The Florida Panthers were eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs by the Tampa Bay Lightning, losing 4-0 in Game 6 of the best-of-7 Stanley Cup First Round at Amalie Arena on Wednesday.
Despite finishing as the No. 2 seed in the Discover Central Division with 79 points (37-14-5), one point behind the first-place Carolina Hurricanes, and entering the playoffs on a six-game winning streak, the Panthers couldn’t win more than two games against the No. 3 Lightning.
Here’s a look at what happened during the 2021 postseason for the Panthers and why things could be even better next season:
Potential unrestricted free agents: Alex Wennberg, F; Nikita Gusev, F; Scott Wilson, F; Brandon Montour, D; Kevin Connauton, D; Brady Keeper, D; Chris Driedger, G
Potential restricted free agents: Sam Bennett, F; Anthony Duclair, F; Lucas Wallmark, F; Juho Lammikko, F; Chase Priskie, D; Lucas Carlsson, D; Noah Juulsen, D; Gustav Forsling, D; Sam Montembeault, G
Potential 2021 NHL Draft picks: 6
What went wrong
Goaltending shuffle: The Panthers used three starting goalies in the first five games. Rookie Spencer Knight delivered the best play, with 36 saves in Game 5 at BB&T Center, a 4-1 win that staved off elimination. But that it got to Knight was a significant problem. Sergei Bobrovsky and Driedger could not get the job done through four games, a big reason why the Panthers were down 3-1 in the series. Bobrovsky started Game 1 and allowed five goals on 40 shots. Driedger started Game 2 and made 26 saves in a 3-1 loss. He started Game 3, but allowed five goals in the second period and was replaced by Bobrovsky, who started Game 4, but gave up five goals on 14 shots and was replaced by Driedger in the second.
PK problems: The Panthers struggled against the Lightning’s potent power play, going 12-for-20 (60.0 percent). They allowed three power-play goals against in Game 1, two each in Games 3 and 4, and one in Game 6. It was different from the Panthers’ success against the Lightning’s power play in the regular season, when they were 82.8 percent on the penalty kill (24-for-29) and scored one shorthanded goal. The difference was the addition of forward Nikita Kucherov to Tampa Bay’s power play. Kucherov, who didn’t play in the regular season, scored seven points (three goals, four assists) on the man-advantage.
Unsustained success: The Panthers didn’t handle success well. It started in Game 1, when they couldn’t hold leads of 2-1 and 4-3, and lost 5-4. They came back to win 6-5 in overtime in Game 3 after giving up a two-goal first period lead. It was an emotional and hopeful win, but they couldn’t build on it in Game 4, losing 6-2. Game 5 arguably was their best of the series, a 4-1 win to avoid elimination. They were optimistic about their chances to force Game 7, but got shut down in Game 6. It seemed that every time the Panthers had momentum, be it in-game or between games, they couldn’t keep a grasp on it.
Reasons for optimism
Relevant again: The Panthers reestablished themselves as playoff contenders and that shouldn’t change if they continue with the current plan and core. The key will be re-signing center Aleksander Barkov, who has one season remaining on his six-year contract. The Panthers captain scored 58 points (26 goals, 32 assists) in 50 games this season, and seven points (one goal, six assists) in the playoffs. Forward Jonathan Huberdeau led Florida with 10 points (two goals, eight assists) in the playoffs and 61 points (21 goals, 40 assists) in 55 games during the regular season. Huberdeau has two seasons remaining on his contract. Defenseman Aaron Ekblad will be back after recovering from surgery for a fractured left leg that ended his season March 28.
More to build around: The Panthers learned about a lot of players and most of it was positive. Knight showcased himself as a future No. 1 goalie and gained valuable postseason experience. MacKenzie Weegar showed he can be a top-pair defenseman. Forward Carter Verhaeghe proved he’s a top-six forward, scoring a career-best 36 points (18 goals, 18 assists) in 43 games. Wennberg re-established himself as a top-nine center, scoring 29 points (17 goals, 12 assists) in 56 games, better production in fewer games than each of his previous two seasons with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Bennett’s addition: Bennett delivered in a big way for the Panthers after they acquired the center in a trade with the Calgary Flames on April 12. He scored 15 points (six goals, nine assists) in 10 regular-season games and five points (one goal, four assists) in five playoff games; he was suspended for Game 2 by the NHL Department of Player Safety for boarding Lightning forward Blake Coleman. Bennett can be a restricted free agent, but the Panthers control his rights and should be inclined to sign him because of how effective he was as a second-line center behind Barkov.