5 Takeaways from Panthers Game 2 loss to Lightning

SUNRISE –  Facing a 0-1 series deficit, the Florida Panthers were back on home ice Thursday night, trying to even the series before the two-game trip in Tampa. 

 

What was a close game for most of the night ended in heartbreak for Florida as Tampa scored the game-winning goal with 3.8 seconds left in regulation. Tampa would take this one 2-1.

 

Florida goes to Tampa down 0-2 in the series and truly have an uphill battle waiting for them if they want to advance in this postseason.

 

Onto the takeaways.

 

The Lightning power play strikes again

Game 1 was a nightmare for Panthers’ fans, especially if there was a Lightning power play involved. Tampa went 3/6 on the PP in Game 1.

 

In Game 2, Tampa wasted no time getting back into the power play groove. With the game scoreless, Brandon Montour was sent to the box for hooking Ross Colton of the Lightning. 

 

Less than a minute into the power play, Corey Perry scored his second PP goal of the series after deflecting a Steven Stamkos shot past Sergei Bobrovsky. 

 

Through two periods, that power play goal was the only time Tampa saw the back of the net. They’ve actually scored more goals on the power play this series than when they are even strength (Two even strength, four power plays). 

 

But in a close game like tonight, that one power play goal was enough to be the difference. Tampa took advantage of at least one power play opportunity tonight, Florida didn’t.

Luostarinien and Forsling  didn’t let yesterday’s World Championship result get in the way of their tying goal

When Sweden and Finland faced off yesterday in the 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship, the Swedes bested the Finns in a shootout. 

 

For supporters of both countries, they’d be happy to know that Florida’s tying goal was set up by a Swede, Gustav Forsling, and finished by a Finn, Eetu Luostarinen.

 

Enough about the friendly international hockey rivalry, it was a great two-man play by the pair.

 

Forsling led the rush into the Lightning zone and dropped the puck off for Luostarinen, who was waiting atop the blueline.

 

Lusotarinen leaned into a slapshot and it found its way underneath the body of Andrei Vasilevskiy, tying the game at 1.

 

This was a great setup and nice finish, however, it would be the only time Florida found the back of the net all night. 

 

Let me write about the power play… again

Yes we are going to talk about it. The power play struck out again tonight, going 0/4 on the man advantage.

 

Florida is now 0/7 in the series and 0/25 in the playoffs through eight games. 

 

The worst part about tonight’s power play was the fact that Florida had an opportunity to take the lead with under three minutes to go in the game. Instead, Florida failed to convert on their fourth power play of the night and Tampa would make them pay minutes later, winning the game with 3.8 seconds left off a Ross Colton goal.

 

I said in the pregame show, if Florida doesn’t score on the power play, they are going to lose the series. Well, they are two games down, lost both games on home ice,  and are still goalless on the power play. 

10 seconds is all it takes…

With just seconds remaining in the third, overtime was looming in Sunrise. 

 

The Lightning just killed off another Panthers power play but the crowd was still energetic for what seemed to be another Panthers OT appearance. 

 

Tampa had possession in Florida’s zone with 10 seconds left in the third. Lightning forward Nikita Kucheerov was with the puck behind the Florida net when Gustav Forsling approached him from the right side. His D partner MacKenzie Weegar simultaneously approached Kucerhov from the left, leaving the front of goal unaccounted for. 

 

Kucherov slipped a behind the back pass to Ross Colton who was in alone of Sergei Bobrovsky. 

 

Colton fired the puck over Bobrovsky, giving the Lightning a 2-1 lead with 3.8 seconds left in the game. 

 

This goal would be the game winner, giving Tampa a 2-0 series lead.

Two series against Tampa, back-to-back 0-2 deficits

Last season Tampa came into Sunrise and made their presence felt, taking Florida’s first two home games of the playoffs from them. 

 

This year, the same exact thing happened. Florida being the higher seed had home ice advantage. Well, it was supposed to be an advantage before they lost both home games in round 2, going down 0-2 in the series. 

 

Looking back to last year, Ryan Lomberg and his OT heroics in Game 3 kept the Panthers in the series after they were down 0-2 on the road. Now the Panthers are in the same situation down two games heading to the defending champions barn. 

 

This team has shown all season that they can do the unthinkable, whether its comeback wins, or not scoring on the power play but winning a series. But this will be the most difficult task to date, trying to steal games from the back-to-back champions in their home arena. 

