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The Florida Panthers are getting started early this year

Cat Scratch Fever has shifted up the calendar a couple months this time around. Last year, the Florida Panthers spent the first half of the season looking for a signal on their phone before closing the second half with a flourish to make the playoffs. That carried over into the postseason as they chased down the Boston Bruins, taking seven games in the first round to kneecap the league’s best regular-season teams (and one of the best regular-season teams ever). That propelled them to a run to the Final after they absolutely clobbered the Leafs and Canes.

The Cats aren’t waiting around this time, as since the calendar has flipped to 2024, they’re 16-4-2, have the best points percentage in the NHL, and are sitting just one point behind the Bruins for the top of the Atlantic Division with a game in hand. You’ll find a lot of people saying they’re the Eastern Conference favorite to once again get to the Stanley Cup Finals, and it would be hard to find a more complete team in the East than Florida.

In every category that could be used to measure teams, the Panthers are top five.

  • Corsi percentage: Second
  • Expected goals percentage: Third
  • Power Play: Fifth
  • Penalty Kill: Sixth
  • Goals against per game: Second

If anything, the Panthers have been unlucky. They’re fifth in the league in xGF per 60 minutes at even-strength with a 2.85 mark, but they’re only shooting 7.24 percent, good for 29th in the league. So their goals per game of 2.38 only ranks 24th. There’s actually room to grow for this squad.

That isn’t all that surprising considering they might have the best 1-2 center combo around. Sasha Barkov carried the “Most Underrated Player” label for so long that most people got sick of him, but considering the Panthers still don’t get a lot of national attention and he still remains one of the three best 200-foot centers in the game, he probably is still underrated. Barkov’s possession numbers rival Connor McDavid’s, except McDavid starts 65 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone, whereas Barkov starts only about half of his. And yet he creates the same attempts and chance disparity for the Panthers that McJesus does for the Oilers.

Barkov is also just about the best forechecker in the league:

Image for article titled The Florida Panthers are getting started early this year

Graphic: from AllThreeZones.com

Behind him is Sam Bennett, who has similar possession numbers and has provided the platform for Sam Reinhart to be on a 55-goal pace this season. You’ll see from that chart that Matthew Tkachuk is also one of the best forwards in the league off the cycle or forecheck, which comes in awfully handy in the playoffs as opponents look to shrink the ice. And Tkachuk and Barkov play on separate lines, divvying up the Panthers threat over 30-40 minutes per game.

The Cats might also have the deepest blue line, 1-6, in the NHL. Aaron Ekblad returned from most of his organs falling out during last year’s playoff run to be one of the better d-men in the NHL, with possession numbers around 60 percent even though he starts less than half his shifts in the offensive zone. Gustav Forsling, whom I remember being utterly helpless when his career started in Chicago, held the fort down while Montour and Ekblad were out to start the season. The Panthers have benefitted from a true renaissance from Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who looked like a rotisserie chicken in Vancouver.

The Panthers use that defensive depth to be perhaps the league’s most aggressive team defending their blue line, as no team denies clean entry into their zone as much as Florida does.

Image for article titled The Florida Panthers are getting started early this year

Graphic: from AllThreeZones.com

Teams just don’t get into the Panthers zone at all, which gets them the puck back, which means they’re turning around their super-charged offense quickly and getting the puck deep on their opponents where Barkov and Tkachuk make life hell.

Florida also has the luxury of two goalies playing well without any sort of controversy about it. Sergei Bobrovsky was good enough to get the Panthers to the Final last season and will take the wheel come April. He’s having his best regular season in some time this campaign, with a .916 save percentage. And he can get all the rest he needs because Anthony Stolarz has rocked a .925 while backing him up, and probably should be used more to keep Bob fresh for what matters. Stolarz has the fifth-best goals-saved-above-average-per-game among goalies. There just aren’t too many holes here.

Looking over the competition in the East, the Bruins are weak down the middle. The Canes don’t have a goalie or a pedigree of not swallowing their own tongue in the playoffs. The Leafs’ defense is slow and they also have goalie questions. The Rangers remain an iffy even-strength team leaning way too heavily on their power play, though the Cats are just red-assed enough to boil over and make that matter way more than it should, should they have to go to Broadway in May.

The Panthers were the Presidents’ Trophy winner two seasons ago. They represented the East in the Final last year. They might just combine both this one.



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