Sports

The Panthers are back in the Stanley Cup Final: Keys to their run, early look at next potential matchups

The New York Rangers spoke at length about delivering their “best game” to avoid elimination in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals. The Florida Panthers let their on-ice play do the talking.

The Panthers weathered an early push by the Rangers in Game 6, and dominated from there, winning the pivotal clash 2-1. Florida took advantage of New York’s lapses and never gave its opponent an inch.

It has been the Panthers’ hallmark in this series to control the third period, and they did so again by hemming the Rangers in their own end and preventing New York from establishing any offensive zone time. It was a textbook Panthers victory, complete with depth scoring (welcome to the series, Vladimir Tarasenko), strong defense and solid goaltending.

Now Florida is off to its second consecutive Stanley Cup Final — with every reason to believe this year will end with a better outcome than the last.

The Panthers are deep — with timely scoring

It’s not like Florida’s best players aren’t driving its offense — they certainly are. Carter Verhaeghe has nine goals, Sam Reinhart has eight, Matthew Tkachuk has 19 points and Aleksander Barkov has collected 17 points. Those skaters are expected to be great.

But what’s setting Florida up so well in the postseason are the well-timed contributions they’re getting from depth skaters — Tarasenko’s goal in Game 6 against the Rangers, Anton Lundell‘s game-winning goal in Game 5 of the series and Gustav Forsling‘s tying score in Game 3. Before those were Evan Rodrigues‘ pair of goals in Game 3 at Boston and Steven Lorentz‘s game winner in Game 3 against Tampa Bay.

It would be easy to look at Florida’s overall totals and think the Panthers are reliant on their stars. But Florida has some sneaky-good contributors who have made the most of their moments to have an impact as surprise saviors in their own right. The Panthers have had 14 different goal scorers throughout the playoffs. Every line uses its defined role to its advantage.

Florida can’t be put in any one box, and that can make the Panthers a nightmare matchup in ways they perhaps were not during last year’s Cup run.


Florida’s defense is dialed in

The Panthers have been so dynamic putting up points that their defensive efforts might have been overlooked. Florida is tied with Edmonton for allowing the second-fewest shots (24.5 per game) in the playoffs, has allowed the fewest goals against (2.38 per game) of any remaining playoff team and has essentially neutralized its opponents’ best forwards in the past two rounds.

David Pastrnak scored one goal in their six-game, second-round series. Jake DeBrusk had two. Mika Zibanejad didn’t score once in the Eastern Conference finals. Artemi Panarin didn’t score until Game 6 and Vincent Trocheck lit the lamp only twice.

Florida’s success defensively is nothing new — the Panthers allowed the fewest expected goals per game in the regular season, at 1.78 — but their dominance on that side of the puck deserves more discussion in the playoffs, too. There’s a clear buy-in from Florida as a five-man unit on the ice to focus on defensive habits first and translate it to offense. That has been a critical part of how the Panthers can grind another team down — and then pounce.


The penalty kill is a backbreaker

Florida has given up multiple power-play goals exactly once in the playoffs. It was back in Game 4 of its first-round series against Tampa Bay, when Florida suffered its only loss to the Lightning.

Since then, the Panthers have given up two power-play goals — total. Boston got one. New York got one. And that’s it. Through the past two rounds, Florida is operating at a gaudy 93.3% penalty-killing rate, and it has been an undeniable feather in the Panthers’ cap, especially when they were able to shut down the vaunted Rangers power play.

The Panthers are a physical team and that manifests in how they challenge an opponent’s man advantage. Florida is aggressive and smothering at turning skaters back at the blue line, and making them work for open ice. Discouragement sets in on the other side. The Panthers have drawn a line that says: if you’re going to beat us, it’ll be at even strength. And that’s an advantage all to itself.


Florida knows how to close

New York saw firsthand in the conference finals how the Panthers can tilt the ice in their favor late in games to send an opponent packing. Florida has scored 23 third-period goals in this postseason, with a league-leading plus-13 goal differential in that frame (the Panthers, for example, outscored New York in the third, 7-3, during the conference finals).

They’ve won four games (most of any playoff team) when trailing after the first period. And Florida has already won six one-goals games en route to another Cup Final.

The Panthers possess a killer instinct that every comer they’ve faced (thus far) has been hard-pressed to match. It goes back to Florida’s all-around confidence in its identity, system and structure. There’s an ingrained belief that when the Panthers stick to that — whatever the score — it will, more often than not, lead to a good result. It has many times already.


How the Panthers match up with the Oilers

It’s no wonder the Panthers and Oilers have been on long postseason runs. They’re remarkably similar.

There are the deadly top-line skaters who can single-handedly shift the trajectory of a period (or entire game). Both teams have excellent depth up front and on the back end. Edmonton is right there with Florida excelling in one-goal games (the Oilers have six in the postseason) and shot suppression. The Oilers also have a standout penalty kill (93.5% in the playoffs) and a strong power play (34.7% to Florida’s 23.7%).

A Cup Final between them could come down to goaltending. Sergei Bobrovsky has been consistently good enough, and occasionally spectacular, for Florida. Stuart Skinner looks revitalized lately after a tough start to the playoffs. One of this potential series’ netminders could wind up being its biggest X factor.


How the Panthers match up with the Stars

At their best, the Stars are a formidable contender. Dallas is deep offensively, Jake Oettinger is an elite goaltender and Miro Heiskanen (along with a healthy Chris Tanev) anchor an excellent blue line.

The Stars play a more freewheeling style than the Panthers, though. Florida is structured and disciplined in a different way — more like Edmonton — and that’s where Dallas could run into trouble.

But there’s also a potential for firepower between the Stars and Panthers. Dallas is averaging nearly three goals per game in the postseason, same as Florida (3.33). And those power plays — Dallas is at 21.4% — could be a problem for either group if they were to re-ignite in a big way.

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