Five Things That Could Derail The Panthers

Sitting atop the NHL standings, a lot has gone right for the Florida Panthers this season. They boast a 25-7-5 record while also having the best home record in the league at 20-3. We haven’t hit the halfway mark of the NHL season yet but the Panthers are looking like a playoff lock after 37 games.

While the team is currently playing their best hockey, is there anything that can stop them in their tracks?

Here are five things that can derail the Panthers.

#1 Road Play

It was already mentioned that the Panthers have an unbelievable record at home this season with only three losses in 23 games. On the flip side, the team hasn’t been great when they are away from FLA Live Arena. 

So far this season the Cats have a 5-4-5 record on the road, getting 15 of a possible 28 points over those games. 

Before we start talking about potential road playoff games, the Cats need to bring the same dominant performances they have shown at home on the road during the regular season. Towards the end of the year when the standings get tighter and the number of games starts to dwindle, snagging a few extra games on the road can make or break the top spot in the division. 

Speaking of the division, this leads us into our next point.

#2 Divisional Matchups

If you aren’t familiar with how the NHL Playoff format works, here is a quick rundown. 

Each conference has eight teams make the playoffs, meaning half the teams from the East and half from the West will be in the postseason. Each conference has two divisions, the Panthers are in the Atlantic Division, which is part of the Eastern Conference. The other division in the East is the Metropolitan. 

Each division has three teams that are guaranteed playoff spots, making that six spots between the two divisions. The remaining two playoff spots are the wildcard teams, which is made up of the two teams in that conference with the highest point total after the three divisional teams get in.  

At the end of the season, the winner of the Atlantic and the winner of the Metropolitan will take on the wildcard teams in the first-round, while the second and third place teams from each division will face each other in the first-round (Atlantic 2 vs. Atlantic 3, Metro 2 vs. Metro 3). 

The Atlantic Division is possibly the most competitive division in hockey this season with Florida, Tampa and Toronto all towards the top of the league standings, with Boston quickly creeping their way up.

Since the second and third place teams will meet each other in the opening round, there’s a chance Florida has to play Tampa, Toronto or Boston in their first playoff series if they don’t win the Atlantic.

Last season, Florida wasn’t able to get first place in their division and they ended up playing the reigning Stanley Cup Champions in the first round. If the Cats finished first place, they would have played Nashville in the first round, a team they went 5-2-1 against during 2020-2021.

If Florida gets first in the division there is a better chance they won’t have to run into the likes of Tampa (assuming the back-to-back champions finish top 3) in the first-round. If you don’t win your division, that first-round series is probably going to be a harder matchup compared to the wildcard team.

#3 Rookie Coach in the Playoffs

Interim head coach Andrew Brunette had a lot on his plate when he had to step in as this team’s coach at the end of October. He had to command the bench of an unbeaten team at the top of the NHL standings amidst the resignation of their former coach. 

There were some rough stretches during his first half of the season, but Brunette has posted a respectable 18-7-5 record as the interim coach and will be heading to Las Vegas to coach the Atlantic Division All Star team in February at the 2022 NHL All Star Game. 

Brunette is going to have a lot of pressure on his shoulders come playoff time and if the Panthers want to advance through the Eastern Conference, they are going to face teams with coaches who have either won Stanley Cups behind the bench like Tampa’s Jon Cooper and Pittsburgh’s Mike Sullivan or guys who have made deep playoff runs like Boston’s Bruce Cassidy and Carolina’s Rod Brind’Amour.

Brunette still has the interim coach tag, but assuming he is with the Panthers for the rest of this season, will his lack of head coaching experience catch up with him? 

#4 Defensive Depth

There is no question that Florida has one of, if not the best offense in the National Hockey League. The depth at the forward position is an embarrassment of riches for the Panthers. With a top-six that consists of Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, Anthony Duclair and company, rolling four lines hasn’t been a problem all season for the Cats and it shouldn’t be one for the rest of the year just based on who they can bring into the lineup on any given night.

My concern is the defensive depth for the Panthers. Last season we saw how Aaron Ekblad’s season-ending injury really hurt Florida in their playoff series against the Tampa Bay Lightning. While the rest of the d-corps stepped up following the loss of Ekblad, the team really missed their top d-man. 

This season with Ekblad and Weegar back on the top pair, the Cats have been shutting down their opposition on a nightly basis. 

The blueline has played well for most of the season and Bill Zito brought in some new faces to try and bolster up their defensive depth chart. But is this enough?

The foursome of Ekblad, Weegar, Montour and Forsling are solidified in my mind. Radko Gudas has continued his physical dominance this season and has played 35 of 37 games this year, while the sixth defenseman spot has seen a few different players step into the mix. The problem is, if one of these mentioned defenseman has to miss time, specifically in a playoff series, who is there to call? Lucas Carlsson has had his moments this year, Olli Juolevi has gotten a few games under his belt, you could look at some of the guys in the AHL, but the number of names you can call isn’t as prosperous as the forward unit. 

The Panthers have been rumored to be in the market to acquire a defenseman via the trade market, but until that happens, one injury could derail this blueline more than you think and that could hurt them when it matters most. 

#5 Goaltending Down the Stretch

Goaltending will always be the topic of discussion for the Panthers until they can win their first playoff series in over 25 years. Starting goalie Sergei Bobrovsky did not have a good postseason last year, as he lost his net multiple times in the first-round to both Chris Driedger and 20-year-old Spencer Knight . He was signed to an illustrious seven-year, $70M contract in 2019 to take this team to the next level and that didn’t happen last year.

This season Bobrovsky came out of the gates hot and has looked near the top of his game for most of the year. Currently in 26 starts he is 18-3-3, has a 2.49 GAA and a .921 save percentage. 

Bobrovsky has shown in the past that he can be the best in the world, he does have two Vezina trophies to his name. The question is, can he keep this play up in the postseason?

In the regular season the team has been lighting the lamp, however, the playoffs are a different animal. The games are tighter, scoring is usually lower and one bad bounce could cost you a game or a series. 

For now all is good in the net, but the real test has yet to come and the goaltending needs to be better than it was last year if the Panthers want to keep riding their hot hand and push on towards the Stanley Cup.

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