NHL playoffs: Panthers push Hurricanes to brink as Bobrovsky posts historic shutout

The Panthers are one win away from eliminating the Hurricanes and advancing to the Stanley Cup Final.

Sergei Bobrovsky recorded his first career postseason shutout, while Sam Reinhart’s power-play marker was enough for the Florida Panthers to escape with a 1-0 win over the Carolina Hurricanes on Monday, taking a commanding 3-0 lead in the Eastern Conference final.

Here are four takeaways from Game 3:

Sergei Bobrovsky is entering historic territory during postseason run

We’re almost running out of superlatives for Bobrovsky’s playoff run. After the 2-1 win in Game 2, we declared that Bobrovsky is in pole position for the Conn Smythe Trophy. Bobrovsky one-upped himself in Game 3, recording his first postseason shutout of his career, making 32 stops while saving 2.62 goals above expected on Monday evening.

The 34-year-old was spectacular again in Game 3, making several outstanding saves, including a breakaway stop on Hurricanes forward Stefan Noesen. In a game where the Panthers only controlled 22 percent of the expected goals, Bobrovsky was the catalyst in the victory.

Bobrovsky is not only the leader for playoffs MVP, he may be submitting the single-best playoff run from a goaltender. He is sporting a .935 save percentage and has stopped 109 of the last 110 shots he’s faced.

Florida has almost assuredly punched its ticket to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1996. If the Panthers hoist the Cup for the first time in franchise history, Bobrovsky will be lifting the Conn Smythe and may have taken a circuitous but legitimate route to enshrinement in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Sergei Bobrovsky and the Panthers have a 3-0 lead over the Hurricanes in the third round of the NHL playoffs. (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)
Sergei Bobrovsky and the Panthers have a 3-0 lead over the Hurricanes in the third round of the NHL playoffs. (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)

Hurricanes need to deviate from strategy of shooting from the point

Nothing is beating Bobrovsky at this point but the Hurricanes aren’t generating too many quality looks, Noesen’s breakaway aside. Carolina relies on its defensemen to create offense more than other teams but what was once considered a feature has turned into a defect.

Brett Pesce and Jaccob Slavin led all Hurricanes with five shots each in Game 3, Jalen Chatfield added two shots, while Brady Skjei and Brent Burns — Carolina’s best offensive defenseman by some distance — added one apiece. This strategy largely worked against the Islanders and Devils in successive rounds but Bobrovsky is playing at a galactic tier and the Hurricanes are settling for poor shots from distance against the two-time Vezina winner.

Carolina dominated the shot differential by a 32-17 margin, while winning the shot attempts battle by a 61-22 score. Five of the six Hurricanes forward lines that played more than two minutes together at 5-on-5 recorded a 62 percent or greater share of the expected goals at even strength. It’s a more complicated problem than merely saying point shots are a form of inefficient offense, especially when it was thought that Bobrovsky struggled to see the puck through traffic.

Facing near-certain elimination, the Hurricanes need to change their shot diet or else they have no chance against Bobrovsky and the volcanic Panthers.

Panthers do just enough to withstand Barkov’s injury

Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov left the game during the first period after colliding with Hurricanes forward Jack Drury. Barkov was later deemed questionable with a lower-body injury but did not return to Monday’s contest. Although this should’ve been a massive loss for the Panthers, they weathered the storm without one of their stars.

It was far from perfect. Eetu Luostarinen is criminally underrated and does all the right things for the Panthers but when he was promoted to Barkov’s spot, centering Anthony Duclair and Carter Verhaeghe, the line was outshot 5-0 at 5-on-5. Anton Lundell may be the better long-term replacement if Barkov misses Game 4, but the Panthers emerged victorious and their defensive structure never collapsed in Barkov’s absence.

Matthew Tkachuk is earning superstar calls

Tkachuk is a veritable superstar as one of three finalists for the Hart Trophy, so it makes sense he’s earning superstar calls. Tkachuk scored both overtime goals in the Panthers’ first two wins of the series and generated the primary assist on Reinhart’s winner in Game 3. Aside from Bobrovsky, who is in another tier, he’s been the best player in this series.

Tkachuk is profiting from his reputation, too. During a key puck battle in the second period, Tkachuk had one hand on his stick, which Hurricanes forward Jordan Martinook knocked out of his hands. The stick did not break, but the infraction sent Martinook to the box. It shouldn’t have been a penalty but Tkachuk earned the benefit of the doubt.

He’s one of the best players in the NHL but Tkachuk will rarely shy away from the grittier aspects of the game, earning 123 penalty minutes during his 109-point regular season. Tkachuk should be on a first-name basis after his stellar play in 2022-23 and one of the league’s most noted pests is now earning calls that only a handful of players in the NHL get.