he had great numbers with 14 goals and 18 assists on the year. Additionally, he was an enigma on the power play, leading the team with eight goals on the man advantage.
Carter Verhaeghe also grabbed his ring last season and became a Stanley Cup champion during his rookie year with the Lightning. He was featured in eight playoff games, tallying two assists. Since being picked up by Florida, Verhaeghe has been an absolute wrecking ball. He’s posted 18 goals and 18 assists through 46 games played.
Sam Bennett has always been a great playoff performer due to his style of play. In 30 career playoff games with the Calgary Flames, he’s scored 11 goals and assisted on eight others. In this regular season, he’s already performed way above his previous play in Calgary, tallying 15 points through 10 games with Florida. This should excite fans to see what he can do in the playoffs.
Alex Wennberg’s last playoff appearance featured five points (three goals, two assists) in 10 games. In addition, he was part of the Columbus team that swept the Lightning in what was something that seemingly could only happen in fairy tales. His time during that series could bring valuable information and tactics to shutting them down this time around.
Are the Young Ones Ready?
Florida’s group of rookies and prospects have the opportunity to get some valuable ice time this upcoming postseason, but are their hearts prepared for this intense battleground?
Owen Tippett has had a decent amount of experience in the regular seasons he’s played. As of recent, he’s been putting up points as he has six points (two goals, four assists). He got his first taste of what to expect with playoff hockey during his last two games against Tampa.
Grigori Denisenko has been hot since getting his first NHL point on April 29. Since then, he’s continued his performance to a three-game point streak with four points (all assists) through those three games. It is currently unknown if he’ll get a call up for the postseason, but he’s rightfully earned to be at least considered.
Can Duclair, Barkov, Weegar and Huberdeau Keep up Their All-Star Peformances?
The biggest reason Florida punched their ticket to this upcoming postseason was because of the elite-level play of some of their core pieces. This includes their captain, forward Aleksander Barkov, who has played to MVP levels despite missing some games due to injury. He currently has 57 points (26 goals, 31 assists) through 49 games played this season. In his last five games in the regular season, he tallied eight points (two goals, six assists). Additionally, Barkov has some postseason experience, tallying seven points (three goals, four assists) through 10 playoff games.
Jonathan Huberdeau’s play has been outstanding through his 2021 campaign. This season, he piled up a total of 61 points (20 goals, 41 assists), which makes for the team lead and 10th in the league. In his last five regular-season games, he scored nine points (three goals, six assists). Much like his teammate in Barkov, he also brings some postseason experience to the table, getting six points (two goals, four assists) through 10 postseason games.
Anthony Duclair has seemingly found his new home in South Florida after bouncing from team to team for a few years since entering the league. Working with Zito during his time in Columbus, Duclair has some familiarity that made him feel right at home with the Panthers. As a result, his offensive production was fantastic, piling up a total of 32 points (10 goals, 22 assists) through 43 games. Furthermore, he is second on the team in rating with a plus-27 rating. This is new territory for the Duke as he has no prior postseason experience in the NHL.
Since losing defenseman Aaron Ekblad to injury back in March, his partner in defenseman MacKenzie Weegar has stepped up massively. Through 54 games played, Weegar has amassed six goals and 30 assists for a total of 36 points. In addition, he leads the team and is second in the league in rating with a plus-29. Furthermore, he leads all defensemen in the NHL in even-strength points with 31. Weegar got a taste of this type of hockey last season during the qualifying round against the New York Islanders. He played four games, registering one assist.
The biggest question facing these three is this: can they continue their elite play through the postseason and step up in the playoffs? The Stanley Cup Playoffs are where legends are made, and they must act on the chance, or they could have another long summer of thinking “what if?”
Who Gets the Nod in Net?
Both goaltenders have had pretty good seasons, but one has shined a little brighter than the other. That goalie is Chris Driedger. Driedger is 14-6-3 through 24 regular-season games with a goals-against average (GAA) of 2.04 and a save percentage (SV%) of .927. In addition, he is the only Panthers goalie this season to post a shutout with three total.
On the other hand, Sergei Bobrovsky posted a 19-8-2 record with 30 games started this season. Furthermore, he had a .906 SV% with a 2.91 GAA. He did struggle in those departments, but for the most part, he had a good season. Additionally, Bobrovsky was a key piece in the Blue Jackets’ round one victory against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. With his playoff experience, he might get the nod for game 1, but his leash might be short.
Coach Q’s Experience Will Drive the Cats
Panthers head coach, Joel Quenneville has been in this situation many times throughout his coaching career. His style of coaching is made for playoff success, hence why he won three Stanley Cups during his time with the Chicago Blackhawks. Most notably, his third championship as a head coach came against the Lightning back in 2015. If anyone has the tools to beat Tampa’s head coach, Jon Cooper, and his squad, it’s coach Q.
In addition, the lineup he’s brought in every night since he was hired has brought this team success. The way he has his team structured is nothing short of remarkable as he’s one of the front runners for the Jack Adams Award this season.
This Team Is Ready to Make Some Noise
This team showed it could get the job done throughout the regular season and find ways to win. Through trial and adversity with injuries, rescheduled games and short rests in between games, the team found ways to succeed. The depth on this team is better than ever and the core seems fully developed. While the series outcome is unknown, Florida has clearly shown Tampa that they are not going quietly into the night. The Lightning should be thinking to themselves, “Holy (expletive)! We’re playing the Florida Panthers!”
My name is Joey. I’ve been writing about the NHL for about 3 years with my experience spread out between TSJ 101 Sports and Panther Parkway. I look forward to you reading my articles!