 

Game 3 is Sunday and Game 4 is Monday. Yes, a back-to-back in a playoff series.

Florida Panthers win first playoff series since 1996, defeat Washington Capitals in six games

The Florida Panthers finished off their first-round playoff series on the road in Game 6 on Friday night, defeating the Washington Capitals 4-3 in overtime after Carter Verhaeghe scored his second OT winner of the postseason.

 

After trailing 2-1 in the series, Florida rallied back to win three straight games, all being comeback wins, taking down Washington in six games.

 

This is Florida’s first series win since their run to the Stanley Cup Final in 1996, when they beat the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Conference Finals. That was on June 1, 1996.

 

This series win breaks the longest postseason series win drought in the NHL, with Florida not winning a series in nearly 26 years.

 

Florida now awaits the winner of the Tampa Toronto series, which is set to conclude tomorrow as the two teams will face off in a Game 7.

 

The Panthers, who finished the regular season with the best record in the NHL, will have home ice for the second-round, with Games 1-2 being at FLA Live Arena in Sunrise

 

Dates for the second-round are yet to be announced.

5 Takeaways from Panthers 4-3 OT win in Game 6 over Capitals

The Florida Panthers held a 3-2 series lead entering enemy territory tonight in Washington, DC.

Sixty minutes wasn’t enough for this back and forth Game 6; the two sides went to overtime for the second time in the series. 

 

Despite giving up a late goal in the third period, the Panthers won 4-3  in overtime from a goal by… you guessed it, Carter Verhaeghe.      

 

Florida is moving onto the second round and will face the winner of tomorrow night’s Tampa Toronto Game 7.

 

Onto the takeaways.

Florida continues to play from behind 

In four of the six games this series, Washington scored the first goal of the game.

 

Now, the Panthers are no strangers to giving up the first goal or playing from behind, they’ve proven to recover well this series and all season while facing a deficit. They lead the league with 29 comeback wins, with Game 5 being their sixth three-goal comeback (regular season and playoffs).

 

Two of their three wins in the series heading into Game 6 came after giving up the first goal of the game, now it’s three out of four.

 

Tonight, once again they gave up the first goal of the game. They were able to tie it at 1-1 but the Capitals broke the deadlock again, making it a 2-1 game early in the third.

 

Florida was able to get a result once again after being down twice tonight and they didn’t let a late Washington goal bring them down.

 

The Cardiac Cats don’t make it easy on themselves having to play from behind.

Carter Verhaeghe, Panthers legend

Carter Verhaeghe, what can we say about number 23.

 

After being a game time decision, he got the green light for Game 6 and boy did he deliver.

 

He had five points last game, he won Game 4 in overtime and he did it again tonight, getting the OT winner to send the Cats to the second round.

 

Verhaeghe had 12 points in round one, he was the best player on the ice all series, for both teams.

 

Remember the name, Carter Verhaeghe.

The power play woes continue 

Florida’s powerplay entered the game 0-16 in the series. They finished the series 0-18. 

 

They are the only team in the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs to not score at least once on the power play. All other 15 teams have at least two goals on the power play. 

 

The Cats only had two chances on the power play tonight, striking out on both. 

 

Washington’s penalty killers didn’t have to do much short handed. Even with extended zone time on the PP for Florida, most of the puck movement was to the outside of the circles. The Capitals didn’t have to break their box PK setup since there was rarely any movement between the hash marks by the Panthers. 

 

It’s extremely impressive the Panthers won a series without scoring once on the power play.

Next man up, activate the Lomberghini  

Anthony Duclair has struggled this postseason, not recording a single goal through the first five games of the series. 

 

As a result, he watched the game from the press box tonight as Ryan Lomberg jumped into the lineup. 

 

Lomberg hasn’t appeared in a playoff game since Game 1, being a healthy scratch in the last four. 

 

The Lomberghini didn’t waste his opportunity to shine after getting the nod in Game 6. 

 

With the Panthers being down 1-0 early in the second, the Cats got a jump off the rush and fired a shot off the pad of Ilya Samsonov. Lomberg crashed the net hard and fired the rebound past the Capitals goalie, tying the game up. 

 

He got his chance and capitalized.

 

Ekblad and Chiarot battle through early injury scares 

The Panthers started the game with six defenseman and finished with six, however, there was a time in the first period where they only had four defenseman (two on ice, two on the bench) after a pair of injury scares to their top pair. 

