Improved Panthers Look Like Strong Stanley Cup Contenders
After a listless regular season, the Florida Panthers snuck into the playoffs as the final wildcard team last year and then upset Boston, Toronto and Carolina to reach the Stanley Cup Finals.
The momentum has carried into this season.
At the halfway point of the 2023-24 season, the Panthers had a 27-12-2 record and were on pace for 112 points — 20 more than last year, when they needed a late push to finish with 92 points.
In other words, the Cats look poised to make another long playoff run.
“It’s going well for us,” Sam Reinhart, the 28-year-old right winger who is having a career season, told reporters after a recent game. “We’re really in the moment, taking it day by day.”
Offensively, Florida has been led by its Big Four: Reinhart, who earned an All-Star spot for the first time in his career, captain Aleksander “Sasha” Barkov, Carter Verhaeghe, and Matthew Tkachuk.
Midway through the season, Reinhart already had 30 goals while Verhaeghe had 22. Barkov had 45 points (11 goals, 34 assists) and Tkachuk had 40 (12-28).
“Nothing surprises me anymore with him,” Tkachuk said of Reinhart after he scored with 0.7 seconds left in overtime to give the Panthers their ninth straight victory, a 3-2 win over Los Angeles. “He’s the real deal. He has been playing amazing, and their whole line has been amazing.”
Reinhart, who has thrived on a line with the playmaking Barkov and Evan Rodrigues, had a staggering 30 goals in the first 41 games, becoming the second-fastest Panther to reach that mark in a season. Pavel Bure did it in just 34 games in 1999-2000, and he finished with 58 goals that season.
“Sam’s smart player; he is smart defensively and offensively,” said goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, whose team lost to Vegas, four games to one, in last year’s Stanley Cup Finals. “He keeps pushing us forward.”
But while the Big Four have carried the scoring load, the primary reason for the Panthers’ success is their defense, and strong goaltending from Bobrovsky and his backup, Anthony Stolarz.
Bobrovsky, 35, had a lackluster 2022-23 regular season ( 24-20-3 with a 3.07 GAA and a .901 save percentage) before starring in the playoffs. He carried his playoff domination into this season (2.42 GAA, .913 save percentage) and has resembled the goaltender who won two Vezina Trophies with Columbus as the NHL’s best goalie.
“I’m happy to come here every day,” Bobrovsky told Florida Hockey Now.
As for the 6-foot-6 Stolarz, 30, he’s been brilliant in his first season in Florida. Midway through the season, the New Jersey native had a 1.95 goals-against average and .923 save percentage in 11 appearances.
Total Team Effort
“The guys are playing really hard in front of me and Bobby and making our job easy,” Stolarz said, adding that if he and Bobrovsky can keep the game close, the team’s offense will “break it open.”
The defense has been anchored by Aaron Ekblad since he returned from a shoulder injury in November. He was plus-13 in his first 24 games. Defenseman Gustav Forsling, a 27-year-old from Sweden who is Ekblad’s partner, was a team-best plus-27 at the season’s midpoint. The other pairings – Brandon Montour and Niko Mikkola, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Dmitry Kulikov – have also been dependable.
Heading into the season’s second half, the Panthers were third in the 32-team league on defense, allowing just 2.46 goals per game.
“Being five (players) tight in all three zones is really important to us,” Ekblad said. “We don’t really like to play a stretch game and leave players behind. That’s a key component of our game; it creates a tight group in all three zones.”
On defense and in the neutral zone, you always feel you can get the puck out, he added.
And even when they don’t get it out, Bobrovsky and Stolarz have stood tall. Very tall. Bobrovsky had seven straight wins at the midway point, and Stolarz was just as effective.
As the second half of the Panthers’ season began, they were a lock to make the playoffs – a statement that couldn’t have been made a year ago. They were in a too-close-to-call battle with Boston for first place in the Atlantic Division this year, second in the Eastern Conference, and fourth in the NHL with a .683 winning percentage.
The Panthers have excelled with a new-look lineup that has sometimes had as many as ten players that weren’t with the team last year.
“I’m happy where we’re at,” coach Paul Maurice said. “There’s still some newness. This team is different than last year’s team… . We’re still learning.”
At the midway point last season, the Panthers were just 18-19-4 and nine points out of a playoff spot.
Suffice it to say, the new players have complemented the veterans. And then some. The Panthers looked like a strong Stanley Cup contender as they knocked off opponents in early January.
“This streak has been awesome,” Tkachuk said at the time. “I just feel like we keep getting better throughout it. When you win, you come to the rink in a good mood.”
Panthers’ fans are also enjoying the ride. The team was averaging 18,507 fans per home game halfway through the season. That’s about 2,000 more per game than last season. This season, the Cats have been playing to 96.1% of capacity, putting them ahead of such teams as Washington, Detroit, Philadelphia, Buffalo, Ottawa and the New York Islanders, among others.
It wasn’t too long ago that hundreds (thousands?) of opponents’ jerseys were worn by fans at Florida home games. That has been reduced dramatically.
The fans’ allegiance to the Panthers, which increased during last year’s magical playoff run, has caught Maurice’s attention.
“It’s awesome,” he said. “It does matter when you’re on the bench and you have lots of fans from the other team. We don’t see their sweaters anymore. It’s all Panthers sweaters. That matters. You can feel it; the crowd is energized and having a good time.”
Tkachuk, who has been on a sizzling stretch after a relatively slow start, is among the players enjoying the fans becoming captivated by the Panthers.
He also likes the team’s makeup.
“There’s no ego in our room,” he said. “Everyone’s truly in it for the main goal at the end.”
That goal, of course, is winning the first Stanley Cup in franchise history.
“We’ve got a standard that we’re trying hold ourselves to, so we’re accountable to our game,” Maurice said.
Maurice, whose team had impressive 4-1 and 4-2 wins over defending champion Vegas during its winning streak, believes the Panthers have been disciplined in most aspects of their play.
“We have a small number of rules per system, but we really adhere to those rules,” he said. “Even if you make a play and it’s a spin-o-rama over five sticks on the other side of the ice, we’re not very happy about it even if it goes in the back of the net. We judge ourselves by that, and for me, it’s how close can we get to that every night, and how many games can you string together like that?”
They were stringing lots of them together after the holidays, mindful that their hot run wouldn’t last forever, that there would be the inevitable bumps in the road.
“And then, more importantly in all of this, when it doesn’t happen for you,” Maurice said about the team’s precision play, “how do you react to it?”
The Panthers will try to keep the momentum in the season’s second half and take it into the playoffs. Once there, they have as good of a chance as almost every NHL team to lift the Stanley Cup after the most grueling tournament in any of the four major sports.
The aforementioned wins against Vegas will give the Cats confidence going into the postseason.
“There’s no secret we don’t like those guys for what happened last year,” Tkachuk said about the talented Golden Knights. “That’s human nature. … Just really wanting to beat a team that kind of ruined our summer last year.”
Could a rematch in the Cup Final be in the works?