We’re heading into another one-off unique NHL scenario, much like the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Everything changed with regards to the league’s divisions, schedules, playoff qualification rules, and so on. And the year after this, things (sigh…knock on wood) go back to normal. But for now, the 2020-21 Florida Panthers represent one-eighth of the Central Division. And they’ll play the other seven teams in their division eight times a piece. If they finish in the top four in the South, Florida makes the playoffs. How these changes will help or hurt the team remains to be seen; but, it sure does make for a fun and unique opportunity to try and predict things beforehand. To preview the Florida Panthers schedule, the best information can be found in the results from last year to try and extrapolate to this year.
2020-21 Schedule Preview: Florida Panthers
As January arrives, hockey fans everywhere prepare for the start of the 2020-21 NHL season. The Covid-19 epidemic, which stalled the conclusion of the 2019-20 season until late summer, still looms large. Questions surrounded whether a new season could even happen while entering cold and flu season mid-epidemic. If so, when would it start given how late the previous one ran? And how much could delays this year potentially affect the season after, and the upcoming expansion? Thanks to an agreement reached on Sunday, December 20th between the NHL and NHLPA, we have official answers to those questions.
As described above, the Panthers reside now in the Central Division. Their seven opponents will be the Carolina Hurricanes, Chicago Blackhawks, Columbus Blue Jackets, Dallas Stars, Detroit Red Wings, Nashville Predators, and Tampa Bay Lightning. Of these eight teams, only the Red Wings missed the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. That being said, the Panthers, Predators and Blackhawks were not in playoff positions when the season ended, and only squeaked in thanks to the expanded Stanley Cup Qualifiers.
But, a team’s rank in the standings doesn’t tell you everything about how they match up against any single team in the league. To execute a better preview of the Florida Panthers schedule, we can dig into the head-to-head results from 2019-20. From there, we’ll predict a winner for each season series for 2020-21.
Panthers vs. Carolina Hurricanes
The Hurricanes bested the Panthers in two of their three matchups last year, outscoring them 12-9. Their first meeting came early in the season, and represents one of the many times Florida fell behind early in a game. Carolina scored four times in the first period and chased Sergei Bobrovsky from the net for the first time in his Panther career.
Then, in late November the Hurricanes doubled up Florida 4-2, outshooting them 34-23 in the process. Their final meeting would provide some redemption, as Chris Driedger stopped 42 shots in a 4-2 win. Even that night, Carolina peppered Florida’s net all night and outshot them 44-22 overall.
Prediction: Carolina Wins the Season Series
Ultimately, Carolina is a team hitting its stride. They’re looking at each season as another year in their Cup window, as they should be. They ran into the Boston Bruins for a second consecutive season unfortunately, and they consider their first round exist a disappointment. The Hurricanes have a well-defined identity and head coach Rod Brind’Amour pushes all the right buttons. They look like a well-oiled machine and their discipline within their systems keeps them out of their own end and in their opponent’s. They now have bonafide superstars too, but big questions remain in net.
On the other end of the ice, the same things just cannot be said. Yes, new general manager Bill Zito addressed defensive needs by adding Markus Nutivaara and the rugged Radko Gudas. Yes, the new forwards are guys they expect to bring a more balanced, responsible style of play especially in the defensive zone. But ultimately it’s another major gameday roster overhaul, and might take some time to develop chemistry and comfort.
Head coach Joel Quenneville has more balanced tools, sure, but this team still probably doesn’t match up favorably with the Hurricanes yet. It should be a closer matchup than it was last season, though. If Sergei Bobrovsky can bounce back, the scales may tip in Florida’s favor.
Panthers vs. Chicago Blackhawks
There is less information for this matchup than the others due to the fact that the teams are in separate conferences, usually. Because of that, the franchises only faced-off twice last year: a 4-3 Panthers win in late January, and then a 3-2 shootout victory for Chicago in late February. We’ll need to base the schedule preview for the Florida Panthers on more information than what lies in these two instances.
That being said, both the games were close. Oddly enough the winning team on both nights was the one that was outshot and outchanced. Florida got out ahead early and held on the rest of the way in their victory. Unsurprisingly, Chicago wound up with more shots on goal as they pushed for a comeback. The margin was single digits still, as opposed to Chicago’s win; Corey Crawford stole the meeting in a shootout, stopping 40 of 42 and then both shootout attempts. Florida only allowed 29 shots through that evening but couldn’t buy a third goal.
