The 2023 Florida Panthers’ Unprecedented Playoff Surge
By Nicholas Lopez and Victor Zeidenfeld
Historically Unparalleled Success
In a word, the 2023 Florida Panthers’ playoff performance was nothing less than unprecedented. Saturday, June 3rd, marked the start of the Stanley Cup Finals, a matchup between the Golden Knights and Florida Panthers, who were given just a 3% chance to make it this far at the end of the regular season. Once given 150-1 odds after Game 4 of the First Round to win the Stanley Cup, the Florida Panthers were miraculously favorites heading into the finals. Had they won, the Panthers would complete what is likely the most extraordinary playoff run in NHL, and arguably modern professional sports, history. In the NHL community, a Cinderella run is often used to define a playoff run during which a team always plays a lower-seeded team in each series. Comparing the Panthers’ gauntlet with other Cinderella runs from the past 20 NHL seasons to reach the Stanley Cup Finals, it’s easy to see just how impressive the this season’s anomaly is:
Cinderella Runs to Reach Stanley Cup Finals, by Overall League Seed
|Year||Team||First Round||Second Round||Conference Finals||Stanley Cup Finals||Finals Result|
|1994||Vancouver Canucks (14)||Calgary Flames (7)||Dallas Stars (8)||Toronto Maple Leafs (5)||New York Rangers (1)||Lost|
|1995||New Jersey Devils (9)||Boston Bruins (6)||Pittsburgh Penguins (3)||Philadelphia Flyers (5)||Detroit Red Wings (1)||Won|
|1999||Buffalo Sabers (9)||Ottawa Senators (3)||Boston Bruins (8)||Toronto Maple Leafs (5)||Dallas Stars (1)||Lost|
|2003||Mighty Ducks of Anaheim (11)||Detroit Red Wings (3)||Dallas Stars (2)||Minnesota Wild (10)||New Jersey Devils (4)||Lost|
|2004||Calgary Flames (12)||Vancouver Canucks (7)||Detroit Red Wings (1)||San Jose Sharks (3)||Tampa Bay Lightning (2)||Lost|
|2023||Florida Panthers (7)||Boston Bruins (1)||Toronto Maple Leafs (4)||Carolina Hurricanes (2)||Vegas Golden Knights (5)||Lost|
The Panthers had a daunting task ahead of them: only one team has completed a successful Cinderella run in the past 20 seasons. In fact, the 1995 New Jersey Devils are the only team to have pulled off a successful Cinderella run since the advent of the 16-team playoff format in 1980. Not only that, but the Panthers faced the lowest cumulative seeded teams during an entire playoff run over that same time span.
Who’s to say it can’t be done, though? For Florida after the first round, the worst may have been behind them. Their most formidable opponent was certainly the one they faced and defeated first—the Boston Bruins, who had just completed the most successful regular season in NHL history.
While past playoff success has been shown through early indicators such as end-of-season prosperity, the Panthers showed no such signs. In their final 12 games, the Panthers went 6-6, and 1-3 against teams they would later play in the playoffs. They did, however, show incredible streakiness, losing 4 in a row in a struggle to clinch postseason berth before winning six in a row and finally losing their final two games. In fact, the Panthers did not clinch a playoff spot until the day after their penultimate game, when the Sabres and Penguins were eliminated in their own respective losses.
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What makes this playoff run even more special is that the Panthers were in a tight race with the New York Islanders and Pittsburgh Penguins for the two last playoff spots in the East. With two games left in the season, another Penguins playoff appearance seemed promising as they would play two of the worst teams this season, the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Chicago Blackhawks. It would be reasonable to expect the Penguins to finish the regular season with two more wins, but they skated off with a measly one point for an overtime loss to the Blue Jackets. The Panthers would have been the odd man out with a Pittsburgh victory over Chicago, a testament to the parity in the National Hockey League.