 

On the first shift of the game, Aaron Ekblad got run to the ice by Capitals’ captain Alex Ovechkin. Ekblad appeared to fall on his backside from the hit, he hobbled to the locker room after that. 

 

Later in the period, Ben Chiarot was taken into the boards by Garnet Hathaway; both players fell to the ice, with Hathaway landing on top of Chiarot’s leg. 

 

Both defenseman went to the dressing room at the end of the first period, leaving Panthers fans worried about the amount of healthy defenseman they’d have ready by the end of the intermission.  

 

Thankfully for Florida, both guys were back on the ice in the second and whatever was bothering them didn’t seem to affect their play. Ekblad was able to set up Claude Giroux for the 2-2 tying goal in the third period, getting the primary assist.

 

FINAL TAKEAWAY: Second round here they come.

Five Takeaways from Panthers comeback win in Game 5 over Capitals

SUNRISE – With the series tied heading into Game 5, Florida was back at home on Wednesday night at FLA Live Arena, looking to take a 3-2 series.

 

The Panthers went down in the game early, facing a 3-0 deficit, however, once again, the cardiac cats made the comeback, defeating the Capitals 5-3.

 

Here’s tonight’s takeaways. 

Carter Verhaeghe, the people’s champion

 

Carter Verhaeghe has been the best Panther skater through the first four games of this series and it continued in Game 5. 

 

If it wasn’t for his second period contributions, the Panther’s would not have been in the game.

 

The Catas were down 3-0 and life was sucked out of the building. It seemed like it was going to be a repeat of the 6-1 Game 3 blow out. With the Panthers’ looking like they were about to cave, number 23 finally got them on the board.

 

Verhaeghe didn’t stop there; he picked up two assists after the goal, bringing the game to a 3-3 tie. 

 

He wasn’t done there. 3:04 into the third, Swaggy scored again, blowing the roof off FLA Live Arena. Florida took a 4-3 lead. 

 

The man of the night wasn’t done, slipping a beautiful pass to Claude Giroux. G didn’t waste his golden chance, burying his second goal of the playoffs, giving Florida a 5-3 lead. 

 

Welcome to the Carter Verhaeghe show, hockey fans. 

The power play continues to struggle

 

Talking about this power play is like beating a dead horse. Once again the Panthers had their chances on the power play and once again they struck out. 

 

Luckily they once again found a way to get a favorable result despite striking out on special teams, going 0-for-3 on the man advantage. 

 

They are 0-for-16 through five games. 

 

Imagine how many goals this team would score if they could capitalize on the man advantage. Until Friday…

The Comeback Cats didn’t fold

 

When a team is down three goals, there’s a good chance they aren’t coming back, unless that team is the Florida Panthers. 

 

The Cats were down 3-0 early in the second period, all life seemed to be sucked out of the building. The Capitals continued to push, dominating zone possession with the three goal lead. Florida on the other hand was panicking. They couldn’t catch a pass, their defensive zone coverage was subpar; they looked like they were going to get blown out. 

 

We mentioned earlier, the Carter Verhaeghe effect. He was that small jolt of life the team and crowd needed. The second his first goal found twine, you could feel the energy slowly pick up. 

 

When the Panthers cut the lead to one, you couldn’t hear the person sitting next to you speak and the Panthers fed off that. Instantly the forechecks got faster, the plays got smarter, the boys were buzzing. 

 

You could feel the comeback was looming… and it did. 

 

Florida tied the game. 

Sergei Bobrovsky turned it up in the clutch

 

Bobrovsky has been the man who has kept Florida in games all series. Tonight, he didn’t let three early goals deter his performance down the stretch. 

 

A desperate Washington team turned it on late in the third period, down one goal. Bob was the brick wall standing in their way, stopping his last 20 shots faced, many coming from the front of the net in the third. 

 

The Cats got their goals, their goalie got his saves in the clutch. The team heads to Washington with a 3-2 series lead. 

South Florida is a hockey market


Sunrise Florida sold out their third straight Stanley Cup Playoff game, 20,023 in attendance.  

 

This arena was bouncing from the second the gates opened. When Giroux scored the fifth goal of the game, every person in the arena screamed at the top of their lungs.

 

A good team brings a wanted product to the market and that’s what the Panthers have shown this season. 

 

We said home ice would be huge in the playoffs for the Panthers and tonight, the crowd proved that in the comeback win.

