The Florida Panthers already have some 2021-22 hardware to display, having captured the Presidents’ Trophy for the best regular-season record in the NHL.
What they would really like, however, is to reach the second round of the playoffs.
The Panthers, who piled up a league-high 122 points, open their first-round Eastern Conference series at home against the 100-point Washington Capitals on Tuesday night. But they haven’t won a postseason series since advancing to the 1996 Stanley Cup Final, the longest active drought in the league.
“We kind of ignore the noise,” Panthers interim head coach Andrew Brunette said. “We know, to get to where we want to go, it’s going to take a lot. And we’re just worried about that process right now, that day to day, and that’s been our mindset all year. We haven’t worried big picture. We just worry about the next game.”
Although the Panthers had the most home victories in the NHL this season at 34, home-ice advantage might not mean much.
Last year, the Panthers had it in the first round against the Tampa Bay Lightning, only to drop the first two games at home and lose the series in six. The Lightning went on to win their second consecutive Stanley Cup.
“I don’t think we really think about that anymore,” Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov said. “We thought about it when we lost, for two months, the whole summer, whatever. You think about it, you learn from it, and you move on. We had a good regular season. And now the regular season is over.”
The Capitals, meanwhile, had the best road record in the NHL this season at 25-10-6.
“It’s going to be totally different games than the regular season, obviously,” said Capitals star Alex Ovechkin, who at age 36 reached the 50-goal plateau for the ninth time in his 17 seasons to move up to No. 3 on the all-time goal-scoring list, behind only Wayne Gretzky and Gordie Howe.
“They are solid group of guys, best team in the regular season, but in the playoffs, it’s a different mindset, different speed, different battle level.”
The teams met three times in the regular season, all in November. Florida won both games at home by 5-4 margins and the Capitals took a 4-3 decision at Washington.
Ovechkin had four goals in the three games against the Panthers this season and has 43 goals, 45 assists and 88 points in 68 career regular-season games against them. Nobody has more goals, assists or points against Florida all-time.
“I always feel that the playoffs are wide open,” Capitals head coach Peter Laviolette said. “Any team that gets in there, if they get everybody playing well, anything is possible.”
Ovechkin missed the Capitals’ final three regular-season games with an upper-body injury but is expected to play in Game 1. The same goes for Florida’s leading scorer, Jonathan Huberdeau, who sat out the last two games with an undisclosed injury.
The Panthers might get a boost from the return of defenseman Aaron Ekblad, who missed the last 20 games with a knee injury. Ekblad was a full participant in practice over the weekend.
“We’ll see how he does after (Monday’s practice), but he went full workload, so I’m hoping we’re ready here at least at some point in this series,” Brunette said. “There’s a chance in Game 1. … He seemed to be fine, but you never know with these things.”
Brunette named Sergei Bobrovsky as the Game 1 starter in goal, but Laviolette has not yet announced whether Ilya Samsonov or Vitek Vanecek will be in net for the Capitals.
–Field Level Media