As destiny would seem to have it this postseason, the Florida Panthers dramatically completed the sweep in the Eastern Conference Finals at home with a four-to-three win over the Carolina Hurricanes. Drawing many comparisons to the 2012 Los Angeles Kings, the eight-seeded Panthers seem like they are on a train headed for the Stanley Cup. Meanwhile, Carolina had high expectations this year only to be met with questions after losing a few key forwards to injuries. This series may not have ended so quickly with a different bounce here or there. But these are the narratives that end up in the hockey history books.
Florida Panthers Beat the Carolina Hurricanes in Four
Falling in line with games one through the three of the Eastern Conference Finals, Florida pulled out another tight one-goal victory at home to punch their ticket to the Stanley Cup Finals. The game started quickly for Florida. Less than a minute into the game, Anthony Duclair hit the post and the rebound was seemingly lost by everyone on the ice…..except Duclair. He picked up his own rebound and scored top shelf to put the home team up instantly.
Possibly a bigger loss to Carolina than giving up the quick goal came on the injury front. Jaccob Slavin went behind the net to settle a rolling puck and Sam Bennett came flying in and absolutely hammered Slavin. Slavin’s head appeared to hit the boards and the ice and he would leave for the rest of the game.
Meanwhile, after just a few shifts, the Hurricanes Stefan Noesen left the game to injury as well. Even though he would try to return in the second period, he would leave again. He essentially didn’t play after his first few shifts. For a team looking for a miracle, and a shimmer of luck, this was one of the worst starts they could ask for. It was certainly not in the Hurricanes plans for game four to lose arguably their best defensive defenceman and a forward who has been relied upon for some goal-scoring this postseason.
The game would go on and Florida would get a second goal on the powerplay. A weird bounce off of Brent Burns‘ skate gave the puck to Matthew Tkachuk standing all alone in front of Frederik Andersen. He slid it in between Andersen’s legs for the goal. But Carolina would push back. A Brady Skjei shot from the point rang off the post and hit Sergei Bobrovsky in the back. Paul Stastny was there to knock in the rebound. Then in the second period Teuvo Teravainen gathered a rebound off a shot that broke a Florida player’s stick. He hit the top corner to tie the game. Carolina finally had some luck going their way.
But that would be short lived. Later, the fourth line for Florida kept the puck in the zone after Carolina failed to clear it. Ryan Lomberg would finish off an easy backdoor tic-tac-toe play between himself, Colin White and Eric Staal. Florida would lead three to two at the end of the second period. The Hurricanes pushed and pushed in the third period and finally broke through with under four minutes left. Jordan Martinook worked hard down low to get the puck and pass it to Jesper Fast in front of the net for the finish.
Again, it felt like Carolina had some luck and was pushing. However, Jordan Staal took a tripping penalty with under a minute left in the game. And as fate would have it, who else would score the game winner but Tkachuk. He received the puck at the goal line, walked it out in front and patiently waited for his shot. And that was that. With 4.9 seconds left Florida went up again with the eventual game winner. The refs reviewed it for goalie interference but ruled it a good goal.
Defence and Striking when Needed
When you think of the Panthers this series, and frankly all playoffs, one word that really comes to mind is opportunistic. After they won the President’s Trophy for the best regular season record last year, they decided to bring in Paul Maurice behind the bench. Many wondered why they made this move and for most of the season, the criticism seemed fair. But in the playoffs, whether it’s Maurice, the right guys getting hot at the right time, or some luck sprinkled in there leading to their success, it’s no secret that Maurice has them playing a much more structured game.
Their playing style has been somewhat similar to Carolina’s in the defensive shutdown aspect. But during the regular season they did not have an insanely hot Bobrovsky nor as much puck luck. In the regular season their expected goals percentage was above 50% but they had a -26.97 goals scored above expected. In the playoffs they still have a negative goals scored above expected but an insanely low goals against above expected at -21.09. The next closest team is the New York Rangers with -7.89. This leaves Florida with a 16 goal differential above expected.
These stats seem to tell the story that you can see on the ice. The Panthers aren’t blowing anyone out generally. And in this series especially, their largest lead came in game four when they went up two to zero. Even that was later turned into a tie. The difference between what Florida did and what Carolina did was in how they both overcame negative goals scored above expected metrics.
Carolina was more like an all-out air assault trying to get something past Bobrovsky. Sure, there were some things they could have done better at times but generally they would go to their normal style and pelt the goalie with shots. Really until game four, Florida’s defence held strong largely on the play of Bobrovsky. Carolina’s defence and goalies played strong all series as well but were just slightly outmatched by Florida’s. Carolina’s powerplay continued to struggle to convert when it was needed most too and that proved to be a difference maker.
On the other side, Florida’s style was more reminiscent of a sniper in an impenetrable fortress. On the back of mostly Bobrovsky but also their team system and structured play, Florida would only need those few opportunities to strike. Whether it was a breakdown by Carolina, a powerplay, or a fortunate bounce, Florida was very opportunistic and did just enough (but almost nothing more) to win. Florida’s game proved enough to close out what in most cases would have been a seven-game series in four.
