With only twelve games left in the regular season, the 2021-22 Florida Panthers have already proven themselves to be the best team in franchise history and it isn’t particularly close. Already eclipsing a team high in points and wins, the Panthers stars have shone bright, with Jonathan Huberdeau putting together the first 100-point campaign in franchise history, as the offense produces at a historic level. The Panthers only play 4 teams that are in playoff position out of their last 12 games, with three key games near the end of the season against the Atlantic gauntlet of Toronto, Tampa Bay and Boston. Other than that, there is really no need to risk the health of several key players who will have critical roles in the playoffs.
Coach Andrew Brunette seems intent on playing his stars to the end. The Panthers want to win the eastern conference in order to secure home ice advantage for the entirety of the eastern conference playoffs, if they manage to slay their Round 1 demons. However, the Panthers are in a comfortable position at the moment. The Panthers have a 8-lead point on the Toronto Maple Leafs for first in the Atlantic, and have a 6 point advantage against the Metro-leading Carolina Hurricanes, with a dozen games remaining. The Panthers trail the Colorado Avalanche by 2 points for the President’s Trophy. Right now if both teams manage to survive the gauntlet to battle in an offensive-powered finals as compared to the Roy-Vanbiesbrouck duels in the 1996 finals, the Avalanche would have home-ice advantage, something which you don’t want to give Colorado. Denver is known as the Mile High City, meaning it is 5,280 feet above sea level. As altitude increases, oxygen pressure decreases, meaning that there is less oxygen in the blood for the body to use. Naturally, players who play for the Colorado based teams are likely to find this easier than players who don’t play half of their season’s game a mile above sea level, as these athletes live in Denver during the season, meaning their body becomes used to those conditions. Visiting players will have a much harder time adapting to the conditions. In addition, the Avalanche are 28-4-3 on home ice, those wins are second best to the Panthers who are 29-6-0 when teams play them in Sunrise, FL. Although the Avalanche have one more point than the Panthers at home due to less regulation losses and more OTLs, OTLs are a non-factor in the playoff, so that is essentially negated. It would be much more advantageous for the Panthers to play a 7-game series w/ a majority of games near the beach rather than in the mountains. Both teams won their home game matchup against each other this year. Therefore one would think that the Panthers would want to win the President’s Trophy.
Not so fast. Only 8 out of 35 teams that have won the President’s Trophy have won the Stanley Cup. The 2018-19 Tampa Bay Lightning had a historic regular season, only to be swept in Round 1 by Sergei Bobrovsky and the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Lightning have since rebounded. Although they haven’t won any President’s Trophies since, I doubt two consecutive Stanley Cup rings makes them upset about not winning a regular-season only award. The last team to win the President’s Trophy and win the Stanley Cup, as well as make the finals are the 2012-13 Chicago Blackhawks, who won it in a lockout shortened 48 game season. The Detroit Red Wings in 2007-08 were the last team to win a Cup and President’s Trophy in the same season in a full 82 game campaign. In fact the last team to make it to the conference finals that won the President’s Trophy was the 2014-15 New York Rangers. In addition, there is no guarantee that either Florida or Colorado will survive the gauntlet, as each team has their own demons to overcome in the postseason.
I do think that the Panthers should sit their stars, but not right away. The Panthers final 5 games in order are the Maple Leafs, Lightning, Bruins, Senators and Canadiens. The Panthers are going to want to roll a full lineup against the first three, each of whom may be a potential first round opponent. The Panthers haven’t seen the Bruins since October and haven’t seen Andrei Vasilevskiy since November nor seen Nikita Kucherov at all this season. The Panthers are gonna want their stars in those three important divisional games. However, the Senators and Canadiens games should be two games in which the Panthers sit their stars to prevent injury.
So, who should sit? Aleksander Barkov should definitely sit for the last two games, with his injury history. Barkov was also injured in Game 3 of the playoffs last season, and despite returning to action and playing the whole series, his effectiveness was basically eliminated for the remainder of the series. Although he is on a historic season, Jonathan Huberdeau should also sit. The Panthers cannot afford to lose the services of their best offensive player and best postseason player, and must keep him healthy. On the blueline, Mackenzie Weegar should take a rest. Weegar has begun to struggle and seems to be tired out on the ice, so a pre-playoff break would help him. Anton Lundell may also be a good idea to sit, as he is a rookie and has had injury issues. Patric Hornqvist and Gus Forsling should both sit those two, as each have had injury struggles.
Aaron Ekblad has just recently begun skating, just shy of three weeks after suffering what looked like a second-consecutive season ending leg injury. Ekblad’s injury was rumored to be a high ankle sprain, with an expected recovery of 5-7 weeks and Andrew Brunette confirmed that Ekblad is expected back in early May, which is the week the playoffs start.
Here is a potential lineup I’d roll out for the last two games:
Carter Verhaeghe-Claude Giroux-Anthony Duclair
Mason Marchment-Sam Bennett-Sam Reinhart
Ryan Lomberg-Eetu Luostarinen-Maxim Mamin
Aleksi Heponiemi-Noel Acciari-Joe Thornton
Ben Chiarot-Radko Gudas
Robert Hagg-Brandon Montour
Lucas Carlsson-Petteri Lindbohm
Sergei Bobrovsky (Ottawa Game)
Spencer Knight (Montreal Game)
As for before the final two games, I think the Panthers need to use those games to work on several things. They need to tighten up their defense and the penalty kill has entered a funk. The Panthers special teams have been very streaky this season on both sides. That needs to be more consistent, as does team discipline.