The Cardiac Cats had their hearts ripped out—and to make matters worse, archrival Tampa Bay Lightning did too.
The Florida Panthers entered the Stanley Cup Playoffs as Presidents’ Trophy winners and were a serious contender for winning the franchise’s first-ever championship. But the postseason proved a different beast and after facing a tougher than expected test from Washington in the first round, the Panthers dwindled against the Lightning. So what happened?
The most obvious answer is “Andrei Vasilevskiy”. The Tampa Bay superstar goaltender reminded everyone of what he’s capable of as he kept stoned the Panthers after playing little in the first round against Toronto (but of course Vasilevskiy saved the best for last by scoring beat the Maple Leafs stone cold in Game 7).
Thanks to his 49 saves in last night’s 2-0 win, Vasilevskiy now holds the NHL record for series-defining shutouts with six, overtaking Chris Osgood and Clint Benedict. He stopped everything against the Panthers and it wasn’t due to a lack of effort on Florida’s part.
That being said, the Panthers had the best offense in the NHL going into the playoffs, and scoring three goals in a four-game streak is just unacceptable — especially when you have players like Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov in your lineup. Tampa Bay’s strategy of pinning the Cats in the neutral zone clearly worked as Florida were unable to handle the onslaught like they typically did during the regular season. Write that to a veteran Lightning coaching staff led by Jon Cooper and buy in from the players. The Panthers had to make adjustments this series, and unfortunately the casualties were piling up too quickly for that lesson to be learned.
There was also the power play of Florida, who seemed to be on holiday in the playoffs, scoring just one goal in 31 tries in 10 games. Even now, credit has to be given to Tampa Bay’s penalty killers for blocking shots, getting on the lanes and generally making life difficult for Florida’s power play, but at the end of the day you have to get results. Falling flat with the man advantage against both Washington and Tampa Bay points to a problem.
Cruel enough, the Panthers could learn a lot from their upstate cousins. If you want to get deep into the playoffs, if you want to win everything, you have to make sacrifices. The Bolts threw their bodies all over the ice in this series, knowing that bruises heal and hoping none of the important bones are broken. More of that from Florida might have helped her cause.
But for the Cats it’s all done now. And while a back-to-back loss to the defending champion is both understandable and disappointing, Florida needs to move on.
The hard part now is going to be getting everything up and running again next year. Once again, the Panthers will likely have to go through two other top East teams to get out of the division (Tampa and Toronto), and Florida will have to do so under a tight cap situation.
As it stands now, the Panthers only have around $4 million to play with this summer and a number of spots to fill. Well-deserved contract extensions for Barkov and Carter Verhaeghe come into effect next season and eat up some bucks, while Sergei Bobrovsky’s $10 million stipend looms large as ever.
On one side of the ledger, it’s almost impossible to imagine the deadline acquisition and impending retention of UFA Claude Giroux, while fellow newbie and UFA Ben Chiarot failed to improve the blueline in his short stint at Sunrise. Noel Acciari and Mason Marchment also need new deals, so something’s gotta come up.
If there’s one positive aspect to Florida’s situation, it’s that center Anton Lundell has had a very strong rookie campaign and with continued growth (ie avoiding the dreaded “second break”) Baby Barkov would bring tremendous value to the Panthers while he is still trading at an entry level.
There must be other deductions, however, and that’s what GM Bill Zito will do for a living.
Right now it must be painful for Florida fans who had a very fun ride during the regular season and have a strong team to cheer for going forward. But the Cats need to learn from that streak if they want to progress next season.