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Sergei Bobrovsky Driving the Opportunistic Florida Panthers in the Eastern Conference Finals

We now have seen three games between the Carolina Hurricanes and Florida Panthers in the Eastern Conference Finals. Well, maybe four considering game one went to a fourth overtime. While this series could be anyone’s at this point, the Panthers have been able to squeeze out victories in all three thanks to the insanely good play of Sergei Bobrovsky.

Florida Panthers On the Winning Side of the First Three

Game one of the Eastern Conference Finals saw a tightly contested game between these two old Southeast Division rivals. After Carolina went up one to zero on a powerplay goal, Florida came back with two quick ones in the second period. Carolina would later tie the game again on the powerplay. The game went to overtime and Florida thought they had the game-winner early. Ryan Lomberg‘s goal was called off due to goalie interference and the teams would play on. And on and on and on. The game went deep into the fourth overtime until Matthew Tkachuk scored with close to 12 seconds left to give Florida the victory.

Game two also saw a defensive showdown as Carolina’s Jalen Chatfield scored first for Carolina quickly. In the second period, Aleksander Barkov got behind Carolina’s defence and put together a nice move to beat Antti Raanta. Again the game went into overtime. This time, Florida went on the powerplay and after an unfortunate tie-up between Jaccob Slavin and Brent Burns, Tkachuk found himself alone on the backdoor to receive a nice tic-tac-toe pass to give the visiting Panthers the win again.

Game three saw Carolina generating shot after shot and playing possibly their best game of the series. But Bobrovsky stopped every shot he saw. Sam Reinhart would score a second-period powerplay goal that deflected off of Slavin’s stick and went in the top corner of the net past Frederik Andersen. And that was all it took. Florida won one to zero to take a commanding three to zero lead in the series.

Sergei Bobrovsky

You have to give credit where credit is due and the Florida Panthers have been doing what they have needed to win these games. Being very opportunistic and shutting it down when needed. But if you had to sum up what has been the difference in this series, it comes to one person – Sergei Bobrovsky. After a subpar regular season, Bobrovsky started coming alive midway through the first round and has only gotten better. He is reaching an almost unheard-of level in the playoffs. He has one shutout and has stopped 132 shots out of 135 with a .978 SV% in this series. Only one of those goals was scored at five on five play.

In every game this series, Carolina has been throwing a lot at Bobrovsky. This was evident in game three especially. Carolina had a 53% expected goal percentage and almost 78% in five on five play. They led the Panthers in shots 32 to 17 and high danger chances 12 to 8. But everything they threw at the net was blocked or hit the post. Games one and two had similar analytics as far as Carolina leading in shots, expected goal percentage and high danger shots except game one in which Florida had one more. Even with all of this, plus the first two rounds, Bobrovsky has an insane 19.5 goals saved above expected. Florida has gotten every bit of the $10,000,000 AAV Bobrovsky’s contract requires due to his play this postseason. He is playing positionally sound but also making acrobatic plays to save shots that otherwise be sure goals. Without Bobrovsky’s play, Florida may be in a different position.

The Panthers Pouncing When Needed

As the Stanley Cup Playoffs progress, the games get tighter and tighter. The margin for error becomes incredibly small and the team that is most opportunistic usually ends out on top. Many times, getting some puck luck doesn’t hurt as well. This was discussed as an important point in our pre-series analysis and has proven to be true. This has been the Florida Panthers all playoffs and especially in the Eastern Conference Finals.

While Bobrovsky has been shutting the door, you can’t win games without scoring. But with Bobrovsky’s play, Florida does not have to score much. And scoring just enough is what they have been doing. Every game in this series has been decided by one goal, including two overtime winners. The series right now says that Florida is dominating but the reality is that these three games have been about as tight as you could get. And to give credit to Florida, they have been able to buckle down when needed to clear out rebounds, tie up sticks around the net and keep Carolina from getting further chances. This is on top of Bobrovsky’s stellar play.

Top forward Tkachuk has especially been opportunistic this series with back-to-back overtime goals. As the Panthers struggled this season, Tkachuk was a bright spot and was on fire all season. The playoffs have been no different. While the goal scoring is not high in this series, Tkachuk has provided big goals when needed. Aleksander Barkov has also played a huge role to pick up his game, scoring the first goal for Florida in both games one and two after lacking production in the first two rounds.

Razor Thin Margins in the Eastern Conference Finals

On the other side, Carolina has been on the bad side of the margin. Whether it’s Bobrovsky, the play of the Panthers, faults of their own, or simply just bad luck, Carolina has not had the bounces go their way. Both goalies Andersen and Raanta have actually been playing fantastic. What you would ask for in a playoff series. But they have not outmatched Bobrovsky and have been on the wrong side of some unfortunate bounces.

In game one, the Hurricanes hit the post multiple times including Seth Jarvis hitting the crossbar in overtime. In game two, they hit more posts and scored a goal that would have put them up two to zero but was called back for offsides. The game winning overtime goal was also a result of Slavin’s stick getting stuck in Brent Burns skate that effectively left the Panthers with a three on one play down low for the backdoor tap in. Then in game three, with the Hurricanes buzzing, they continued to ring the post multiple times. Reinhart’s game winning goal then hit off of Slavin’s stick to go in the top corner of the net.

In addition, Carolina has been unable to take advantage of the powerplay after game one. Even though at times they have had some looks, in a series as tight as this you have to take advantage of your opportunities. Especially when they are infrequent.

When you have this type of luck, sometimes all you can do is put your head down and grind through it. But for Carolina, time is running out. Sometimes, that is just hockey. One good team beats another good team. If the puck bounces one inch to the left, maybe the whole game changes.

Looking Forward in the Eastern Conference Finals

Statistically speaking, this series is over. Only four teams have ever come back from being down three to zero in a series. But sometimes, statistics are broken. Is it possible for Carolina to win four straight? Sure. As a team do they have the ability? Absolutely. Is it likely? Not so much. It is a huge mountain to climb but will start with game four and need to be taken one at a time. They will need to figure out getting the puck past Bobrovsky which at this time seems almost impossible. But the way these playoffs have gone, I’d be wary of saying its over until it is.

Meanwhile, the Panthers are in the same position they were in Round Two against the Toronto Maple Leafs. They will look to ideally close this out in four. With Bobrovsky’s stellar play and the Panther’s opportunistic play, they have the ability to close this series out and move to their second ever Stanley Cup Finals appearance. Of note, Barkov did leave game three with an injury, but the team is optimistic for his return.

Regardless of the outcome, both teams have played this series very tight. With the margin being so close, this could truly have been any combination of possible outcomes up to this point. Whether it is sweep or a miraculous comeback, this has been about as even of an Eastern Conference Finals you could ask for.

Main Photo: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports


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