With Carolina clinching the division, I can’t think of a cooler/more exciting matchup than for the Panthers taking on the former-Stanley Cup champions and in-state rival, Tampa Bay Lightning, in the first-round of the playoffs.
Both teams will finish the regular season facing off against each other for two more games...
I’m feeling pretty good for the Cats heading into these two games against TBL to finish things up here.
For starters, the Dallas Stars beat up on the Lightning a bit Friday night with a 5-2 win. So I’m hoping they’ll be a little fatigued with back-to-back game action.
This is the opposite of how the Panthers should be feeling. With the playoffs about to start, the Cats had very fortuitous timing when it came to a much needed break. They last played on Monday night (OT victory over DAL) and have had this whole week to strategize, but, more importantly, rest. These few days off should have helped bodies heal up and buy injured players a bit more time and less games missed. Per Jameson Olive, it sounds like most of the injured Cats won’t be back in the lineup tomorrow, but Monday could be the day everyone returns.
Florida already knows what Tampa brings and is capable of, but these last two games should give the Cats a better gauge of where the Lightning are right now heading into the playoffs - as well as themselves. I’m almost looking at these games as scouting missions. Let’s iron out the wrinkles as best we can before things get turned up to 11 come playoff time.
Monday’s OT win over the Stars had positive and negatives heading into the post-season. Obviously a win is always good, and the Panthers tenth OT win was not only the most by a team this season, but also the most in franchise history for a single season, is awesome.
But the reality is that the Cats blew leads and had some funky mishaps (Weegar accidentally scoring on Knight). That stuff won’t fly come playoff time.
Putting that aside, I’m actually very confident with the coaching, goaltending, young guys and overall team play of the Panthers. I think they have the right formula going and need to stick to that “harder to play against” identity they’ve built up this year.
My questions/concerns actually lie in Barky and Huby (surprisingly).
Huby has done an incredible job this year of turning his game around and becoming a star and Barky has been an absolute beast. In fact, checkout this excerpt from the Panthers site talking about the season #16 is having:
“On fire heading into a Saturday's matchup against the rival Lightning, the 25-year-old center has racked up 18 goals over his last 23 games to increase his team-leading total to 26. During that torrid stretch, he's scored at least one goal in 14 games, including four multi-goal performances.
Already one of the top players in the NHL, clearly Barkov somehow keeps getting better.
"He's always impressed me, but this year he's just stepped it up and is on another level right now," said Panthers winger Jonathan Huberdeau, a teammate of Barkov's for the past eight seasons. "One-on-one, he wins his battle every time. I wouldn't want to play against him."
As someone that has played against him, Noel Acciari, who faced the Panthers on numerous occasions during his first four NHL seasons while playing for the Bruins, knows shutting down Barkov is not only be a tall order, but, when he's on top of his game, almost an impossibility.
"I played against him [in Boston]," Acciari said. "I was one of the lines that tried to shut him down. It's very, very hard to do. Not many people can do it, if any. Joining him and seeing his work ethic and what does to get ready for games, he's an unbelievable player."
Also ranking second on the Panthers in scoring with 56 points, part of Barkov's success can be found by digging a bit deeper into his possession metrics. Looking more like a defenseman than a forward with his extended stick, he excels at both tracking down the puck and holding onto it.
According to the numbers at NaturalStatTrick.com, when Barkov's been on the ice 5-on-5 this season, the Panthers have controlled 59.47% of shot attempts, 60.26% of shots on goal and 60.47% of scoring chances. In that same time, they've also outscored the opposition 36-25.
In contention and possibly even a front-runner for the Selke Trophy (like I said, we'll have a lot to talk about around awards seasons), Barkov's exceptional two-way play is also highlighted by his expected goals for and against rates. At 5-on-5, the Panthers are expected to score three goals per 60 minutes when he's deployed the ice, while also allowing just 1.89 goals against.
Taking both of those numbers into account, Barkov ranks sixth in the NHL among forwards that have skated at least 500 minutes this season with an expected goals for percentage of 61.34%.”
Both guys have been incredible this season, but their Achilles Heel always seems to be big games, and the biggest games are in the playoffs.
Last year’s first-round exit saw poor play and a lack of effort from Florida as a whole, but the most frustrating thing (for me) was Huby and Barky disappearing.
These are the two guys that are billed as your stars. They can do great things and have put together many great seasons, but when it’s time to step up and put the team on their backs in the high-tension situations, they often can’t be found.
Could it be that this post-season is when one or both guys steps into that role and goes from “star” to “superstar”? I don’t know. I certainly hope so and am eager to find out!