The suggestion here is not that the Florida Panthers will win the Stanley Cup against the Vegas Golden Knights with just more attention to defense. Victories in four out of the next five will be extremely hard to come by – even if we are talking about a team that came back from a 3-1 deficit versus the Boston Bruins in the first round.
But without doing a few vital things in their own end, the Cats will not win a game this June.
This is not a Sergei Bobrovsky issue. The Panthers – sorry to say – have tied bobby pins on the back of his jersey and put him on a clothesline. The Golden Knights have found a way to score on the playoff-hot Panthers goaltender by generating high-quality scoring chances from the hash marks in. No goalie can be expected to rescue their team with a barrage of shots from point blank.
“We can be a little better in front of our goaltender and he’s been unbelievable for us,” head coach Paul Maurice said. “We did not give him a chance.”
The Panthers’ defense has not played at the same level as they did in the other rounds of the playoffs. It could be because the Golden Knights are better than anything they have seen so far, but this series has not ended, yet. The Panthers can still – take a deep breath and exhale – win it and they will need to find a way to do it from the back end. It must start with moving bodies away from Bobrovsky.
Panthers Need to Clear Out the Net Front
One of the differences so far in the Stanley Cup Final has been the Panthers’ inability to generate a consistent forecheck that kept the Bruins, Carolina Hurricanes, and Toronto Maple Leafs from breaking out cleanly. It led to many icing calls against the Panthers’ opposition, which alleviated pressure on their defensemen.
Now that the Cats have to spend more time inside their own blue line, it might be a good idea for them to clear out the areas in front of Bobrovsky. Keep everything – like the Golden Knights do with aplomb – on the periphery.
“It starts with line changes, back checking, holding pucks in the offensive zone, being closer together, not getting shots blocked and getting pucks in,” Panthers forward Matthew Tkachuk said. ”They are a good forechecking team like us so we have to clean our plays in the defensive zone but they do the majority of their stuff off the rush so we just have to shut down the rush game.”
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If Radko Gudas cannot play in Game 3 this Thursday in South Florida, it will be difficult for the Panthers to give Bobrovsky unobstructed looks at pucks coming his way. Gudas’ beard almost takes up half of the crease.
“Well, he’s really important, he’s a force, but he’s also a much better hockey player,” Maurice said. “He makes the highlight films because he’s such a physical guy. But the quality of his play is very, very high. You miss a guy like that when he goes out.”
Vegas has had great success setting screens in front of the Florida net. The Panthers must get better at moving bodies away from scoring areas so that Bobrovsky can have a chance to make a save.
“If we’re going to be there, you gotta block them,” Maurice said. “We gotta get in front of those shots. We’re working at it. We’re trying. But we’re about three inches off those shots.”
Even without Gudas, the Cats have the personnel to do the job. In particular, one of the club’s alternate captains, Aaron Ekblad needs to log high minutes and be a physical force.
Panthers Ekblad Needs to be More Noticeable
For as much of the praise that Panthers defenseman Brandon Montour has received this postseason, it has almost seemed equally as quiet for Ekblad. He’s a phenomenal player. It could be argued that he is in the same vicinity as Golden Knights defenseman Alex Pietrangelo when it comes to time on ice, positioning, toughness and puck movement.
Yet, so far, Ekblad has not been a factor for the Panthers and when he tries to activate, it’s apparent that he is not on the same page as his forwards. One play, in particular, stood out from Game 2. Ekblad read a developing play with Tkachuk on the half boards. He strode towards the net and had an unabated path, but the pass went up the boards to the blue line where his partner, Gustav Forsling, received it and didn’t do much of anything.
Ekblad has played in all but one of the Panthers’ 16 games this postseason and has only managed one goal and six assists. Not great numbers for an All-Star, who can contribute more offensively – and the Panthers need all they can get right now. So far, through two games of the Stanley Cup Final, Ekblad has zero points.
“The parts of our game where we know we can improve, we’re going to have to get to real fast, there’s no doubt about that,” Maurice said. “But, we’ll have a pretty simple game plan. I don’t think it’s about scoring goals in this series, because I think it’s about defending the rush.”
Ekblad needs to step up his game for the Panthers to get a win in Game 3. Let’s face it – the home team loses the next game and the series is over. There is no way that Vegas will lose four straight games, especially with how effective they are right now on the rush.
Cats Must Not Give Up the Blue Line So Easily
The Golden Knights are fast. They organize themselves well and generate lots of chances off the rush, but it’s not like the Panthers haven’t seen this against Carolina and Toronto. The Leafs live and die by their ability to find offensive lanes downhill. Somehow though, the Cats continue to retreat from their own blue line, which has given Vegas safe passage to do whatever they please.
“Their rush game is elite for sure, but we’ve faced other teams like that,” Maurice said. “We put ourselves in a position having to handle the rush where we’ve had to give up more ice that we’ve wanted to give. Some of it is based on their speed, they’re going to get those chances and some if it is just our positioning.”
Sometimes, the solution is as easy as tightening the gaps between the defense and forwards. Strong defense is definitely a team mentality and the forwards need to give their defensemen better outlets and backcheck better, but if the Panthers allow the Golden Knights to gain possession in the offensive zone as frequently as they did in Game 2, then it will be time to party in Vegas.
“Clearly, they got on us off the rush, and because we were in a deficit by the time they crossed the [red] line, we had a hard time containing and killing those plays in the [defensive] zone. So, that will be a focus for us for sure,” Maurice said.
The focus must be on defense for the Panthers to win Game 3. Through the first two games of the Stanley Cup Final, the Cats’ defensemen are a combined minus-8 and have a grand total of one assist between them. When a team is outscored 12-4, it is easy to see what has faltered. The Panthers must clog the middle, block shots, keep the play to the outside in their own zone, not allow Vegas to beat them off the rush, and get better play from their best rearguard in Ekblad.
Even if everyone thinks it’s impossible, in defense of the Panthers, this is a group of men that has made impossible look normal in the 2023 Playoffs. We all know what happens when you back a cat into a corner.