A season after posting the worst record in the East at 38-40-4, the Panthers finished the 2021-22 season tied for first in the East with a 51-25-6 record.
Not quite a worst-to-first situation, but pretty close. After an excellent regular season, the Panthers find themselves preparing for their BEARD playoff debut, a first-round playoff matchup against the Tampa Bay Lightning (41-30-11).
Quite the opposite of last year's edition of the team, this year's Panthers squad started off strong, posting separate 6-1 and 10-0 stretches in the first third of the season that firmly entrenched them atop the East standings. They probably would have preferred to pick up a few extra points down the stretch after the additions of Brad Marchand, Jakub Vrana, Rasmus Andersson, and Radek Faksa approaching the trade deadline, but they remained consistently among the best teams in the East all season long.
Of the new additions, perhaps only Faksa was as effective as the Panthers would've hoped. But integrating new players into a winning mix can be a bit of a challenge at times.
With about a quarter of a season in the new system under their belt, the Panthers do hope for more of an impact from them as the playoffs get going. Regardless - their lineup boasts three fearsome scoring lines, a solid depth fourth line, and a fantastic set of three defensive pairs. This has the makings of a team that could make some noise - especially if Marchand and Vrana produce like the game breakers they are capable of being.
The Panthers' MVP this season has to be Ryan Johansen, who put up 31 goals and 86 points, but more importantly, he played in all situations and elevated linemates Oliver Bjorkstrand (33 goals, 87 points) and Tyler Johnson (32 goals, 70 points) all season long. He contributed 143 hits, led the team's forwards with 31 takeaways, and won 56% of his face-offs too. Johansen has become the true face of the Panthers roster and will be relied upon in the post-season.
The team got some help from places they weren't expecting, too, that helped make them a very deep group.
Vladislav Namestnikov's 52-point season seemed to come out of nowhere and he was reliable on the penalty kill to boot, while Daniel Sprong earned a spot early in the season and managed to put up a 21 goal, 44-point rookie campaign.
Jayce Hawryluk was supposed to be the team' 13th forward but actually thrived when given an opportunity, knocking Peyton Krebs back to AHL Charlotte and putting up 21 points in 71 games.
Finally, defenseman Carl Dahlstrom was an opening night waiver claim and played in 54 games. He finished second on the team with a +17 rating while posting 35 takeaways to just 2 giveaways. Dahlstrom has been the team's 7th defenseman since the acquisition of Andersson and has missed some time due to injury, but as #7 defenseman go, you won't find many whose teams are as comfortable putting them on the ice as the Panthers are with Dahlstrom.
Heading into a playoff series against the Lightning, the #1 task will be to contain Auston Matthews, who scored 39 goals and 90 points this season. That task will fall on Jaccob Slavin and Brayden McNabb. There aren’t many defense pairs in all of BEARD Hockey you’d rather put up against Matthews, and maybe none at all – this is what the Panthers are built for, if you ask their GM – but it’s still Auston Matthews and sometimes it doesn’t matter who you put out there against him.
The Lightning don't possess the offensive depth of the Panthers, but they do have the best player in the series in Matthews and they also got elite goaltending out of Mackenzie Blackwood (36-16-7, 0.919 SV%) this season.
With a pretty deep defense built around former Panther Esa Lindell - albeit probably not quite as good as Florida's - the Lightning will be underdogs but definitely game for the series with their in-state rivals. The Panthers will certainly need to be on top of their game to continue what has been a promising season up until now.