 

More success will bring the fans coming back for more and with a chance to win the series on Friday, believe the Cats fans are ready for more playoff hockey.

Panthers vs Capitals: First round preview

The regular season has finally ended. With the playoff match-ups set, the real season is about to begin. It will be Panthers vs Capitals in round one. Each playoff team in the Eastern Conference finished with more than 100 points on the season for the first time in history. Because of that, this may end up being the most competitive first round in recent memory. Despite this being the 1-8 match-up, both teams will need to earn this win. This is how the two teams stack up.

Panthers vs Capitals: Forwards

For Panthers vs Capitals, the forward battle really is strength vs strength. Any conversation about the Capitals’ forward corps begins with Alexander Ovechkin. The 36-year-old winger shows no signs of slowing down, as he notched his ninth 50 goal season in 2022. For the Panthers, he should be their primary defensive focus. Easier said than done of course, but containing the Great 8 is the key to a series win. Ovechkin has shown this year he can still win a series for a team. Although he is coming into the playoffs banged up, it should not hold him out of the series. The Panthers need to play him physically and knock him off of his preferred spots, specifically that left circle. The Panthers must also account for forwards Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson. Both finished the season with 24 goals, but present completely different challenges. Kuznetsov centers the first line with Ovechkin, the 28-year-old is a skilled play-maker and excels at getting Ovi the puck in his favored spots. The game plan against him should be similar to the game plan many teams deploy against Huberdeau: cut off the passing lanes and dare him to shoot. Not that Kuznetsov is a bad shooter, but his preference would be to pass. As for Tom Wilson, he plays opposite Ovechkin and his role is to intimidate. The bruiser has a reputation for dirty hits and foul play. He loves to get to the dirty areas of the ice and use his 6’4″ frame to bully his way into goals. The Panthers will need to be physical with Wilson, and keep him on the outside of the ice where he can be neutralized. The old guards for Washington, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie, have both had cursed seasons. Both played a huge role in their 2018 Stanley Cup win, but have been plagued with injuries this season. Despite their age, the talent remains for both these players and both bring the type of playoff experience that cannot be quantified. Undeniably, this team has offensive depth. More so, the depth has cup experience. Their one weakness as a group is that most of their forwards do not have a great two way game. That is one area the Panthers can exploit with their plethora of two way guards.

Panthers vs Capitals: Defense

While not the strength for either team, neither defense should be taken lightly. The Capitals most highly-regarded defenseman is John Carlson. He quarterbacks their power play and has a knack for setting up the offense with 54 assists on the year. However, for a number one defenseman, his play in his own zone leaves much to be desired. The 32-year-old does not have the foot speed or strength he once did to keep opposing players away from the net. He should be attacked at every opportunity in an attempt to wear him out. Their defensive depth, on the other hand, may be one of the more underrated groups in the league. Trevor van Riemsdyk has been one of the best shutdown bottom pair defensemen for quite some time now. Dmitry Orlov has an extremely strong two-way game. Justin Schultz is not having his best year, but has been very effective in the past. That defensive depth may be an area of concern for the Panthers. It will be tougher to score against this bottom four than most. Generating offense has never been a problem for the Panthers this season, but this group will not give up good looks often.

Panthers vs Capitals: Goaltending

Much like the Panthers, the Capitals biggest question mark is their goaltending. Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov have split the games fairly evenly this season, but Vanecek is the likely starter based on his numbers this season. He has a save percentage of .908 and a GAA of 2.67. Those numbers are far better than Samsonov’s, but still not great for a playoff goaltender. His negative goals saved above expected (-5.4) also suggests he does not provide enough of a presence during the playoffs. Goaltending may end up proving to be the Achilles heel for both these teams. Even with Bobrovsky’s inconsistency, he has greatly outperformed Vanecek this season. With the way the Panthers generate offense, it will take elite goaltending to slow them down, and Vanecek is far from elite.

Final Prediction

Washington is no cakewalk. Their potent offense and playoff experience confirm they will not be broken easily. Still, I do not think they do enough to counteract the Panthers’ strengths. It’ll be the Florida Panthers in six games.  

***This article was originally published on the ATB Network by Samuel Schettrit***

  Hussam Patel is a Miami Dolphins contributor and Lead NFL Draft analyst at Five Reasons Sports Network, Director of Scouting at PhinManiacs and Editor at Dolphins ATB. Follow him on Twitter at @HussamPatel

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Meaningful May in Miami Sports is Here

May is setting up to be a memorable month in Miami sports.

