The Florida Panthers are the beasts of the East
As we leave the NHL All-Star Weekend behind and look to the second half of the 2021-22 season, it's time to take a glimpse at the Eastern Conference standings. What do we see? Well, the glare coming off the two teams from the Sunshine State is just blinding.
Florida is having its day in the sun as the locus of power for Eastern Time Zone hockey. Both the Florida Panthers (+375) and Tampa Bay Lightning (+375) are currently co-favorites to win the East, with the Toronto Maple Leafs (+450) and Carolina Hurricanes (+450) just-behind.
NHL Eastern Conference Odds
Tampa Bay Lightning
Toronto Maple Leafs
So who’s going to take the East? My bet’s on The Panthers.
Taking a bite out of the reigning champs
All due respect to the Hurricanes and Maple Leafs, but they’re not quite there yet. Yes, they each have five games in-hand on the Panthers (and four each on the Lightning), and sure, anything can happen in sports (the Cincinnati Bengals are in the Super Bowl, after all). However, it’s clear that the Panthers are heading toward one of their best seasons in team history, while the Lightning are reigning Stanley Cup Champions until someone knocks them off their perch.
That said, the Panthers are out to prove something. After 29+ years of being the state’s "other hockey team" and living in the shadow of the multiple cup-winning Lightning, Florida’s talented group of players are finally popping. With 69 points over 47 games, the Panthers are sitting atop the entire league. They’ve been (mostly) chewing through opponents all year. This is thanks in no small part to some of the following four factors:
1. Jonathan Huberdeau is a force
The NHL’s leading points-getter has set the pace for this season. As of the All-Star break, the left winger has amassed 64 points. This is his true breakout season and he’s on a mission.
Jonathan Huberdeau fakes the Michigan before setting up Sam Bennett for the OT winner pic.twitter.com/qVNvXxZ1k6— Brady Trettenero (@BradyTrett) January 30, 2022
2. Florida's defense is stout
Four of the NHL’s current Top 10 plus/minus leaders on defense belong to the Panthers. The list includes Aaron Ekblad (+29, second overall), Gustav Forsling (+24, sixth overall), Mackenzie Weegar (+23, seventh overall) and Radko Gudas (+23, eighth overall). Welcome to the jungle, other teams.
3. Sergei Bobrovsky has been solid between the pipes
Bobrovsky (aka "Goalie Bob") is giving the Panthers consistent, above-average net-minding. He may only be sitting 12th overall in save percentage (.920), but he boasts a 23-4 win/loss record. With the firepower on the team, plus one of the stingiest defenses in the game this year, Bob’s above-average goaltending equates to "All-World" goaltending.
Sergei Bobrovsky of the @FlaPanthers turned aside all 40 shots he faced to improve to 8-0-1 in nine appearances since Dec. 29, 2021.#NHLStats: https://t.co/Y7zSFlkyP4 pic.twitter.com/YiWtvIAxvZ— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) January 21, 2022
4. The Panthers have a soft schedule
Lastly, a good chunk of their upcoming schedule for February and March includes more games against teams in the bottom half of the standings. This should allow the Panthers to emerge as the league’s apex predator.
The Panthers are a team of destiny
Now, if you’re superstitious, you might be turned off by the fact that The Presidents Trophy-winner (won by the team with the most overall points at the end of the regular season) has only won the Stanley Cup twice since the NHL instituted the salary cap in 2005. The last time it happened was in 2013, when the Blackhawks took the silver chalice. Don’t bet against Florida doing it again this year.
The Panthers have all the tools to withstand a challenge by their state rivals, finish first overall in the East, and get through the playoffs to win their first Stanley Cup in franchise history. Wonder if they’ll play "Cat Scratch Fever" as their victory song?