Prediction: Florida Wins the Season Series
This should wind up being one of the more favorable matchups for Florida. Chicago will be without some major pieces in Kirby Dach and potentially Jonathan Toews, and also no longer have Crawford or Robin Lehner in net. A surprise playoff run saw Chicago upset the fifth seed Edmonton Oilers, but they aren’t changing their immediate plans. They’re facing a rebuild, and Florida will have to collect as many points in these eight matchups as possible to have a realistic shot at the playoffs.
Panthers vs. Columbus Blue Jackets
Of all these matchups, this one had the best goaltending in 2019-20. Bobrovsky faced Elvis Merzlikins in all three games, and Florida went 1-1-1 and were outscored 6-5 over that span. One of Florida’s five was on an empty net too, as Columbus’ phenom goalie played outstanding in each of these games.
Prediction: Florida Wins the Season Series
This will be a close one. Goaltending was the story last year, an anomaly for Florida in a year they provided Bobrovsky with little to no support on the regular. Merzlikins first ever victory came in their second matchup last year, snapping a 10-game losing streak to start his career. Whether or not this was a one-off year for him, or his norm, remains to be seen. Between him and Joonas Korpisalo, though, Columbus should have no concerns in goal. But offensively, they don’t have any superstar or game-breaking talent currently.
The tweaks Florida made should carry them to a stronger season series this year than they had last year. They split last year’s matchup, and should expect more than that now.
Panthers vs. Dallas Stars
Similar to the series with Chicago, there’s not a whole lot we can look at from a year ago to base predictions on. The Florida Panthers schedule preview is more difficult in these matchups. One of the last games of the year that had to be cancelled due to Covid-19 was one of these two scheduled meetings. Therefore, Florida and Dallas only saw each other once last year, on December 20, 2019.
And what a wild game it was. Panthers forward Noel Acciari recorded his second career hat trick, coming a game after recording his first career hat trick. Acciari’s third goal came on a penalty shot in the second, putting Florida ahead 7-1 just after the game’s halfway mark. Dallas then scored three consecutive but ran out of time, resulting in a 7-4 Panthers win. This is the sort of score Panthers fans are accustomed to seeing; the offense is amongst the league’s best, and the defence is among the worst.
Prediction: Dallas Wins the Season Series
It contradicts last year’s results, but a one-game sample can’t be relied on too heavily. Especially considering the Stars went on to the Stanley Cup Final. Oh, and Ben Bishop played that night against Florida; who knows how much we’ll see him after watching Anton Khudobin take over the crease this summer.
Dallas won’t be taking anyone lightly, and Florida needs their best efforts consistently against this team. Even then, don’t expect more than three wins out of these eight games, at most.
Panthers vs. Detroit Red Wings
The matchup all the Central Division teams salivate most when reviewing comes against the Red Wings. And with good reason; they went 17-49-5 last year. Florida beat up on them too; they won the series 3-0, outscoring Detroit 13-5. One of the matchups ended close, in a 5-4 Panthers win. But the other two were lopsided, at 4-0 and 4-1. Florida controlled these games well.
Prediction: Florida Wins the Season Series
Detroit enters 2020-21 as the league’s biggest underdog. This South Division holds a lot of quality teams too, likely making the Wings bound for another lottery draft pick position.
If Florida cannot top the Red Wings in this series, they have no chance at a playoff spot. The rest of the division sees this as the prime series to bank points in the standings. Sure, Detroit might not lose all seven series they have, but whoever they steal wins from will likely be teams that don’t qualify for the playoffs. Florida can’t take anyone lightly, since they’re probably going to be battling for one of the last playoff positions. Expect strong games from the Panthers on these nights.
Panthers vs. Nashville Predators
Another East vs. West matchup means the Florida Panthers schedule preview relies heavily on just a two-game sample again. In those two games, Florida won 3-2 in a shootout and 3-0. Oddly enough, Bobrovsky didn’t play against Nashville in either game; Sam Montembeault recorded the shootout win, and Drieger captured the shutout.
And these games were close, too. Both teams recorded roughly 30 shots in both games, both scored only one powerplay goal, and both teams shut down each other’s top scorers effectively. The only first-liner with a goal in the series, Aleksander Barkov, had the third (and least important) goal in the 3-0 victory. Other than that, half of the remaining goals scored came from defencemen. These teams match up tight, as Florida’s offensive prowess ran into Nashville’s effective depth and defence.
