Florida Panthers roar into first playoff spot, clinch top seed in the East

Forward+Anthony+Duclair+%28%2310%29+chases+after+defenseman+Victor+Hedman+%28%2377%29+of+the+Tampa+Bay+Lightning.+The+Panthers+faced+the+Lightning+for+a+final+time+on+April+24%2C+2022%2C+and+lost+8-4.+Photo+by+Izzy+Huntley

Forward Anthony Duclair (#10) chases after defenseman Victor Hedman (#77) of the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Panthers faced the Lightning for a final time on April 24, 2022, and lost 8-4. Photo by Izzy Huntley

During the month of April, the Florida Panthers clinched a spot in the 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs and secured the top spot in the Eastern Conference.

One of two ice hockey teams in Florida, the Panthers went 13-0-0 over their last 13 games, breaking a club record. Throughout the 2021-22 season, they solidified their place in the NHL with dominant wins over Stanley Cup contenders such as the Washington Capitals and the Boston Bruins.

“Some teams match up better with other teams,” Scott Huntley, Bak parent and Panthers fan, said. “These guys concentrate on these playoff teams that they want to send a message. But at the end of the day, sometimes it’s how the matchups line up.”

The Panthers struggled over the last few seasons, barely making it into the playoffs, only to be eliminated in the first round by the opposing team.  Out of 27 seasons, the Panthers made it into the playoffs six times, and made it past the first round only once, in 1996. This season, however, the Panthers came out strong, scoring high in most of their games for a goal average of 4.21 as of April 21, 2022.

“I think our team’s drive has something to do with their success,” Isabella Beck, half-season ticket holder, said. “They have a bigger drive than teams like the Seattle Kraken.”

The Panthers became notorious for their comeback wins, earning the nickname “Comeback Cats.” They erased two four-goal deficits in the same week, coming back in the third period to win 7-6 in overtime against both the New Jersey Devils on the road and the Toronto Maple Leafs at home. However, with the playoffs approaching, some felt that the Panthers’ knack for comebacks would not help them in round one.

“I like it. I think it’s nice we’ve been able to come back so much, but it’s quite risky in the playoffs,” Beck said. “Especially when it’s kind of like a life or death situation.”

The Florida hockey team relied on their defense to not only protect their goaltenders but to score goals themselves. Norris Trophy candidate Aaron Ekblad had 15 goals and 57 points before being placed on long-term injury reserve. Gustav Forsling, another defenseman, had six goals in nine games with a plus-minus of 41. Radko Gudas led the NHL in hits that season, and with the acquisition of Ben Chiarot at the trade deadline, the Panthers’ defense gained another heavy-hitter. There were still a few holes to be patched up with their defensive lineup, though.

“They need to continue to tighten up their defense,” Huntley said. “They can’t give the puck away as much as they do, because they expose their goalies.”

The Panthers had a problem with inconsistent goaltending. Their starter, two-time Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky, obtained three shutouts and broke the Panthers’ franchise record for most wins in a season by a goalie. As the playoffs approached, Bobrovsky dominated in net, proving himself as the Game 1 starter for the Cats. However, he was notorious for giving up easy goals. The backup, rookie Spencer Knight, did not have the experience necessary to carry the team through the playoffs. The goaltending provided worry for some fans.

“We should be concerned that our boys, both Bobrovsky and Knight, might not play to the level that they have shown this season,” Huntley said. “Both players have played well. You cannot argue that there are times both of them are elite goaltenders. But the playoffs are a very different animal.”

Regarding the Panthers’ stars, however, the team’s playoff future seemed bright. Canadian forward Jonathan Huberdeau shattered record after record, both franchise and NHL, and was in the running for both the Art Ross and Hart trophies. Huberdeau recorded the most points in a season in franchise history and broke the NHL record for most assists by a left-winger. With 30 goals by April, Huberdeau led the Panthers to victory after victory, showing off his leadership skills.

“He’s had a season with the Panthers unlike any other. He’s shown a high level of leadership on the team,” Huntley said. “I think he’s improved on his defensive skills, particularly in the second half of the season. I think with that mindset, he is going to be a contender for the Hart.”

Additionally, team captain Aleksander “Sasha” Barkov continued to amaze the NHL with outstanding plays and unbelievable self-control. The Selke and Lady Byng winner led the team with 39 goals and scored the third hat trick of his career. In the forward department, the Panthers were set.

“Sasha is an absolute inspiration,” Ella Theisen, eighth-grade vocal major, said. “The way he plays is unlike any other guy in the NHL.”

Despite the Panthers’ record-breaking season, the playoffs were still a mystery. The team had yet to break past the first round, but as the top team in the entire NHL with an unbelievable 57-16-6 record, the chances of finally winning a first-round matchup were high.

Huntley said, “We’re not going to win a lot of one-nothing games in the playoffs. That’s not what this team is. We’re going to win the Stanley Cup by outscoring teams. We’re not going to win seven to six, but we’re also not going to win one nothing.”