Don’t Write Them Off Yet: How the Panthers can claw their way back into Cup Final

During Stanley Cup Final media availability, Florida Panthers defenseman Marc Staal speaks on what his team has to do to get back in the series.

If history is any indication, the Florida Panthers are in trouble. Only five of 53 teams have rallied from a 2-0 deficit in a best-of-seven Stanley Cup Final. To make matters worse, Florida’s 12 goals against are tied for the most through the first two games of a final.

It would be easy to write off the Panthers right now, but there are reasons to believe that they can at least make the series competitive. Florida, despite being outscored 8-3 at 5-on-5, has carried 55.2 per cent of expected goals. Although that has been somewhat influenced by score effects, it shows that the Panthers have not been utterly caved in by the Vegas Golden Knights. They are also winning the slot battle at 5-on-5, holding a 35-31 edge in scoring chances. (Adin Hill has stopped 18 of the Panthers’ 21 slot shots on net.)

The first thing the Panthers need to do is keep the Golden Knights and themselves out of their goaltender’s line of vision. The Golden Knights have scored five goals on 24 screened shots in all situations, including four against Sergei Bobrovsky on 18 shots. In their first 16 playoff games, the Panthers allowed seven goals on 123 screened shots. On multiple occasions, Panthers skaters have blinded their own goaltender while trying to block a shot.

“If we’re going to be there, you’ve got to block them,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice told reporters after Game 2. We’ve got to get in front of those shots, so we’re working at it. We’re trying, but we’re about three inches off on those shots.”

The Panthers must also do a better job of slowing down the Golden Knights once they cross the offensive blue line. Vegas has made a successful first play, such as a completed pass or unblocked shot attempt, following 36 of its 49 offensive-zone carry-ins at 5-on-5 (73.5 per cent). Compare that to the first three rounds, when Florida’s opponents had a combined success rate of 54.5 per cent.

“Their rush game is elite, but we’ve faced other teams like that,” Maurice told reporters Tuesday. “We’ve just put ourselves in a position where we’ve had to give more ice than we want to give. Some of it’s based on their speed. They’re going to get those chances. And some of it is just our positioning. The first game was very even, in terms of what we gave off the rush to what we got off the rush. (In Game 2), clearly they got on us off the rush, and because we were in a deficit by the time they crossed the line, we had a harder time containing and killing those plays in the (defensive) zone, so it’ll be a focus for us, for sure.”

Discipline has been a big issue for the Panthers as well. They have racked up a staggering 130 penalty minutes, including 36 by leading scorer Matthew Tkachuk, who has been whistled for three misconducts. The Golden Knights have scored on four of their 11 power-play opportunities.

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The Panthers have already defied the odds this postseason, overcoming a 3-1 deficit to defeat the record-setting Boston Bruins in the first round. They will lean on that experience as they attempt to claw their way back into the Stanley Cup Final.

“(When) we were down 3-1 (against the Bruins), we still had some good moments in the games,” Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov told reporters Wednesday. “We took good things out of them and tried to repeat that for 60 minutes. We did that three games straight. Here, it’s no different.”

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