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Will Panthers' regular-season dominance translate to playoffs?

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It’s a 270-mile drive from Sunrise, Fla., to Tampa Bay, so it’s not only unwise to suggest that the Panthers’ dominant regular season was cast in the shadow of the Lightning’s supremacy, it’s also geographically incorrect.

Florida was projected to push the three established powers in the Atlantic Division this year. Instead, the Panthers shattered any ceilings cast upon them entirely, becoming the first team to average more than four goals per game since the 1995-96 Pittsburgh Penguins. The Panthers aced both the eye test and analytics test alike, conjuring up one key question: will Florida’s regular-season excellence translate to the playoffs?

Any discussion of the Panthers often begins with their two Hart Trophy candidates, Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov. Huberdeau’s 85 assists are the most by a left-winger in a single season, and he’s arguably been the NHL’s most inventive playmaker this year. This breakdown by JFreshHockey of Huberdeau’s performance against the Toronto Maple Leafs on April 5 is an excellent showcase of his offensive wizardry.

There are two things that stand out when watching Huberdeau’s game tape: he’s made a concerted effort to cut through the middle of the ice, allowing him to survey the ice in high-danger areas before distributing the puck with ease, and though he can beat you with highlight-reel, behind-the-back dishes, he is most effective at cross-ice passes from the top of the faceoff circle.

Barkov is the focal point of the Panthers' 1A line and he’s lifted Carter Verhaeghe and Anthony Duclair’s games to new heights. Florida’s captain is perhaps the best player in the league at generating instant offense from turnovers, although his linemate Verhaeghe bested him at takeaways in 5-on-5 scenarios. Barkov’s 39 goals are a career-high and though Patrice Bergeron will likely take back the Selke this spring, he’s still among the most complete players in hockey while being capable of jaw-droppers like this.

Florida is far greater than a two-man team, and its strength in numbers may be its defining asset entering the playoffs, with 13 players scoring more than 10 goals. Claude Giroux was acquired at the deadline, providing the Panthers with another established star who can score prolifically during the playoffs. Verhaeghe was once seen as a cast-off, but he’s become a reliable secondary contributor with quietly elite defensive contributions. Anthony Duclair, Sam Bennett and Mason Marchment were also once regarded as afterthoughts for other clubs, but the Panthers saw their best qualities and have allowed them to play to their strengths. It’s tempting to draw overarching conclusions after one season, but the Panthers may be where second chances come alive.

This is a frightening team in the sense that no lead is ever safe. Just ask the Maple Leafs and Devils. In one of the best games of the season, the Panthers came back from a 5-1 deficit against the Maple Leafs (maybe not the best barometer of maintaining leads, but alas) on April 5. Three nights prior, the Panthers overcame a 6-2 hole against the New Jersey Devils to win by an identical 7-6 scoreline. Florida scored in every regular season game and there’s been no way to silence the offense, especially as it comes in flurries.

Aaron Ekblad’s status hangs over the start of the series against Washington and if he’s in the lineup, the Panthers have yet another gear. Ekblad was in the thick of the Norris Trophy race before suffering a leg injury on March 18. Panthers interim head coach Andrew Brunette said there’s a chance Ekblad plays Game 1, so for the sake of the article, we’ll assume he suits up.

During Ekblad’s 61 games, the Panthers held a whopping 62 percent share of goals scored when he was on the ice at 5-on-5. Ekblad was averaging nearly a point per game prior to his injury and his offensive contributions will be counted upon, even if the Panthers are the deepest offensive team in the NHL this year.

The Panthers carved up the rest of the NHL during the regular season. (Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images)
The Panthers carved up the rest of the NHL during the regular season. (Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images)

Perhaps even more remarkably, Ekblad’s defense partner, MacKenzie Weegar, may have been equally stellar in 2022. Weegar’s raw numbers aren’t going to blow you away, with eight goals and 44 points in 80 games, but his 58 takeaways at 5-on-5 rank fifth in the league.

The Ekblad-Weegar combination may have been the best pairing in the league — we won’t stop you from arguing in favour of Colorado’s Cale Makar-Devon Toews partnership — but they controlled 57 percent of the shot attempts and 61 percent of the goals scored at 5-on-5 during the season. Weegar, a 28-year-old right-shot defenseman is the type of player that every general manager dreams of and he’s likely the most underrated player in the league. That ought to change soon.

Florida finished first in Corsi For (56.36%), Fenwick For (56.06%), high-danger goals for (127) and second to Boston in expected goals for at 5-on-5 (55.88%) while leading the league with 340 goals. They’ve displayed the anatomy of not just a contender, but a veritable powerhouse. Is there any correlation that their regular-season shot-creation and possession metrics will transfer to the postseason?

Hmmmm. Throughout the past seven years, the Corsi For leader has been as likely to advance past the first round as they are to miss the playoffs entirely. This admittedly could be a strawman on my behalf, but there’s some random variation to be accounted for during the playoffs and the Panthers posted a PDO north of the 1.000 mark, indicating that they’ve benefited from some shooting and goaltending luck throughout the 2021-22 campaign.

Goaltending is the most important element of a deep playoff run and it may be what holds the Panthers back from lifting the Cup. There are times where Sergei Bobrovsky looks like the world’s best goalie, and there are times where he looks like a sub-NHL-calibre performer. Moderation has never been the strong suit of the two-time Vezina winner, whose form has fluctuated wildly on a month-by-month basis.

Despite his up-and-down run of play, Bobrovsky still finished with 3.9 wins above replacement, the fourth-best total among goaltenders, via MoneyPuck. Spencer Knight can spell Bobrovsky if he’s on the downswing of his rollercoaster and though the 21-year-old played well throughout his rookie year, the Panthers likely want to keep him on the bench unless required.

Florida’s regular-season credentials are well-established now: they shot the lights out at a rate that no team has throughout this century, and could be getting Ekblad back just in time for the playoffs. They are in many ways the perfect marriage of the eye test and analytics test.

Recent history has proved that being a regular-season juggernaut and being a playoff powerhouse are two different things. Now it’s on the Panthers to prove this season wasn’t just a sun-kissed dream.

*All advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick unless noted otherwise.

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