It’s an exciting time as May ushers in multiple post-season series for Miami sports fans.

The East in both the NBA and NHL runs through South Florida.

Hell, even the Marlins are giving us hope (for now).

 

Not to mention a great end to the week with the Miami Grand Prix at Hard Rock Stadium.

 

The Miami Heat and Florida Panthers will each be in the spotlight this week.

Starting Monday the Heat and Panthers alternate game nights, including four consecutive South Florida home contests.

These are two teams that are stylistically different yet similarly effective, these matchups offer something for everyone.

Heat match up with Sixers in East semifinals

The Heat begin the second round of the NBA Playoffs against a weakened Philadelphia 76ers squad.

 

Without Embiid for the time being, this becomes a drastically different series.

Philadelphia will need more offense from James Harden, who averaged just 14 points-per-game versus Miami this season.

The Heat want teams to try and beat them from beyond the arc, and in this matchup Philadelphia will likely oblige.

That may not always work out for Miami as Philadelphia shot 40.8% from deep in the opening round.

The emergence of Tyrese Maxey has given the Sixers another option on the perimeter.

Maxey has played well in the playoffs and against Miami (21.3 PPG), how the Heat defend him could be a key to the series.

Is the the Panthers’ year?

Across the county line in Broward, the high-flying Florida Panthers open their post-season Tuesday against Washington.

Fresh off their first ever Presidents’ Trophy for the NHL’s best record, expectations are at an all-time high for the Panthers.

 

Unlike their colleagues on Biscayne, the Panthers are not terribly worried about defense.

The Panthers simply attack and overwhelm opposing teams with line after line of skill.

 

Washington played the Panthers tough this year; each game was decided by a single goal with the Cats winning two out of three.

The status of Alex Ovechkin is something to watch as he missed the final three games of the regular season with an upper body injury.

Ovechkin has never missed a playoff game due to injury, and if he is close to healthy expect the NHL’s third all-time leading goal scorer to play.

The Panthers have two superstars in Sasha Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau, who just led the NHL in assists.

No team scored more goals or took more shots than the Panthers, with any semblance of goaltending the Cats should advance easily.

So relax, crack open a Biscayne Bay Brew, and enjoy this week for the ages Miami sports fans!

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Florida Panthers clinch No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference

SUNRISE – The Florida Panthers have officially clinched the first seed in the Eastern Conference for the first time in franchise history on Thursday night. 

After a 5-2 home win over the Detroit Red Wings earlier in the night, Florida had to wait for the Tampa – Toronto game to go final before they could be named the first seed for the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Toronto’s loss to Tampa was enough for Florida to lock up the top seed with five games left in the regular season. Alongside the first seed, they are also the 2021-2022 Atlantic Division Champions. 

Florida will have home ice for the entirety of the Eastern Conference side of the 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs.

The Panthers currently sit atop the NHL standings with 118 points in 77 games. The Colorado Avalanche is the only team that can catch Florida for the President’s Trophy, they sit atop the Western Conference and second in the NHL with 116 points in 77 games.

As the first seed, Florida will play the second wild card team in the East in the first round.

The Stanley Cup Playoffs are set to begin on May 2.

Florida Panthers Defense showing signs of improvement

Credit: FloridaPanthersPR

Following Florida’s 7-6 comeback win over Toronto on April 5, most fans felt nothing but elation. For the Panthers themselves, that game marked a need for change. The Florida Panthers defense had been struggling mightily in the first eight games Aaron Ekblad missed due to injury, and that game marked the tipping point for the team’s coaching staff.

After the game against Toronto, head coach Andrew Brunette mentioned the need for stronger defensive showings. He knows the importance of a formidable defense in the playoffs. With the regular season winding down, the team needed to begin to shut down their opponents. Even with Ekblad presumably returning for the playoffs, the team needed defensive answers with the current group.

In the four games since that shift, the team has allowed only seven goals. Excluding the first period against Buffalo, the team surrendered only four goals in the past 11 periods of hockey. That impressive turnaround can be attributed to several factors which have re-energized the Florida Panthers defense.

New Florida Panthers Defensive Pairings

One change Bruno implemented with the Florida Panthers defense was to change up the pairings. For these combinations, Bruno decided to pair strength with strength. He paired offensive defensemen Gustav Forsling and Brandon Montour together, as well as physical defensemen Robert Hagg and Radko Gudas.

These changes create some interesting wrinkles for opponents. The high-powered offensive duo have used their collective speed to grab the puck and push it out of their own zone. In the past four games the pair each have four points (Forsling 3g 1a, Montour 0g 4a.)

Conversely, Hagg and Gudas use their physical nature to shut down opposing chances. Because neither are offensively gifted, the team opts for a separation of responsibilities when they come on the ice. Indeed, the duo disrupts all opposing chances and the forwards do the heavy lifting on offense. So far, it has worked to perfection. In the 27 minutes of the Hagg-Gudas pairing thus far, the tandem boasts a remarkable 72.4 expected goals percentage.

Improved Goalie Play

Of course, none of this would be possible without the goalies. Both Sergei Bobrovsky and Spencer Knight have given amazing performances this past week. Bob was 3-0-0 with a 0.931 save percentage while Knight stopped 24 of 25 shots and won his lone appearance.

Specifically, this last start for Bobrovsky stands out. Against Winnipeg, Bobrovsky stopped 30 of 31 shots. He finished with a goals saved above expected of 1.43. After a horrible couple of starts against New Jersey and Toronto, these games have meaning. They help build confidence and rhythm going into the playoffs. Bobrovsky will likely be the team’s starting goalie come playoffs, and his play can make or break the cup run.

However, if Bobrovsky’s inconsistency proves to be Florida’s weakness in the playoffs, the team should feel encouraged about Spencer Knight’s progress. Knight played one of the best games in his career against Nashville last week. He finished with 1.45 goals saved above expected, which brought his total number for the year into the positive.

After a terrible start to the year, Knight has given the team very consistent play in net. While he likely won’t be the starter, he will end up in net at some point come the playoffs.

New Additions Getting Comfortable

When looking back at the terrible two-week defensive stretch, it is clear that working in some new additions played a part in it. Earlier this year, Sam Reinhart discussed the difficulties of getting acclimated to Florida’s unique system. After 15 games, he became one of the teams best players. His slow start was quickly forgotten by fans and media alike.

The same should have been expected of the deadline acquisitions, namely Ben Chairot and Roberg Hagg. We talked earlier about Hagg finding his fit with Gudas, and the same could be said for Chairot. Now spending his time with Weegar, the two increased their expected goals percentage together from 55% to 62%. Chairot also has two assists over his last four games.

With the chemistry this Florida Panthers defense gained in the past week, the team may have solved its biggest problem. If the team regains its strong defensive play AND adds Aaron Ekblad going into the playoffs, they instantly become the team to beat. Indeed, the ceiling is high, but the team needs to make tweaks in these last few games more than most in their position.

*** This story was originally published on the ATB Network by Sam Schetritt***

Aaron Ekblad Injury Leaves a Crater on the Panthers’ Blue Line

 

Ask anyone what this Panthers season has been about, they’ll tell you the offense. And rightfully so. This forward group has put together the greatest offensive season since Mario Lemieux’s Penguins. However, the player who should be considered the MVP of their season is Aaron Ekblad.

While the offense hummed, Ekblad stabilized the back end. He allowed this team to be more than your typical run-and-gun shootout team; he made them dominant. This most recent Aaron Ekblad injury shows his importance to this team, and why he will need to come back if the Panthers want to have any chance at winning the cup.

Defensive numbers faltering

Since the Aaron Ekblad injury against Anaheim on March 18, the Panthers have gone 7-1-0. Certainly not the mark of a team feeling the absence of a star player, but the underlying numbers tell a different story.

Prior to Ekblad’s departure, the Panthers gave up 2.84 goals per game, a top-10 defensive ranking (Vancouver currently ranks 10th in the league with 2.84 GA/GP.) In the eight games he’s missed, the team is giving up 3.75 goals per game. This mark would have them 30th, ahead of only bottom feeders Montreal and Detroit.

They managed to hold their opponent under three goals only once in those eight games, and they have surrendered six twice. These eight games increased their goals against average from 2.84 to 2.94, which ranks 14th.

The Panthers have a historically great offense and, with Ekblad, a strong enough defense to force any opponents to work hard for their goals. That is what makes them special. Without him, games have shown to be more or less a shootout. Sure, the comebacks are fun, but we have to wonder why this team falls behind so frequently. For the Panthers to have success in the playoffs, their defense needs to be formidable. That hinges on an Ekblad return.

