You can name a few teams in almost every sport that for whatever the reason just could not get things right. Perhaps they may be heartbreaking losses, bad officiating, bad front office decision making, or simply just being... bad. The 2021-2022 Florida Panthers are one of those teams in the NHL. Since joining the league in 1993, the Panthers have missed the playoffs 20 times. They have had 1 Stanley Cup Finals appearance in 1996, where they lost in 4 games to the Colorado Avalanche. It wasn't until the last round of these playoffs that they were able to finally win a playoff series 26 years later.
Things started to shift for the Panthers after giving Sergei Bobrovsky a 7 year, 70-million-dollar contract in 2019. After years of developing their talented top 3 overall draft picks in Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Aaron Eckblad, The Florida Panthers were finally in a position to vie for the Stanley Cup. In the 2020-2021 season the Panthers finished 2nd in their division. However, they lost in the 1st round in 6 games to the eventual back-to-back champions, Tampa Bay Lightning. After all the heartbreak and hope the fans endured, things were looking up for a franchise that was plagued in mediocrity.
Then came 2021-2022. This year will go down as one of their best seasons in franchise history. The Panthers ran away with the Presidents' trophy, which is awarded to the team that ends the season with the best overall record. Not only did they finish the season with the best record, but they were also inarguably the greatest offensive team the league had seen in years. The Florida Panthers ended the season 1st in goals with 340, and a goals per game average of 4.11, which is absolutely absurd. You could NOT leave your seat to even use the restroom without missing a Panthers goal.
(Photo Credit: @Flapanthers on Twitter)
After defeating the Washington Capitals in a thrilling 6 game series, the shadow of the 2 time Stanley Cup winners loomed for the Panthers. That team, the Tampa Bay Lightning, was a rematch of last year's playoff series. The powerhouse that is that Panthers' offense could not get anything going, only scoring 3 goals the entire series. The Panthers only had 3 games all year where they scored 1 goal and they were never shutout. With their Stanley Cup aspirations on the line, the Panthers managed to score 1 goal in each of the first 3 games and get shutout for the first time all season.
A three star performance of mention should go to Andrei Vasilevskiy. Vasilevskiy standing on his head should be no surprise to many NHL fans, as he has been widely considered the best goalie in the league. He may be the most frustrating goalie to watch as a fan of the opposing team because his unique skill set of simply refusing to give up goals. He faced 154 shots and gave up 3 goals all series, saving 49 shots in game 4. It makes one question, was it the Panthers' offense or Vasilevskiy's greatness?
Having a goalie that is a brick wall and an all-star defense and front of him, with a high-power offense of their own, Tampa perhaps presented the only team to slow the efforts of the Panthers down. What was the Achilles heel all season for Florida was their goaltending and their defense. Unfortunately, it showed during the playoffs and especially in this series.
Playoff hockey is a much different style than we saw from the Panthers during the season. 6-5 games are very rare and Cup contending teams have a strong defense, which Florida simply did not. If the Panthers hope to start progressing towards their ultimate goal of contending for the Stanley Cup, their defense needs to improve.
Alas, there is good to take from the 2021-2022 season. Experience. The Panthers played a close 6 game series in the 1st round and although this series wasn't very close, you know the young players can use this as a tool going forward. Just look at the Lightning. In 2019 the Columbus Blue Jackets swept the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the playoffs. The Lightning would then go on to win the next two Stanley Cups ('20, '21). The goalie of that Blue Jackets team was none other than Sergei Bobrovsky. Bobrovsky can use his veteran experience and help Florida finally get over the hump. That is of course if he isn't traded, but that's a story for another day.
The Florida Panthers have some of reflecting to do on how to improve this team. But they should also be proud of the success they managed to achieve this season. It was a statistically historical season across the board. There is big potential for 2023 but the Panthers could learn a thing or two from this year's potential three peat championship team... the Tampa Bay Lightning.