NHL.com is looking ahead to the Stanley Cup Qualifiers by examining five of the biggest questions facing each of the 24 remaining teams. Today, we look at the Florida Panthers.
The Florida Panthers were 35-26-8 (.565 points percentage) and will enter the Stanley Cup Qualifiers as the No. 10 seed in the Eastern Conference. They will play the No. 7 seed, the New York Islanders (35-23-10, .588 points percentage), in one of eight best-of-5 series. The qualifiers will start Aug. 1 at a site to be determined.
Here are 5 key questions facing the Panthers:
1. Can Sergei Bobrovsky return to form?
Bobrovsky has struggled in his first season with the Panthers after the goalie signed a seven-year contract July 1, 2019. His 3.23 goals-against average is the highest of his 10 NHL seasons, and his .900 save percentage is his lowest since 2011-12 (.899). Bobrovsky missed Florida's final four games before the season was paused March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus because of a lower-body injury but will be ready whenever play resumes. He is a two-time winner of the Vezina Trophy voted as the best goalie in the NHL (2013, 2017) but 11-18 with a 3.14 GAA and .902 save percentage in 34 Stanley Cup Playoff games. However, Bobrovsky helped the Columbus Blue Jackets sweep the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2019 Eastern Conference First Round, a potential boost for his confidence heading into this qualifier series.
Video: DET@FLA: Bobrovsky earns first shutout with Panthers
2. Does Joel Quenneville give them an edge?
In most cases, Panthers coach Joel Quenneville provides a distinct advantage behind the bench with three Stanley Cup championships won during his time with the Chicago Blackhawks (2010, 2013, 2015) and 118 postseason victories in the NHL. But Quenneville, whose 925 wins are second in NHL history to Scotty Bowman (1,244), is going up against New York coach Barry Trotz, who is fifth all-time (845), guided the Washington Capitals to their first championship in 2018, and won the Jack Adams Award voted as the top coach in the NHL last season, his first with the Islanders. Florida went 0-2-1 against New York during the regular season and was held to four goals in three games.
3. Which version of the Panthers is going to show up?
They went 8-2-0 in January, winning their last six games and scoring at least four goals in each victory. But Florida lost 11 of 16 and was shut out twice in February (5-9-2); they went 10 days without playing before and after the All-Star break. Florida's leading scorer, forward Jonathan Huberdeau (78 points; 23 goals, 55 assists), scored one goal and one assist in the last eight games before the season was paused, and center Aleksander Barkov did not have a point in the last six. The Panthers' top scorers must find ways to produce against the Islanders, who shut down the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the playoffs last season.
Video: FLA@LAK: Barkov puts home wrist shot from the slot
4. Can their special teams play a positive role?
The Panthers power play was solid and tied with the Minnesota Wild for 10th in the NHL (21.3 percent), led by forwards Mike Hoffman and Evgenii Dadonov, who each scored 11 power-play goals, and Huberdeau, who had 29 power-play points. It is quarterbacked by veteran defenseman Keith Yandle, who scored nearly half of his points on the man-advantage (21 of 45). The Florida penalty kill, which was ranked 20th (78.5 percent), will be put to the test against New York's biggest weapons, including defenseman Ryan Pulock, who has a dangerous slap shot from the point.
Video: FLA@VGK: Dadonov finishes tic-tac-toe play for PPG
5. Will Noel Acciari contribute offensively?
The veteran forward exceeded expectations after signing a three-year contract July 1, 2019, doubling his previous NHL career high by scoring 20 goals in 66 games. But, much like Florida's other top scorers, Acciari had trouble producing after the All-Star break, scoring two goals in his last 21 games before the pause. Acciari, who helped the Boston Bruins reach the Stanley Cup Final last season with four points (two goals, two assists) in 19 playoff games, will need to be closer to the player the Panthers saw in December, when he scored a hat trick in back-to-back games (Dec. 16 and 20).
Video: TOR@FLA: Acciari snaps puck past Andersen