Defensive pairs do not work without him

Obviously, losing a Norris Trophy candidate would make any team’s defense worse. However, for the Panthers specifically, there is simply no viable replacement for him. The Panthers were hoping trade deadline acquisition Ben Chairot would be able to eat up much Ekblad’s defensive responsibilities, but he has disappointed thus far.

Of course, it would have been unreasonable to expect for him to duplicate Ekblad’s production, but his lack of a natural fit on the roster raises concerns. Over the eight games Chairot has played, he has been paired with both Mackenzie Weegar and Radko Gudas. When paired with Weegar, the two give up 4.56 goals against per 60 minutes. With Gudas, the pair surrenders a slightly better 3.7 goals against per 60 minutes. Obviously, the small sample size should be noted, but the eye test backs the numbers up.

Unlike the offensive core, the defensive players have not shown the ability to step up when a star goes down. When Barkov missed six weeks, players such as Jonathan Huberdeau, Sam Reinhart, and Anthony Duclair all took advantage of increased opportunities to make sure the offense stayed level.

When Ekblad went out, it has been up to the offense to score even more goals. To be clear, all of Florida’s defensemen have shown to be more than capable in their roles, but not out of them. For them to go back to their roles, Ekblad must return for the playoffs.

Special teams slumping

One underrated loss for the Panthers since the Aaron Ekblad injury has been the loss of their special teams maestro. A fixture on both the power play and the penalty kill, Ekblad’s presence has been missed on both. The penalty kill has stopped 19 of 27 opponent chances over the last eight games, a 70% success rate.

That mark would be last in the league over a full season. This also includes giving up multiple power play goals in three of the eight games. Simply not good enough for a cup contender.

The same is true for the power play unit. Despite its many admirers, the five forward power play the Panthers have been using recently has some inherent weaknesses. Namely, the increased likelihood of surrendering shorthanded goals. Over the past eight games, the Panthers have given up two shorthanded goals at crucial junctures in the game, and should be thankful they have yet to give up more.

The Panthers may still choose to experiment with five forwards on the power play in the playoffs. Their unique collection of talent affords them that opportunity. Still, they miss the option of a reliable two-way defenseman out there as a security blanket.

Aaron Ekblad is one of the best defensemen in the league. Of course, the team needs him for their best shot at a deep playoff run. Over these last few games, it has become increasingly clear what his absence truly means to this team. It takes them from genuine cup contender to another high variance team. The kind of team that flames out in the playoffs. After years of heartache, that is the last thing this franchise needs.

 

*** This story was originally published on the ATB Network by Samuel Schetritt ***

 

Hussam Patel is a Miami Dolphins contributor and Lead NFL Draft analyst at Five Reasons Sports Network, Director of Scouting at PhinManiacs and Editor at Dolphins ATB. Follow him on Twitter at @HussamPatel

 

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Panthers acquire Ben Chiarot from Montreal, Trade Frank Vatrano to Rangers

The Florida Panthers got an early jump on NHL trade deadline week with a pair of trades on Wednesday afternoon.

 

Earlier in the day, Florida sent long-time Panther forward, Frank Vatrano, to the New York Rangers in exchange for a fourth-round pick in 2022.

 

This trade cleared over $2.5M in cap space for the Panthers, giving them more flexibility to add another player prior to the March 21 trade deadline.

 

Florida wasted no time getting their guy as they made another trade Wednesday night, acquiring defenseman Ben Chiarot from the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for prospect Ty Smilanic, a first-round pick in 2023 and a fourth-round pick in 2022.

 

Montreal is retaining half of Chiarot’s $3.5M cap hit for this season. Chiarot will be a Unrestricted Free Agent this summer.

 

With the acquisition of Chiarot, Florida gets a left-shot defenseman that can slot anywhere in their top-six. Chiarot, 30, helped Montreal to a Stanley Cup Finals appearance last year. The 6’3, 234-pound blue liner has played in 469 career NHL games. He has appeared in 56 playoff games with Montreal and Winnipeg.

 

Multiple reports have also said that this trade does not take Florida out of the running for Philadelphia Flyers captain Claude Giroux.

According to David Dwork of WPLGLocal10, a Giroux to Florida trade is ” still very much a possibility, per source.”

 

Giroux is expected to be traded prior to the deadline, he is set to play in his 1,000 NHL game tomorrow.