The NHL will be more than happy to hook their star to an NBA narrative, so while all the fans north of the border bitch about a Stanley Cup Final between the Florida Panthers and Vegas Golden Knights, the offices probably aren’t upset about getting linked through dual South Florida 8-seeds playing for a championship. The more shots of Jimmy Butler wearing a Matthew Tkachuk jersey, the better.
The easy-to-reach storyline, so naturally the one that most hockey observers will be grabbing, is that the Panthers making a coaching change after a Presidents’ Trophy campaign last year was a genius move that remade the team into a playoff-ready, defensive, grind-it-out swamp monster. But is that really the case? Well no, and we’ll get to why.
First, it’s probably best to once again underline that the NHL standings are warped and aren’t the full truth, thanks to their dumbass overtime and shootout rules. These are coin flips, gimmicks, and don’t tell us much other than who got a 3-on-1 rush at the right time for no reason other than funsies. Basically, when we separate out the playoff teams in April, all the league has really done is created a group of 16 that doesn’t differ all that much from each other. Thanks, salary cap.
Comparing last year’s Panthers to this year’s team
So when comparing the Panthers this year to last, yes, they finished with 30 points less overall. But they only had two fewer regulation wins this year. Last season, they won 16 games beyond the 60 minutes, far and away the most in the league. Yes, they had the most points, but they had the sixth-most regulation wins. On the flip side, their goal difference was massively better last season (+94 to +17), which can’t be ignored.
Digging in metrically, the narrative falls apart even more. The idea that the Panthers were too open last year as a sweet cheese, good-time boy review doing a dance interpretation of the O.K. Corral and are now a lockdown unit doesn’t hold up under any numbers. Last year, the Panthers gave up 2.46 expected goals against per 60 minutes at even strength. This year it’s 2.69. In the playoffs, they’re giving up 2.80 xGA, after last year’s 2.74. If you want to really get into the weeds, last year’s second-round pulverizing at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning was seen as proof that the Panthers were just too easy to play against, whereas their shutdown of the Bruins and Leafs was evidence that they “get” playoff hockey now. In those four games against the Bolts, they gave up 2.60 xGA. Against the Bruins this spring? 2.59. Against the Leafs? 2.58. Could it be the difference is Sergei Bobrovksy’s .935? Or maybe not having Andre Vasilevskiy throw a .981 at them? Couldn’t be, could it?
Throw in Matthew Takchuk shooting 18 percent for six weeks and you probably have the formula. Certainly swapping out last year’s leading scorer for Tkachuk took a fair amount of balls, though in a vacuum pretty much everyone would have told you Tkachuk is a better player than Jonathan Huberdeau. It just worked out so well.
The Panthers are just an example of hockey sequencing. They put up the same numbers for two seasons, but get fewer results than they did last year simply because the goals are in a different order than they were, with fewer of them coming after 60 minutes to skew the overall results. That won’t stop everyone throwing bouquets at Maurice should they get the four wins against Vegas in the next two weeks, and Maurice should get enough credit, I guess, for at least not getting in the way too much to prevent the Panthers from doing pretty much what they did last season. Maybe they do it in a different way, but it ends up the same. If this team was talented enough to be on top of the standings last year, then it’s certainly talented enough to be in the Final now.
What does it mean for the Stanley Cup Final?
What does that mean for the Final? The Panthers had 19 fewer points in the regular season than the Knights, but two more regulation wins in a far tougher division and conference. Both teams have depth, but the Panthers have the sharp ends that the Knights don’t have, with Tkachuk and Bobrovsky both playing the way they are. And maybe Maurice will figure out, which Dallas’s Pete Deboer didn’t, to try and break out of the defensive zone in another way other than up the boards. Certainly, with Brandon Montour, Aaron Ekblad, Gustav Forsling they can do more than that.
And should they, it’ll be called a miracle and an incredible run of a team that needed the Pittsburgh Penguins to lose to the Chicago Blackhawks at home in the last week of the season even to get into the playoffs. When really all it is is last year’s team getting to roll the dice again, because that’s what hockey is.
Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate.