The Panthers’ Offense Was Flying High. Then The Lightning Struck It Down.

The Panthers’ Offense Was Flying High. Then The Lightning Struck It Down.

Published May 25, 2022
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NHL

By Neil Paine

May 24, 2022, at 12:15 PM

Mark LoMoglio / NHLI / Getty Images

Going into the playoffs, two of the NHL’s biggest questions surrounded the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Florida Panthers: Did the two-time defending champion Lightning have enough gas left in the tank to make a serious three-peat bid? And could the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Panthers use their all-time dominant offense to turn around the postseason fortunes of a franchise with little historical success? When the two teams met in the second round, we got our answers — in a resounding way.

Put simply, the Lightning dismantled and dispirited the Panthers. Tampa Bay swept its in-state rivals out of the playoffs by a combined score of 13-3, holding Florida to a single goal in each of the series’ first three games before handing them their first shutout of the entire season in the elimination contest. It was just about as impressive a takedown of a team as the NHL playoffs have ever seen.

It’s extremely rare to see a sweep of a team with a regular season as good as Florida. The Panthers became just the sixth team in NHL playoff history to be swept 4-0 after posting a .700 or better winning percentage during the regular season. They were also the 10th team ever to be swept 4-0 after outscoring opponents by at least 1.00 goal per game during the regular season, and they had the 12th-highest pre-series Elo rating of any team that suffered a 4-0 sweep.

Best teams to be swept 4-0 in NHL playoff history, according regular-season winning percentage, regular-season goal differential per game and pre-series Elo rating

There have been more humiliating sweeps suffered by good teams throughout history. Even higher on each list of disappointing sweeps were the Lightning themselves, for their ouster in the first round of the 2019 playoffs at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets. In that series, Tampa Bay was actually outscored 19-8 — a worse margin than the Lightning just laid on Florida — and Columbus (1540 pre-series Elo) was a vastly inferior opponent compared with Tampa Bay (1583). But what really makes this Lightning-Panthers series stand apart is how Tampa Bay beat Florida.

As we noted earlier in the season, the 2021-22 Panthers were one of the best offensive teams in NHL history. Florida scored 4.15 goals per game during the regular season, which was exactly 1.00 goal per game better than the NHL average. That gave the Panthers the 19th-best scoring attack ever, relative to league average — powered by the stellar seasons of Jonathan Huberdeau (30 goals, 115 points), Sasha Barkov (39 and 88) and Sam Reinhart (33 and 82), among the many other Panthers who put up strong offensive numbers. All season long, this team relied heavily on its offense to build big leads or stage impressive comebacks; the Panthers mounted a league-leading 24 come-from-behind wins, including 11 when trailing after two periods.

But Tampa Bay took that dynamic, high-scoring offense and strangled the life out of it. As previously mentioned, Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinal was the first time all season that Florida had been shut out, and the four games of the series in which Florida was held to one goal or fewer represented 50 percent of the times that had happened to the Panthers all year. Along the way, Florida was held to a 1-for-13 effort (7.7 percent) on the power play, part of an abysmal 1-for-31 overall performance (3.2 percent) in the playoffs after having the league’s fifth-best power play percentage (24.4 percent) during the regular season.

Florida’s scoring average of 0.75 goals per game during the Lightning series was a whopping 3.40 fewer goals than its regular-season average. That was the second-biggest offensive shortfall compared to a team’s regular-season average in any best-of-seven series in all of NHL postseason history — trailing only the 1983 New York Islanders’ suffocation of Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers, who were held 3.80 goals per game below their usual average in the Stanley Cup Final.

Largest shortfalls in goals per game between a team’s regular-season average and its performance within a playoff series (minimum four games) in NHL history

Florida’s primary strength, its offense, was taken away to a historic degree by the Lightning defense and the efforts of goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, who had an astronomically high .981 save percentage during the series. And even if we expand our search to also look for teams whose defenses (rather than offenses) were blown up by a series opponent to a similar degree relative to the regular season, only two other teams stand out: the 1972 St. Louis Blues, who allowed 3.83 more goals per game to the Boston Bruins than they had allowed during the regular season, and the 1985 Chicago Blackhawks, who were scorched for 3.60 more goals per game than usual by Gretzky and the Oilers. No matter how you slice it, there are very few examples of a team totally neutralizing an opponent’s best attribute the way Tampa Bay did to Florida this series.

After Game 4, the Panthers seemed at a loss to explain why their incredible season had come crashing down against a Lightning team they’d had in their sights since losing to them in last year’s playoffs. “It’s a tough pill to swallow,” defenseman Aaron Ekblad said. “Getting swept is tough. It hurts. It stings. There’s no doubt about it.”

If the Panthers can take any solace from the defeat, it’s that other great teams have emerged from similar humiliations for the better. The Oilers went on to win five of the next seven Stanley Cups after the Islanders dismantled them in 1983. (Famously, Gretzky walked past New York’s locker room after losing and saw a bloodied, battered Isles team — realizing only then exactly how much sacrifice was required to win the Cup.) And in fact, Tampa Bay was in the same position of soul-searching after being swept by Columbus — a parallel that was not lost on Panthers interim coach Andrew Brunette.

“They’re Stanley Cup champions for a reason,” Brunette said of the Lightning after Game 4. “[They grew] from a high-flying offensive team and stuck with it. We aspire to be them.”

As for Tampa Bay, the statement made by this sweep could hardly be much louder. This year’s Lightning are older, and they were less impressive relative to their peers during the regular season than in 2020-21. But after wrapping up their 10th consecutive series victory, the Lightning are 8-3 in this year’s playoffs and look stronger now than they have all season. (Tampa’s current Elo of 1598 is easily its highest of the season to date.) While they aren’t quite favorites in our model — their 24 percent Stanley Cup probability is second behind the Colorado Avalanche at 41 percent — the Lightning’s impressive grounding of the high-flying Panthers signals that the NHL championship still runs through Tampa Bay until the Lightning say otherwise.

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