Indeed, the Panthers were close to being the ninth best team in the East, which amounts to nothing at the end of the regular season. A season that appeared to be a terrible collapse for the 2022 President’s Trophy Champs was corrected in a spectacular playoff run so far. So, is the Panthers’ success a product of their successful season the prior year, or the injection of new leadership into the team? The Panthers made a blockbuster trade with the Calgary Flames in the off-season that swapped superstars between the two cities. Matthew Tkachuk, an impending free agent after the 2022-23 season, expressed his desire to leave Calgary, forcing their front office to find a trade to keep the team competitive after losing Johnny Gaudreau in free agency. The price tag for the Panthers was a veteran forward coming off another spectacular season in Jonathan Huberdeau and a top-four defenseman Mackenzie Weegar.
This season marked personnel change for the Panthers behind the bench as well with Paul Maurice hired as the new head coach. With the Panthers out of the playoff picture as the season’s end neared, Tkachuk is given praise for his leadership and skill pushing the Panthers into the playoffs. A similar narrative continued throughout the playoffs with multiple goal contributions in each series he has played so far. His play was especially important in their conference finals sweep where Tkachuk scored three of four game-winning goals.
Maurice was relieved of his head coaching duties in Winnipeg and found his new home in Florida where he pulled the right strings when it mattered most. However, there were multiple coaches who found new homes this season. Bruce Cassidy was fired by Bruins’ General Manager Don Sweeney for his lack of success in the playoffs. He went to Vegas where he now has a chance at hosting a Stanley Cup. He replaced Pete Deboer who was then hired by Dallas, making it to the conference finals where they were bested by Vegas. Finally, Jim Montgomery replaced Cassidy in Boston following his departure from Dallas. The coaching changes prior to the season were obviously impactful with only Rod Brind’Amour having a head coaching position with his team prior to this season amongst Conference Finals teams.
Montgomery failed to have a successful playoff run following the Bruins’ historic season where they amassed the most wins and points in NHL history. To have such a dominant season and to follow that with a first-round loss is shocking and raises concerns about the Bruins’ leadership. What factors contributed to the Bruins’ inabilityto win one of their last three games to clinch a series win? Conversely, what did the Panthers do right in game five and onwards to win their first round series but also the second round and conference finals in five and four games respectively?
Frauds or For Real? An Analysis of the First Round Series through Various Lenses
To what extent is the Panthers’ success pure luck, and to what extent are these series wins earned? MoneyPuck’s Deserve To Win O’Meter aims to answer such questions, using a formula similar to thatused to calculate Expected Goals in soccer. Using this metric, the results still bode well for the Panthers, who “deserved” to win the first 4 of 5 games in their First Round series against the Bruins.
|Game One||Panthers 1 – Bruins 3||Panthers 3.24 – Bruins 3.1|
|Game Two||Panthers 6 – Bruins 3||Panthers 4.93 – Bruins 3.6|
|Game Three||Panthers 2, Bruins 4||Panthers 3.46, Bruins 3.42|
|Game Four||Panthers 2, Bruins 6||Panthers 3.87, Bruins 6.6|
|Game Five||Panthers 4, Bruins 3||Panthers 3.86, Bruins 4.52|
|Game Six||Panthers 7, Bruins 5||Panthers 4.85, Bruins 4.01|
|Game Seven||Panthers 4, Bruins 3||Panthers 2.59, Bruins 2.98|
Using the Gradient Boosting Model, it’s clearly just how much Bobrovsky has mattered to the team throughout the postseason. With this knowledge, it becomes easier to find a key factor in the Panthers’ unprecedented success. Bobrovsky, once undrafted, is now on his thirteenth season, enjoying an incredibly successful career with two Vezina Trophy wins. Bobrovsky had a below average regular season, ranking 15th out of 25 in Goals Saved Above Expected Per 60 Minutes and Wins Above Replacement amongst goalies who started for at least half of their team’s games during the season. As seen throughout the NHL, variance amongst levels of play between the regular and postseason for individual players and teams as a whole can be a significant factor, and Bobrovsky’s performance is one clear example.
