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The Panthers Can Beat Any Team in the NHL. But Can They Beat Hockey Randomness?

Being a historically great regular-season team doesn’t mean much come NHL playoff time. So will the Panthers live up to their potential? Or will they be yet another juggernaut to step on a crack and go out early?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

If the Florida Panthers are Stanley Cup favorites, they’re an unusually easy favorite to root for. Even as the NHL has come to accommodate Connor McDavid’s Ja Morant impression and Trevor Zegras’s exploration of the Z-axis, the name of the game is typically defense—stifling, oppressive defense. But the Panthers play a style appropriate for their fire-wagon-red sweaters; not only are they the highest-scoring team in the league by a huge margin, they’re the highest-scoring NHL team of the 21st century by a quarter of a goal per game.

The first 21st century team to score 330 goals in a season doled them out in delightful lumps and chunks, like the product of a particularly generous Marble Slab server. Florida has scored five or more goals in a game 32 times this season. They’ve scored six or more goals 17 times, seven or more eight times, and nine goals twice.

And all that action doesn’t necessarily run in one direction. The goalie tandem of two-time Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky and former Team USA standout Spencer Knight has been fine, but inconsistent. And top defenseman Aaron Ekblad has been out for the past month with a leg injury, meaning the team that’s leading the NHL in goals and expected goals is only 13th in goals against per 60 minutes and 14th in expected goals against per 60 minutes. That’s led to some thrilling contests, most notably a 7-6 comeback win against Toronto last month that will go down as one of the best games of the 2021-22 regular season.

Just as important: In a league built on internecine partisan grievances, the Panthers are unbelievably inoffensive. Captain Aleksander Barkov is good enough to be universally appreciated and beloved, but not enough to be overexposed. Claude Giroux would be the Old Guy Most in Need of a Cup in an ordinary year, but he’s playing with Joe Thornton, the Old Guy Most in Need of a Cup since, like, Ray Bourque. Plus the Panthers, who haven’t won a playoff round since their third season in existence, don’t have any heated rivals to speak of apart from the intrastate conflict with the Lightning—these aren’t the Bruins, or the Penguins, or the Avalanche, or any of the teams whose success left a heavy wake of resentment behind them. In a just world, Gary Bettman would be handing Barkov the Cup in a few weeks.

But few worlds are less just than the NHL playoffs, an unforgiving and treacherous wasteland governed by untimely injuries, unpredictable twists of fortune, and unenforced rules. And Florida’s dominance in the regular season, as anyone who’s seen playoff hockey can tell you, is no guarantee of playoff success.

The randomness of the NHL postseason has become something of a cliché, the most nihilistic form of which reduces the entire season of more than 100 meaningful games (between regular season and playoffs) into “goalie gets hot at the right time.” But if anything, that undersells how vulnerable the top seeds in the NHL playoffs can be.

From 1994, when the NHL began sorting its playoff bracket by conference, to 2019, the last season before this one to have a 16-team conference-based bracket … actually, why don’t you guess? Out of 50 no. 1 vs. no. 8 matchups over 25 seasons, how frequently does the no. 1 seed fail to clear the first round?

For context: Since the NBA went to a 16-team playoff format in 1984, just five no. 1 seeds and five no. 2 seeds have lost in the first round. Surely upsets are more common in the NHL, but what do you think the chances are that the top seed in a conference survives the first round of the playoffs? 90 percent? 80?

The answer: 17 times out of 50 matchups, or roughly one in three. Just since the season-canceling 2004-05 lockout, not one but three no. 8 seeds—the 2006 Oilers, the 2012 Kings, and 2017 Predators—have made it all the way to the Stanley Cup final. Four, really, because the 2021 Canadiens weren’t technically a no. 8 seed thanks to the odd divisional format, but they had the worst regular-season record of any of the 16 teams to make the playoffs that year.

You’d think things would be different for a team as good as this season’s Panthers, but that’s not really the case. Here are the top 20 teams in NHL history by regular-season point total, including this season’s Panthers and Colorado Avalanche.

Top 20 Regular-Season Teams in NHL History

Rank Team Year Games Played Points Playoff Fate Cup Wins First Round Losses
Rank Team Year Games Played Points Playoff Fate Cup Wins First Round Losses
1 MTL 1976-77 80 132 Won Cup 8 4
2 DET 1995-96 82 131 Lost Conference Final
3 MTL 1977-78 80 129 Won Cup
4 TBL 2018-19 82 128 Lost First Round
5 MTL 1975-76 80 127 Won Cup
6 DET 2005-06 82 124 Lost First Round
7 FLA 2021-22 82 122 TBD
8 BOS 1970-71 78 121 Lost First Round
9 WAS 2009-10 82 121 Lost First Round
10 MTL 1972-73 78 120 Won Cup
11 WAS 2015-16 82 120 Lost Second Round
12 EDM 1983-84 80 119 Won Cup
13 EDM 1985-86 80 119 Lost Second Round
14 PIT 1992-93 84 119 Lost Second Round
15 BOS 1971-72 78 119 Won Cup
16 COL 2021-22 82 119 TBD
17 NYI 1981-82 80 118 Won Cup
18 PHI 1975-76 80 118 Lost Cup Final
19 COL 2000-01 82 118 Won Cup
20 WAS 2016-17 82 118 Lost Conference Semifinal

After taking into account the 1976 playoffs, when the 127-point Canadiens beat the 118-point Flyers in the Cup final, the teams on this list won eight of the 17 championships available to them. Four other times the historically great regular-season team lost in the first round. Among the top 10 point-total teams in NHL history, four won the Cup and four lost in the first round, with this season’s Panthers still outstanding. All five of the shootout-era teams on the list failed to even make the Cup final, much less win it.