Florida Panthers Sweep Shows Star Power
Bobrovsky’s play has largely been discussed above as a big reason for Florida’s success, but Tkachuk’s individual play cannot be ignored. Like hiring Maurice, many thought that Florida lost the trade with the Calgary Flames to bring in Tkachuk. Tkachuk continued his hot regular season play with nine goals and 12 assists in 16 playoff games this year. With back-to-back overtime goals in games one and two and the game winner in game four, plus his playoff and regular season stats, it looks like Florida hit a homerun with this trade. It goes to show how hockey is not a game played on paper necessarily. Florida had solid contributions from others in this series including captain Aleksander Barkov, but Bobrovsky and Tkachuk really shined far above anyone else on either team, and maybe any team in the playoffs for that matter.
On Carolina’s side, scoring was not abundant after their explosion in the second round agains the New Jersey Devils. What Carolina needed was a game changer much like Tkachuk. Here you look at your star players like Sebastian Aho or maybe Brent Burns. You also look at the goaltending. To start there, both Antti Raanta and Andersen actually played this series extremely well. In three games, Andersen had a 1.39 GAA and .942 SV%. He stopped 81 of 86 shots against. He also stopped 24 of 27 high danger shots against. These are numbers you would want in a playoff series ten times out of ten. But relative to Bobrovsky, it still was not quite enough.
On the front end, when the team needs a pulse you would want to see someone like Aho step up. And he does that at times. While not the biggest player, he plays with his heart on his sleeve. There will be times where he seems a little invisible, but most of the time he will make plays to push the team. On the stat sheet, Aho had a quiet series with just two primary assists. But to be fair the whole team was quiet offensively.
However, Aho did have 18 shots during this series which was good enough for the second most of any player in the Conference Finals. Burns was right behind Aho with 15 shots. If you watched Aho in games three and four, and especially game four, he played like a guy that didn’t want his season to end. He was all over the ice generating chances and playing a 200 foot game. However, hockey is game that is won with points and not with shots or advanced analytics. You would ideally want to see him produce more to carry the team. However, it is hard to fault Aho considering Florida’s heat, Bobrovsky, and his lack of winger support. He showed how much he cares. For Carolina hopefully this keeps increasing the fire in him to go further.
The Infamous Game of Inches Creates Storylines
As said above, this series and the Panthers run is one that shows that sometimes fact is stranger than fiction. For starters, if the Pittsburgh Penguins had beaten the Chicago Blackhawks at the end of the regular season, it is very possible they would have made the playoffs in lieu of the Panthers. Chicago was a bottom team and had nothing to play for while Pittsburgh was fighting for a playoff spot. But yet it was Chicago that came out on top. Everything is hypothetical at this point but we may not have even seen the historic play of Tkachuk and Bobrovsky.
Meanwhile, for Carolina would the additions of Andrei Svechnikov and Max Pacioretty had made a difference? Maybe so maybe not. Pacioretty is without a doubt a sniper and a player the Hurricanes could have used. Svechnikov is a skilled power forward who also can be a game changer at times. He was Carolina’s All-Star this year. And even in a more potential twist of fate, it was reportedly Carolina who was also in on Tkachuk in the offseason until the very end. But the Hurricanes made it this far without them and again its hypothetical whether they could have solved Bobrovsky. But there is a strong chance this would not have ended in a sweep if any of those players were around.
As was discussed in our mid series analysis, the margins are razor thin and bounces in one direction or another can dictate outcomes. Four games, all decided by one goal, two overtimes including a four overtime game, a one to zero shutout and a buzzer beater were what comprised this series. It was a sweep, but it was possibly one of the tightest sweeps in playoff history. Hitting posts, random mix ups and fortunate bounces, and Florida’s ability to do just enough to capitalize all had a place in the script of this series.
For Hurricanes fans, this series is both frustrating and comforting (maybe more the first though). To be so close but unable to close it out is a tough pill to swallow. But the team showed resilience and went further than many thought. Even game four with only 16 players showed their heart. The core of the team is still intact for at least one more year. The team does have some UFAs to consider resigning in Jordan Staal, Andersen, Raanta, Fast, Shayne Gostisbehere, and Pacioretty but has a lot of cap space. Management seems to always not over-pay for anything and closely utilizes analytics in valuing moves.
Much was said about the inaction of the front office at this year’s trade deadline but again its hypothetical whether that would have mattered or not. They had Pacioretty’s cap space and of course didn’t know they would soon lose Svechnikov. That is neither here nor there at this point. They were in on Timo Meier but failed to land him.
The trade deadline seems to be a better time to fine tune your team than try to significantly alter it based on this year’s results. Florida showed that as much as anyone as they sat still at the deadline. But Florida also showed that sometimes you have to go big to get a game changer in the offseason. They traded a lot for Tkachuk and it is paying off. While Carolina shouldn’t sacrifice the entire future, it might be an offseason to consider a significant trade.
For Florida, they are marching to the Stanely Cup Finals. Whoever they play, it seems at this point they should just keep doing what they have been. Confidence is through the roof. Keep an eye on Eetu Luostarinen as he left game four with an injury but otherwise Florida seems mostly healthy. Barkov made his return in game four and seemed good to go. If Bobrovsky keeps up his play it will be hard for anyone to beat them. Between that, their team structure and Tkachuk’s game changing ability, I would expect to see them keep doing exactly what they have been. Winning games with just enough. And just enough is, well….exactly enough.
Main Photo: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports