The Next Big Rivalry: What to Make of the Florida Panthers

(From left to right) MacKenzie Weegar, Noel Acciari and Jonathan Huberdeau celebrate a goal. While Huberdeau is a first line scorer, both Weegar and Acciari have thrived in depth and defensive roles.

The Tampa Bay Lightning repeated as Stanley Cup Champions in Amalie Arena with a cheering, sold-out crowd. Andrei Vasilevskiy was named most valuable player in the playoffs. Nikita Kucherov was intoxicated ten minutes after hoisting the trophy on ice. As much as it pains some folks to admit, Montreal wasn’t the toughest team the Lightning faced in the playoffs. Fans and analysts alike wondered, talked on and shared views on who they thought gave the back-to-back champions their hardest fight.

Keith Jones opened up the topic post-game saying Florida was by far Tampa’s toughest series. He wasn’t alone in this thinking.

Analysts Bill Lindsay and Mark Parrish agreed. Lindsay discussed Florida’s offensive pressure (minus game six) giving Vasilevskiy trouble and engaging the Lightning in multiple fights early to stay edgy. Parrish gave credit to coach Joel Quenneville for offensive growth and capitalizing on Vasilevskiy’s one-on-one weaknesses.

The New York Islanders were close to reaching the finals and would have if Tampa wasn’t in the playoffs. Outside of them, the Florida Panthers are a top pick to reach and even win the cup finals in the next year or two. The offense is top five and they’ve accumulated some of the best coaching in the league.

After Quenneville’s first season, Bill Zito was hired as general manager to build a roster needing better defense. Adding Radko Gudas, Brandon Montour and Gustav Forsling were good starts. Zito added depth as physical and gritty as Tampa’s third and fourth line, signing Patric Hornqvist, Ryan Lomberg, Anthony Duclair and Mason Marchmant.

Florida’s Ryan Lomberg emerged as a possible star and pest when he fought most of Tampa’s roster this postseason, including the hard-hitting, former captain Ryan McDonagh.

Goaltending is a weak-spot, but it’s possible Zito’s found solutions. Before the pandemic, Sam Montembeault played like a draft steal with starter Sergei Bobrovsky faltering. While Chris Driedger was drafted by the expansion Seattle Kraken, Spencer Knight could compete for the starting spot. He’s the first goaltender born in the 21st century to win a regular and postseason game. His intensified focus in elimination games makes him play better.

The Panthers are mirroring the process Tampa Bay uses. A deep, offensively gifted roster, a physical and passionate third and fourth line and added depth on defense. Both teams are relocated back in the Atlantic division and face pressure to get back into the playoffs within a stacked eastern conference.

This figures to be what the Battle of Alberta was since both teams are two of the best in the league. Florida has ways to go before they can topple the Lightning, yet there are ways to accomplish this.

  • Better special teams: The biggest areas of improvement. Main talk centered on goaltending before Spencer Knight got the go in the playoffs, and Montembeault can further develop with Driedger gone. Fixing the penalty kill is a need. The lethal combination of Steven Stamkos on one end and a healthy Nikita Kucherov on the other overwhelmed the Panthers early and often. The absence of Aaron Ekblad is one reason, but the d-core of Weegar, Montour and Forsling need to step up (especially the latter two since they’re on a playoff team). On the other end, the power play for the Panthers was average at best in the regular season and held the team back in the playoffs. Florida’s power play numbers were abysmal going one-for-eight, zero-for-four, two-for-three, two-of-13, one-of-seven and zero-for-two in six games. Outside of the third game, that’s terrible for a team that’s top five in the league on offense. The power play is where Florida should excel when at least an extra man is on ice, not hurting them the longer a series goes.
  • Defense from star players: It’s something all teams go through with star players. How bad do Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and Frank Vatrano want to get past the Lightning and win a championship? This is what made Nikita Kucherov, the best player after winning league MVP in the 2018-19 season and Steven Stamkos, after scoring 50+ goals in three seasons evolve. The extra edge while keeping games high scoring is a step closer to getting past the defending champs.
One thing Florida must improve on are better fights earlier in games versus their state rival. It sets a different tone than wanting to fight at the end of games.
  • Better timed and consistent fighting: The first two games of the series were some of the best games in the first round and brought back memories of old-school hockey. The league doesn’t have a lot of that right now and the Panthers can use that as the winning formula moving forward. Game one resulted in four lead changes, four power play goals, 17 minor penalties, 34 penalty minutes, 79 shots on goal and one suspension. Florida won game five as a response from game four’s one-sided score, but that game four is a good contrast from game one. The fighting, penalties and even Anthony Duclair’s slash on Kucherov went too far and weren’t centered on competition. Playing more physical from game one when the series is even means more than dirty play trailing by four.
  • Staying reliable on offense: Florida’s offense was up and down the six game series. Usually a team consistently scoring an average of three or four goals a game, 14 of the 17 goals were scored in three games. They won two of those three. When they scored two or under, they lost the remaining three. Granted, Andrei Vasilevskiy wound up continuing his undefeated streak after losing one game (a major reason he won the playoff MVP trophy). The Panther offense had one game where they had under 30 shots at the net. Not every goal will be easy or clean to score, but they should feel good knowing there’s continued growth and consistency on offense to make them a true threat.

Everyone will look at the Islanders, New York Rangers and the Carolina Hurricanes as top teams to de-throne Tampa and make the cup finals. Those teams need to take Florida just as serious if not more since coach Quenneville’s team has yet to hit its peak.

Quarterback D’Eriq King becomes the first college athlete to sign a NIL deal with a pro sports team, choosing the Florida Panthers. The team is gaining popularity, something they haven’t had since the mid-1990s. Improved play and a rivalry with Tampa Bay should continue that trend.

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