There’s no way to tell for certain whether this season’s Panthers will avoid the fate of their predecessors, but we can look for clues. So what tripped up the great teams of the recent past?

1. Overreliance on the Power Play

The thing that sticks out about this list of great regular-season teams is the frequency with which Alexander Ovechkin’s Capitals ended up on it. The one thing we know about teams with Ovechkin: They’re going to shoot the puck well, particularly on the power play. Here’s how they ranked in a few key categories in those seasons.

Ovechkin’s Capitals in Top-20 Seasons

Year EV GF% Rank EV xGF% Rank PPG/60 Rank PDO Rank
Year EV GF% Rank EV xGF% Rank PPG/60 Rank PDO Rank
2009-10 1 7 1 1
2015-16 2 7 3 4
2016-17 1 11 3 1

The disparity between goals for and expected goals can be read either as an ability to finish well—to be expected from a lineup with not only Ovechkin but (at one time or another) Alexander Semin, T.J. Oshie, and Evgeny Kuznetsov—or a team whose goal scoring and goal prevention numbers would regress at some point.

But in the postseason, the game tightens up, the competition gets stiffer, and referees stop calling penalties. Across those three unsuccessful postseasons, Ovechkin was still a presence, but his scoring took a hit: 15 goals and 15 assists on 10.3 percent shooting across 32 games. Those are excellent numbers for most mortals, but not quite what you’d expect from prime Ovechkin. As a team, the Caps shot just 7.5 percent in the 2016 playoffs (and got just two points in 12 games from Kuznetsov) and 8.2 percent in the 2017 playoffs.

Do the Panthers have to worry about this? Not really. Any high-scoring team will expect goals to be harder to come by in the postseason, but the Panthers are second in the league in both GF% and xGF% at even strength. And their power play, while potent, is just sixth in goals per 60 minutes and seventh in conversion rate.

Most encouraging: The Panthers, for all their eye-popping goal totals, aren’t reliant on one generational goal-scoring talent who might go cold or get hurt. Six Florida forwards have at least 20 goals and four have 30 or more, but none has more than 40. Ten Panthers, including defensemen Ekblad and MacKenzie Weegar, have at least 40 points on the season. And then there’s Giroux, who’s played only 18 games with the team but has 20 assists in that time.

Can all of those offensive weapons go quiet at the same time over seven games? I guess. But it’s not likely.

2. A Killer First-Round Opponent

The 2005-06 Red Wings might’ve just run out of gas at the end of a long season; six of the 20 players they dressed for the first-round defeat to Edmonton were 35 or older, while just four were 25 or younger. Plus, Manny Legace’s .915 regular-season save percentage dropped to an abysmal .884. You can ice a roster with four future Hall of Famers, plus Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg in their primes, and still go out in the first round if the goalie has a bad week. What a sport.

But Detroit also ran into a team backstopped by an absolute peak-of-his-powers Chris Pronger, who played—I barely believe this, but it’s what Hockey-Reference says—an average of 33:34 per game. Even accounting for the two double-overtime games in the series, that’s still six and a half minutes more than any other Oiler.

Of course, the classic example of the dangerous no. 8 seed is the 2019 Blue Jackets. Not only did they bank 98 regular-season points, they peaked at the right time. Pierre-Luc Dubois and Zach Werenski were having breakout seasons, and Columbus went all-in at the trade deadline. Cognizant that Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin were going to leave in the summer and this was going to be Columbus’s best chance to make a run for a while, GM Jarmo Kekalainen added Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, and Adam McQuaid at the deadline. This was a no. 8 seed in name only.

Here, Florida could be in trouble. Washington might not be that scary, particularly if Ovechkin isn’t 100 percent after suffering an upper-body injury late in the season. But after that, Florida’s path to the Cup gets hilariously tough. Because the top half of the Atlantic Division was so stacked this season, the Panthers’ second-round opponent is either going to be the two-time defending Cup champion Lightning, who knocked Florida out in the first round last year, or the high-powered Maple Leafs, led by Auston Matthews, the MVP front-runner, and a newly reinforced blue line. After that, they could face the 116-point Hurricanes in the conference final, and the Avs in the Cup final. So much for rewarding regular-season performance with an easy playoff schedule.

3. Normal Playoff Hockey Bullshit

In 2010, the top-seeded Capitals faced a 39-33-10 Canadiens team in the first round of the playoffs. Over seven games, the Caps outscored the Canadiens 22-19, outshot them 292-194, and lost the series anyway. Semin, Washington’s second-leading goal scorer during the regular season, put a series-high 44 shots on net over seven games and didn’t score a single goal. After leading the league in power play efficiency, Washington got outscored 6-1 on the power play. And Canadiens goalie Jaroslav Halak posted a .939 save percentage in the six games he played.

The sweep of the Lightning in 2019 also belies how many things went wrong for them. Tampa Bay blew a 3-0 lead in Game 1, then played without its two best players in Game 3 after Victor Hedman aggravated an injury and Nikita Kucherov took a dumb frustration penalty in Game 2 and got himself suspended. (We call that either the Nazem Kadri Special or the Evgeni Malkin Special, depending on the time of year and location.) Some of their grief was self-inflicted, of course, but it’s not enough to be the better team—a great team also has to avoid broken mirrors and cracks in the sidewalk.

That kind of thing you can’t really predict or plan for, much to the chagrin of this delightful Florida team. Sometimes hockey is just determined to make you miserable.