Stanley Cup Final Preview: Florida Panthers

The Florida Panthers pose with the Prince of Wales Trophy after sweeping the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference Final.
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

In just one more day, a historic Stanley Cup Final will take place. The Florida Panthers and Vegas Golden Knights will do battle in a best-of-seven series to crown the 2023 Stanley Cup champion. This Panthers team has worked miracle after miracle en route to one of the most storybook runs to the Stanley Cup Final ever.

This is just the second time the Florida Panthers have gone to the Stanley Cup Final in their 29-year history. A franchise that has only made the playoffs nine times in almost three decades has a chance at eternal glory. How will they get it done?

How they got here

The stars aligned for the Florida Panthers. This team did not have a winning streak of three games or more until February 9th. They even had a four-game losing streak at the end of March… but this team started winning again. The Panthers won six in a row and had a seven-game point streak to end the season, but they finished off at 92 standings points. Florida needed help to get in, and they got it from an unlikely friend from up north.

If that does not happen, the Panthers are on their collective couches right now and perhaps watching the Bruins playing right now instead of them. Speaking of the Bruins, that team had the Panthers on the ropes. The Panthers were down three games to one against a team that shattered history.

Had Brad Marchand scored on this breakaway, Linus Ullmark not coughed up the puck in overtime, or Brandon Montour not scored a goal that TNT unintentionally prophesized, the Panthers would be at home right now. Instead, Carter Verhaeghe lifted the Panthers to the second round. Since going down 3-1 in the series against Boston, the Panthers have won 11 of 12. They eliminated the Toronto Maple Leafs in five games and swept the Carolina Hurricanes afterward to punch their ticket to the Stanley Cup Final in dramatic fashion.

This Panthers team is one of destiny. Of the 16 games the Panthers have played in these playoffs, ten of them were decided by one goal. They’ve won nine of them. All four games in the Carolina series were one-goal affairs, including a quadruple-overtime thriller. Heroes have emerged, namely Matthew Tkachuk.

This trade was one of the biggest blockbusters in recent memory for the NHL. The Panthers traded away their then-all-time points leader Jonathan Huberdeau, analytical darling defenseman MacKenzie Weegar, and multiple top draft picks to acquire, then sign Tkachuk. Right now, it looks to the Panthers they made the right decision.

Tkachuk hasn’t been the lone contributor, though. Players like Verhaeghe, Sam Reinhart, captain Aleksander Barkov, Sam Bennett, and Anthony Duclair have forged an imposing top six that gives every team fits. Brandon Montour has emerged as a purely offensive defenseman. Starting goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky has put up historic numbers in the playoffs. Everything has gone right for the Florida Panthers.

What will win them the Cup?

The aforementioned top six and goaltender will make or break this series for the Panthers, though Reinhart typically plays on the third line. Those skaters have been the guys to score most of the big goals for Florida, so if they can keep producing this series could end quicker than expected.

Bobrovsky’s maintaining form will be of utmost importance as well. He leads all goaltenders in the playoffs with 17.29 goals saved above expected (GSAx) at even strength per Evolving-Hockey. A vice Vegas falls into often is putting lots of shots on the net but barely scoring on any of those shots. If he maintains Vezina form, Florida may be destined for the Cup.

What will lose them the series?

As good as the top six is for Florida, their depth (or lack thereof) will need to step up if the stars do not. Discounting Sam Reinhart, the Panthers’ bottom six has accounted for only eight of the 50 goals scored. This will particularly come into play against a Vegas team that can roll all four lines with ease.

Another significant question will be whether the Panthers’ unreal ability to win one-goal games keeps up. Seeing a team win that many one-goal games makes it feel like something has to give. The only question is will something actually give? This year, the Calgary Flames missed the playoffs solely by losing one-goal games (30 losses, to be exact). Perhaps the Panthers banking on the inverse will work out.

Lastly, the Panthers have a fairly exploitable blue line. Of all defense pairings in the playoffs that have played 120 minutes or more, the pairing of Montour and Marc Staal has posted the second-worst expected goals-for percentage (xGF%) with 43.8%, per Moneypuck. The top pairing of Aaron Ekblad and Gustav Forsling has an xGF% of 49.1%, meaning two of three defense pairings are below even. Can Bobrovsky keep his team’s defense out of trouble for four more games?

Will they win the Stanley Cup?

As incredible of a story the Panthers have woven has been, it seems obvious to pick them to win. Alas, it is not meant to be. Vegas’ team depth is just too strong to discount. Just about anybody on that team can play their role to perfection, even two-time Cup-winner Phil Kessel. The Panthers have a dynamite top six, but the bottom six leaves too much to be desired.

Regardless of how this series goes, the Panthers should be proud of this playoff run. Not only is this the furthest the team has gone into the playoffs, but the new publicity gained from this run will only grow the fanbase. The past decade has been prosperous for hockey in Florida and runs like these will only help that growth.

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