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Insights and observations from the NHL playoffs: The big concern for the Panthers

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Welcome to 10 Insights and Observations. Every week, I’ll use this space to highlight teams, players, storylines, and general musings around the NHL, and perhaps at times, the greater hockey world. We are changing it up during the NHL playoffs, with some thoughts on each series.

With Round 2 of the Stanley Cup playoffs well underway, here are some thoughts on a heartbreaking start for the New York Rangers, the Florida Panthers' struggling power play, adjustments made by the St. Louis Blues and a promising start for the Calgary Flames.

Critical mistake costs Rangers

When the New York Islanders went to back-to-back conference finals the last two years, one thing that Barry Trotz loved to do was start games with his “identity line” of Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck. All they were supposed to do was get the puck in deep, finish some hits and get some energy going. I couldn’t help but think of that strategy as the Rangers started all three periods against the Carolina Hurricanes with Tyler Motte, Kevin Rooney and Ryan Reaves. They even put together some good shifts, including one that resulted in a Reaves chance in the slot. Some teams really respond to that energy and hustle to start a game and Gerard Gallant is tapping into that with his group.

But Game 1 provided a cruel reminder that no matter how well you play, if you make a critical mistake it will be remembered. K’Andre Miller had a strong game and is playing huge minutes in the playoffs. But he can’t step up here on the tying goal.

Teuvo Teravainen is flat-footed and isn't presenting much of a threat from the boards. But Miller steps up to take the pass away and try to end the play completely right there. Of course, he didn’t get it, and the Canes tied the game and then won it in overtime.

On 3-on-2 plays, which this somewhat was, the least dangerous player is usually the guy with the puck off the rush. Sebastian Aho did well to drive right through and Seth Jarvis — who is quietly having a good playoff coming off a strong rookie season — threaded a nice pass to make the goal happen.

This wasn’t just on Miller. Artemi Panarin had to realize he’s the last forward back, and Jacob Trouba didn’t need to flip the puck to center in the first place, which is what started the play. The Rangers were close to stealing back home ice right off the bat, but a few mistakes have them down early.

The Florida Panthers have yet to score a power-play goal in the NHL playoffs. (Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images)
The Florida Panthers have yet to score a power-play goal in the NHL playoffs. (Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images)

Powerless Panthers

The most stunning stat of the entire playoffs so far is that the Florida Panthers are 0-for-25 on the power play. They have yet to score a power-play goal in the postseason after finishing tied for fifth in the regular season at 24.4 percent. Combine that with a penalty kill that is clicking at 66.7 percent – which was a league average 16th at 79.5 percent during the regular season – and this is one of the poorer special teams showings we’ve seen across the board in recent memory for a team that actually won a round.

It's not like their power play went off the rails when they added Claude Giroux, either. In fact, it actually clicked at 26.6 percent after they acquired him. They also got Aaron Ekblad back for the playoffs and moved right back on to the top unit after running five forward power-play units down the stretch of the regular season. Reintegrating players for the playoffs is always a tricky issue to navigate, but Ekblad is one of the more productive defensemen in the NHL so it’s completely reasonable for them to put him right back into a role he generally succeeds in. The Tampa Bay Lightning walked Nikita Kucherov right back into the lineup for the playoffs last year after he didn’t play the entire regular season and that worked out just fine.

Like most power plays, when they are struggling, they can’t gain the zone. And when you can’t gain the zone, everything falls apart. Giroux is playing four minutes on the power play per night and has one power-play shot on goal in eight games. Look at the turnovers Tampa Bay was able to create in Game 2 – not only could the Panthers not gain the zone, but the Lightning were creating offense on the counterattack.

Pressure all the way up the ice from Tampa helped create that turnover. Then to end the period, they stonewalled them in the neutral zone. This was very similar to the Anthony Cirelli shorthanded playoff goal against the Leafs in Round 1.

You can’t play a team as good on the power play as the Lightning and get absolutely nothing on yours and expect to win the series.

Adjustments pay off for Blues

What a big change for the Blues between Games 1 and 2. After holding less than 30 percent possession in Game 1, they went up to 44 percent in all shot attempts — which is still not great — in Game 2, but their team Fenwick (all unblocked shot attempts) was essentially even with Colorado. The Blues will gladly take a draw against Colorado in unblocked shot attempts and let the chips fall from there.

The Blues made some subtle changes to help them close the gap a bit here between games. The biggest one, without question, was moving Pavel Buchnevich up with Ryan O’Reilly and David Perron. They played against the Mikko Rantanen-Nathan MacKinnon-Valerie Nichushkin line head-to-head the entire night and drew even on the shot clock at 5-on-5 and even scored a goal. In Game 1, Buchnevich played with Vladimir Tarasenko and Robert Thomas and their line got out-attempted 29-10 and was on the ice for Colorado's overtime winner. They generally got the Nazem Kadri matchup in Game 1. In Game 2, the Blues had Brayden Schenn going head-to-head with Kadri as much as possible, with Tarasenko and usually Ivan Barbashev alongside him.

Even in terms of sheer ice time, the coaching staff altered the group. Schenn led all Blues forwrds in ice time in Game 1, and was sixth in Game 2. The man who replaced him in on the top line, Buchnevich, ended up leading all Blues forwards in Game 2. The Blues like to run 11 forwards and seven defensemen, as they have through both games, and in order for that to work its best, they need all 11 forwards to play. In Game 1, Alexei Toropchenko played 8:48 in a game that went to overtime. In Game 2, he played 11:05 and all Blues forwards played 10-plus minutes in a game that ended in regulation.

The matchups shifted, the line combinations changed, the ice time spread out a bit more evenly and the players also simply responded and played better. That’s a lot of good adjustments from the coaching staff and now they head home with a series split where they can dictate the matchups themselves.

Flames-Oilers could be a short series

The Battle of Alberta did not disappoint in Game 1. The focus is on the goaltending and all the goals that were scored — it makes for great entertainment. Usually, we'll hear coaches say they need to clamp the game right up after an outing like that, but I’m not entirely sure Darryl Sutter of all people will agree.

They dominated at 5-on-5. They held about 64 percent of the shot attempts (Corsi and Fenwick), 69 percent of the scoring chances and 67 percent of the expected goals. In total, they outshot Edmonton 48-28. The Flames should be confident that Jacob Markstrom will bounce back as he’s a high-end goalie. If there’s one specific area the Flames would be confident in it would be goaltending, so if they're going to carry play like that it will be a short albeit fun series.

For the Oilers, not only do they need to clean things up, but they can’t have a power play going 0-for-4 when the gap at 5-on-5 and in goal is that wide. Being down so much, so early, we didn’t really even get to see the Oilers game plan unfold. The line blender was out – rightfully so – and the matchups are out the window when a game gets to 5-1 and you're forced to claw your way back.

What will be interesting to see is the level of wear and tear that occurs throughout this series. Elias Lindholm led all Flames forwards at 19:55. Connor McDavid played 25:33. Leon Draisaitl played 21:59 and Ryan Nugent Hopkins played over 20 minutes as well. Evander Kane played one second more than Lindholm, and Zach Hyman played five seconds less. Is that type of usage going to benefit Calgary or Edmonton in a potentially long series? And really, if you’re Edmonton, do you even have a choice?

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