The 2022-23 National Hockey League (NHL) regular season is rapidly drawing to a thrilling conclusion, and the Florida Panthers look to have hit form at the perfect time in their bid to capture a place in the playoffs. Form counts for everything at this stage of the campaign, and the Panthers have won four consecutive games for the first time this season, which has not only given Panthers fans hopes of reaching the playoffs but perhaps going all the way to the Stanley Cup.
The Panthers were founded in 1993 and managed to navigate their way to the Stanley Cup Finals during their third NHL season. Unfortunately, the Colorado Avalanche brushed them aside 0-4, and the Panthers have not progressed deeper than the quarterfinals since. Indeed, in the 25 seasons since appearing in the Stanley Cup Finals, the Panthers have failed to reach the playoffs 18 times.
Demolishing the Atlantic Division in 2021-22
Last season saw the Panthers dominate the Atlantic Division in the Eastern Conference. They started the season with a franchise record of 8-0-0 and became the first team to clinch a berth in the 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs. Under the guidance of interim coach Andrew Brunette, the Panthers finished with a 58-18-6 record and amassed a league-best 122 points. Panthers fans, hockey experts, and online sports betting sites in Florida fully believed the Panthers would win the Stanley Cup for the second time of asking.
However, after defeating the Washington Capitals in convincing style 4-2, the Panthers did not show up against eventual losing finalists Tampa Bay Lightning, falling to an embarrassing 0-4 loss in four games. It was back to the drawing board for the Panthers, although their fans had high hopes for the current campaign, having enjoyed much success in the previous year.
Brunette stepped down from his role as head coach during the off-season, and Paul Maurice replaced him. Most see Maurice’s appointment as a little leftfield because he holds the unwanted record of most losses of any NHL coach. It is fair to say the Panthers have struggled with consistency as they get to grips with Maurice’s playing style. After 78 of a scheduled 82 games, the Panthers’ record reads 40-31-7, meaning they lost twice as many regular season games than in 2022-23. The usually free-scoring Panthers have found the back o the net almost 70 times less than last year and conceded nearly 20 more goals.
A Strong Finish After a Shaky Start
The Panthers entered 2023 nursing a 16-17-4 record, and the playoffs looked unlikely at best. They hit a purple patch in mid-January, going 4-0-1 before ending the month 8-5-2. February was another inconsistent month (6-4-0) before another surge in the form at the beginning of March that saw the Panthers win seven out of eight fixtures, resulting in not only the Panthers’ fans but their players starting to believe a Stanley Cup run was possible.
Four straight defeats between Game 71-74 brought the Panthers crashing back to reality, but four wins on the spin, including a 7-0 demolition of the Columbus Blue Jackets, have left the Panthers’ destiny in their own hands. The Panthers next take on the Ottawa Senators and the Washington Capitals in two winnable games before ending the season with home advantage against the high-flying Toronto Maple Leafs and Carolina Hurricanes.
Any potential Stanley Cup challenge will hinge heavily on Matthew Tkachuk ending the season on a high. Tkachuk scored 42 goals and had 62 assists (104 points) after playing all 82 games for the Calgary Flames last season. However, the man who signed an eight-year $76 million contract has only taken to the ice 57 times this season, scoring 28 goals, assisting 50, and enjoying 78 points.
Injuries plagued the Panthers in 2022-23, but if they can keep everyone fit for the remaining four games, they could ruffle a few feathers in the playoffs, and reaching the Stanley Cup finals is not out of the realms of possibility.