Prediction: Florida Wins the Season Series
This one feels like a coin toss and the least confident of all the predictions. Nashville signed Erik Haula who Florida acquired last year before the trade deadline, as well as Mikael Granlund. Similar to Florida, they made no huge splashes and shored up their roster around its perimeters. Nashville, though, continues exiting their Cup window currently. Pekka Rinne turns 39 in 2021, and he and Juuse Saros look like the weakest part of the roster currently. They’re not far removed from seasons where they were considered among the league’s top tandems, and if they perform to that level the team instantly elevates to Cup contender status again.
That feels less likely now than it did previously, though. Only because they’ve followed a down season with another down season, and again Rinne isn’t getting any younger. But with Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg, Matt Duchene, and Victor Arvidsson on offence they could provide enough support to definitely win more than they lose. They have Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, and Mattias Ekholm making up one of the league’s best defensive corps. But they had all those pieces last year too, when they would’ve had to finish the season strong to hold off the young Vancouver Canucks for the final wild card seed, had it played out without a pandemic. This series has to be the most likely to end 4-4-0, 3-3-2, or some other variant equating to a split.
Florida Panthers vs. Tampa Bay Lightning
The defending Stanley Cup Champions and in-state rivals play the Panthers more than any other team in the league usually anyways, so this doesn’t seem as much of an adjustment. Sure, regular season alone Florida plays Tampa as often as any other team in their division. But their close proximity means they play each other a lot in pre-season as well. Including three preseason games last year, Florida and Tampa matched up seven times in 2019-20.
In the four regular season games, Tampa finished victorious on three occasions. They opened the season with a home-and-home series against one another, splitting it by winning their own respective home openers. Tampa dominated in a 5-2 win the start the season. Florida, in what would become the norm for the year, scored a bunch in a short burst in their victory; in a 2:53 span, Florida potted two powerplay goals and an even strength one to go up 3-0 in the first period. Then, it was hang on and hope for the best. It worked that night (but not on many others) and they held on for a 4-3 win.
The final two meetings were all Tampa. In a 2-1 victory, Tampa outshot Florida 48-28. Then they blew the Panthers out 6-1 just before Christmas.
Prediction: Tampa Bay Wins the Season Series
Not many other teams have the depth the Lightning have. None of the other seven Central Division teams are looking forward to playing Tampa eight times. The one exception may be Dallas, who wants revenge (but even that would probably be a close series, at best). They’re the defending champions for a reason.
That being said, they will be without Nikita Kucherov, their top scorer and Art Ross winner from 2018-19. While a huge loss, if there’s a team that can handle it, it’s Tampa. Their depth is absolutely ridiculously good. Besides, now their salary cap predicaments are all solved for the short-term, as they have enough space to keep Tyler Johnson having moved Kucherov’s contract to Long-Term Injured Reserve. They made other trades too to shuffle around money that helped, but the Kucherov news provided the biggest relief to their books.
Kucherov only had 1one goal and three assists in their series against Florida. That’s not bad; it’s a point-per-game pace. But they scored 12 other goals that he didn’t factor in on. Florida may be better defensively next year, but likely didn’t close the gap enough to steal many wins from the Lightning.
Season Predictions From 2020-21 Florida Panthers Schedule Preview
Of their seven series, Florida could win four. Of course, they may be better than that and perform more on par with the Hurricanes or Stars. They looked great in their one game against Dallas last year, and if that’s the norm then maybe they finish higher than anticipated. A reasonable estimation, though, is somewhere in the range of fourth to sixth place in the division by season’s end.
Florida expects to be better than last year. Joel Quenneville has a year with the team under his belt, and the clear message going forward centers on commitment and hard work. That message has been doubled-down on by Bill Zito, who’s had a busy first offseason as general manager. Trading away Mike Matheson to acquire Patric Hornqvist both replaced some offence lost by the departures of Mike Hoffman and Evgeni Dadanov, and shed some of the defensive liability Matheson creates. Alexander Wennberg, Anthony Duclair, Vinnie Hinostroza, Carter Verhaeghe, and Ryan Lomberg all offer fresh, hard-working options for their offensive depth. As a group, these guys are far more defensive-minded than what the team has employed in recent years.
If everything goes in the direction the team expects it to, Florida should finish in the final playoff spot. A more likely finish could be fifth, with either the Blue Jackets or Predators leap-frogging them. The importance of each game goes up partly because there’s simply less of them (56 rather than the standard 82). But also, every single game could be a four-point swing now within your division. There are no meaningless games this year, and it’ll take a level of focus across the full year that the group in Florida has truly never shown before to make the postseason.