The Florida Panthers are this close to doing what seemed like an impossibility just six weeks ago: winning the Stanley Cup. The eighth-seeded Panthers, who narrowly made it into the playoffs, beat NHL predictions to upset title favorites en route to a Finals appearance.
Florida is not the first longshot to make it this far. In fact, the Panthers share many things in common with the “Cinderellas” of past years.
God-tenders: Underdog Runs Start Between Pipes
There are two names NHL fans will identify when speaking of this Florida Panthers’ underdog run: star forward Matthew Tkachuk and goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. The former was expected to be this good but the latter has gone on a hot run that’s worthy of NHL news headlines.
Entering the postseason, Bobrovsky was benched in favor of Alex Lyon. The two-time Vezina Trophy winner had a subpar 2022-23 regular season for Florida. His -4.6 goals saved above average placed him 46th among qualified netminders. In comparison, Lyon was 26th.
But something clicked with “Bob” and since Game 5 against Boston, the 34-year-old has won 11 of his 12 starts with a whopping 94.2 save percentage (SV%). Bobrovsky has not allowed more than two goals in seven of his last eight games.
Bobrovsky’s stunning run has many even considering him for the Hockey Hall of Fame. His play, which has pushed his underdog team to the Finals, is akin to netminders of other surprising finalists.
Highest Goals saved above average in the playoffs since 07-08
20.72 — Tim Thomas
14.66 — Sergei Bobrovsky
14.40 — Jonas Hiller
13.33 — Mike Smith
13.30 — Jonathan Quick
Two of these goalies won the cup during these seasons
Will Bobrovsky join them? pic.twitter.com/fRzZg3aOJ3
— Big Head Hockey (@BigHeadHcky) May 25, 2023
Dwayne Roloson backstopped the eighth-seeded Edmonton Oilers to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2006. Jean-Sebastien Giguere went just one win shy of leading Anaheim to its first Stanley Cup in 2003. And in 2012, Jonathan Quick made the Los Angeles Kings the first eighth-seeded team to win the Stanley Cup.
If Bobrovsky keeps it up, the Panthers may just equal what the Kings did. And analytics point to the Panthers having something similar with this Los Angeles squad.
Sticks on Fire: Panthers Can Score When It Matters
Bobrovsky can only win one half of the battle for the Florida Panthers. While he keeps opponents from scoring, the rest of the team has to producee. Tkachuk has been nigh-unstoppable for Florida, especially in the series against Boston and Carolina.
The 25-year-old has nine goals and 21 points this postseason, with four of these being game-winning goals. In fact, Tkachuk scored three of the team’s four game-winners against Carolina in the Eastern Conference finals, with the first two coming in overtime.
If it’s not Tkachuk, someone else is playing the hero. Carter Verhaeghe, the team’s second-leading scorer with 15 points, has three game-winners – two coming against top-seeded Boston. Sam Reinhart has a couple as well and is second behind Tkachuk with seven goals this postseason.
Most NHL odds would have the three as the most popular NHL picks to score the last goal of the game or for the Panthers. And it helps to have a trio of clutch scorers seeing as nine of the Panthers’ 12 wins in the playoffs came by one goal.
In similar fashion, the 2003 Mighty Ducks needed plenty of late-game heroics to progress. Eleven of their 15 wins were by one goal and seven were in overtime, including a five-OT marathon against Dallas.
Graded ‘A’ for Analytics: Florida Better Than its Record
The analytics portion is what may distinguish Florida as a team closer to the Kings, an underdog that went all the way, as opposed to the Ducks or Oilers, who fell just short. The Kings were in the top three in 5-on-5 metrics during the regular season like scoring chances for percentage and Corsi for percentage. They were also sixth in expected goals for percentage.
However, the Kings were dead last in shooting percent and third-last in PDO. This means that Los Angeles, for the most of the regular season, were not converting on their scoring chances. During the playoffs, however, the Kings got enough scoring to lead them to the promised land.
Something similar is happening with Florida. The team ranked in the top three in the major 5-on-5 metrics to denote it was outplaying teams. But its shooting percentage was in the bottom quarter of the NHL.
The Panthers improved on that just enough this postseason to become a lucrative online sports betting pick.