Tkachuk and Bobrovsky Dominating Their Respective Ends of the Ice.
Matthew Tkachuk has been the most impactful player for the Panthers’ this playoffs, leading the team in goal, assists, points. His performance is not a fluke with the highest expected goals in all situations as well as high danger situations. The Panthers simply are a more productive offensive team with Tkachuk on the ice. He leads his team with on-ice expected goals and off-ice expected goals illuminating the offensive caliber Tkachuk brings to the game which is why fans have seen so many game-winning goal contributions in close games.
The Panther’s presence on the other side of the ice has been just as noticeable. Panthers’ goalie, Sergei Bobrovsky leads the NHL in goalie saves above expected this playoffs and is third for goalie saves above expected per 60 minutes. Bobrovsky has made the act of making unbelievably talented saves routine. As validated with the Gradient Boosting Model, the Panthers likely would not be in the finals without Bobrovsky. His expected goals against average is 3.57 while his actual goals against is 2.50 which provides his team with better chances to win playoff games where goals are extremely difficult to come by. If his actual goals were inflated to a goal higher, many of the Panthers’ spectacular victories would disappear. This playoffs they have won seven games in overtime. If Bobrovsky had not consistently risen to the occasion, the Panthers would have lost these seven games in regulation holding all other factors equal as they would have conceded an additional goal each game based on their expected goals against. Wins above replacement may ring a bell for a baseball article, but it is also a great measure to use in hockey to evaluate goalies. To no surprise, Bobrovsky leads the NHL this playoff with almost two wins more than the second most indispensable goalie this playoffs. In a trophy that takes 16 hard-fought wins, the Florida goaltender has certainly helped bring his team close to their first ever reign as Stanley Cup Champions.
Why Did the Panthers Magical Run Collapse?
Matthew Tkachuk was the most noticeable skater on the ice frequently throughout the Panthers’ first three series. However, his effectiveness peaked in the Eastern Conference Finals where he had either a game-winning goal or assist in all four games in one of the closest sweeps in NHL history.
Tkachuk made an appearance on the scoresheet in two of the four games he played against the Vegas Golden Knights before being ruled out due to injury. Tkachuk was mildly productive, but he was dealing with an underlying injury that prevented him from carrying his team to their first Stanley Cup victory. Other teammates were also battling in the finals with injuries of their own leading to a Stanley Cup matchup dominated by Vegas. Alongside Matthew Tkachuk, Florida had many unhealthy players from the Conference finals on. Eetu Luostarinen, Radko Gudas, Aaron Ekblad, Sam Bennet, and Brandon Montaur were all battling injuries in the finals.
What to Expect in 2023-2024 Season From the Florida Panthers
The Panthers belong to a tough division with teams that just missed last year looking to make the jump into the playoffs. The Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs look to be strong contenders for the top two spots due to their star-studded roster. Despite losing key pieces, the Boston Bruins, should still be viewed as contenders. Meanwhile, the Buffalo Sabres, Ottawa Senators, and Detroit Red Wings are close to the playoff picture as their young cores are expected to progress again this year. At most five of the Atlantic teams can make it with seven competitive teams heading into next season. The number of Atlantic teams playing playoff hockey is also dependent on how the fourth and fifth best teams in the Metropolitan division perform. The New York Rangers, Carolina Hurricanes, and New Jersey Devils are all contenders for the division but it is hard to count out the Pittsburgh Penguins from the playoff picture after acquiring Norris winner, Erik Karlsson. The road to the playoffs is going to be a difficult one for the Panthers, with no game-changing additions unlike the previous offseason. Their forward core has changed a bit this offseason with Anthony Duclair being traded to the San Jose Sharks. Duclair was an important piece to their top-six forward group that could leave a void. The Panthers may have a similar regular season as a fringe playoff team, but the team has shown it can compete with the best teams in the NHL.