The Florida Panthers go into the first round of the 2022 postseason with statistically their best regular season in franchise history in the books. This includes the top spot in the NHL, with a record of 58-18-6 for a total of 122 points, the most in a single season for Florida. In addition, they captured their first ever Presidents’ Trophy. But now, it is time to see if they can create even more history as they start their road to the Stanley Cup against the Washington Capitals on Tuesday, May 3. They’re looking for their first series win since the “Year of the Rat” in 1996.
In the season series between the two, Florida won the battle by going 2-1-0 against them with one victory in overtime. All three meetings were decided by one goal.
Defense Wins Championships
When it comes to goals-against averages (GAA) between both teams, they’re tied for 12th at 2.95 a game. However, the penalty kill for both teams is a different story. The Caps have a better penalty kill that’s ranked 12th in NHL at 80.4 percent, while the Cats are dead in the middle at 16th with a kill rate of 79.5 percent. Florida knows first hand what it’s like to get beaten down in the penalty kill department in the playoffs from their last First Round appearance against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Granted, they are second in the league in short-handed goals with 11, but Washington is also a top-10 team in that department, with eight.
However, defenseman Aaron Ekblad has been skating with the team for the past few weeks and could make his anticipated return to the lineup this series since getting injured in early April. This could be a massive game changer for Florida.
On the offensive side of the battle, Washington has to compete against Florida, who is arguably the best team offensively in the NHL. The Panthers led the league in goals per game, with 4.11, goals overall, with a franchise-record 337 goals, and were fifth with the man advantage at 24.4 percent. In addition, they have a Hart Trophy candidate in forward Jonathan Huberdeau, who finished tied for second in the NHL in overall points with 115 points, and first in assists with 85.
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This however, does not diminish the offense that the Capitals have that helped win a Stanley Cup four seasons ago. In goals per game, Washington is 10th in the league with 3.29 a game. In shots per game, it averages 31.4, which makes for 14th overall. This is led by top offensive stars T.J. Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov. In addition to their supporting cast, they might get back their historic captain in Alex Ovechkin from injury, who finished the regular season fourth in the league in goals with 50 on the season. Furthermore, “The Great Eight” is currently third in the NHL all-time in goals, only behind two greats in Gordie Howe and Wayne Gretzky.
It’ll be a very interesting go around for both teams offensively. As previously mentioned, all of their meetings were determined by one goal. It’s possible it could stay that way for this quarterfinal round.
Goaltending Could be the Difference Maker
In this matchup, goaltending could be slightly favored towards one side. Although he did have some rough patches, Florida’s goalie in Sergei Bobrovsky still had a pretty good year all things considered. Through 54 games played and 53 starts, “Bob” finished with a 2.67 GAA, a save percentage (SV%) of .913, and three shutouts. In addition, he is tied with Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy for the league lead in wins with 39 on the year, which is a new franchise record in a single season. In addition to the projected starter, his backup in rookie Spencer Knight got some more experience under his belt. He ended his regular season with a record of 19-9-3 through 32 games played, and 27 starts, a SV% of .908, two shutouts and a GAA of 2.79. As a way of going out with a bang, he ended his last start this season grabbing a shutout against the Ottawa Senators and was named rookie of the month of April.
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On the other side of the coin, Washington’s goaltending has arguably been the most inconsistent in the NHL. However, Vitek Vanecek had a decent year, all things considered. Through 42 games played and 39 starts, he finished his regular season with a record of 20-12-6, a .908 SV%, a 2.67 GAA and four shutouts. With that being noted, they’re going to look to him to potentially carry the load in this series. Unfortunately, the other guy in Ilya Samsonov had the worst season of his career. He ends his regular season going 23-12-5 through 39 starts and 44 games played, a GAA of 3.02, SV% of .898, and three shutouts.
With Florida having an edge in the goaltending department, this could easily be a big factor in what determines the series as it can push your team for a deep playoff run.
Grit Gets Grittier in the Playoffs
Grit and toughness has always been a major factor come playoff time as the intensity within them gets turned up a bit. Florida does have some players that don’t mind getting dirty such as defenseman Radko Gudas, who led the league in hits with 355, and forward Ryan Lomberg.
For Washington, they have debatably one of the most infamous players in the NHL in forward Tom Wilson, who led the team in penalty minutes with 98. He knows how to get under everyone’s skin and has no problem throwing down if the time is necessary.
It’s tough to say who has the edge in this with a decent amount of experience on both ends in these situations, but Wilson does have a way of persuasion when it comes to getting gritty.
Who Advances? Who Goes Home?
On paper, it sounds like the Panthers could potentially take this home with the sheer amount of offensive talent throughout their lineup alone, but Washington understands the playoffs a little bit more with the amount of experiences its core has witnessed, including a Stanley Cup in 2018.
The postseason is a completely new year for everyone involved, and where stars truly show why they should be recognized as such. With the accomplishments the Panthers have done all season long, they have no excuses this postseason.