If you're a diehard Florida Panthers fan, you have to put up with a bunch of flack headed your way at all times.
Endless jokes about fan attendance. Decades of mediocrity. A glimmer of hope, only to have that ripped away from you. Since losing to the Colorado Avalanche in the 1996 Stanley Cup final – the team's third season in the league – the Panthers have not won a single playoff series, only making the post-season four times if you don't count the qualifying round last year.
But this year, it's different. It feels like the Panthers are on to something. The Panthers enter the playoffs in second place in the Central Division, proving to be a higher seed than the defending Stanley Cup champions from Tampa Bay. The Lightning may have the experience of a championship-winning run, but as it stands, the Panthers actually have the edge in the standings – and, by definition, coming off of the better season.
There's never a bad time to go on a hot run, but there might not be a better time to gain momentum than heading into the playoffs, right? The Panthers enter the post-season with a six-game winning streak and a 10-2-1 run over the past 13 games in the past month, leading the league in goals-for-per-game at 4.08 – making them the only team to break the 4.0 barrier.
Florida has been a midpack team in terms of goals-against per-game in that regard, but the team also used three goalies and dressed two others in that span, so there was a bit of inconsistency as to who exactly was in the crease on any given night.
Speaking of goaltending, no matter who has gone in the crease, they have found some form of success for most of the year. Chris Driedger was the better goalie throughout the first half of the season but Sergei Bobrovsky has bounced back in a big way after embarrassing himself on a consistent basis last year. Bobrovsky's goals-saved-above-average is still a minus on the season and even if you're looking at just the past month, but he has proven capable of keeping the Panthers in when they need him too.
Still, Driedger is a top 10 goaltender in most significant stat categories and deserves some action. Bobrovsky should be the No. 1 guy heading into the playoffs – you can't forget just how good he was when the Blue Jackets swept Tampa in 2018-19 despite having a playoff career average save percentage of .902 – but how short will his leash be? The positive is that the Panthers have two good options to go back to in Driedger and rookie Spencer Knight if needed.
The Panthers have a real middle-of-the-pack blueline, but Mackenzie Weegar has been such an important piece of this team in Aaron Ekblad's absence. Ekblad did a lot of the heavy lifting for this team this season – the pair of him and Weegar were among the best in expected goals percentage this year among all defensive pairings – but he isn't expected back at any point in the playoffs so that doesn't matter a whole lot. Tampa has a clear advantage here with names like Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh, but the Panthers aren't near the bottom in high-danger scoring chances against, so that's a positive.
Up front, the addition of Sam Bennett has proved to be fruitful. Bennett had just 12 points in 38 games with the Calgary Flames prior to the trade in April, but with 15 points in 10 games with Florida, he has fit in perfectly on the team's second line with Jonathan Huberdeau and Owen Tippett. Huberdeau has 19 points in his past 13 games and Aleksander Barkov has 13 points in his past 10. Weegar's hot season has gotten even hotter with 11 points in his past eight games and even Gustav Forsling has added a nice scoring punch on the blueline with five points in his past four outings. Throw in Carter Verhaeghe, one of the best value signings in quite some time, and the Panthers have a group that can do some serious damage and hold their own against a high-octane Lightning squad.
With Joel Quenneville leading the ship in one of his most impressive coaching ventures yet, the Panthers have finally lived up to the expectations experts were projecting for a few years now. But facing off against a team like Tampa Bay will be a challenge, even if the Panthers had a better record against them at 6-2-0 this year.
The Lightning will have Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos back at their disposal, the team's top two scorers in the three seasons preceding 2021. Stamkos hasn't played since April 8 and Kucherov hasn't seen any game action since hoisting the title last fall, so it might take them a few games to get fully up to speed. That's very Florida will really need to take advantage of the series and force the Lightning to chase.
The Panthers might be one of the only higher-seeded teams to be considered an underdog, but few teams have been as good as the Panthers as of late. That's a good thing heading into the most important time of the year.