Power outage: Underwhelming stars, power play put Panthers down 2-0. They’re making fixes

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The Florida Panthers have two major problems so far in their second-round series against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Really, they’re one and the same.

The Panthers’ stars — in particular, Aaaron Ekblad, Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov and Claude Giroux — have massively underperformed the lofty standards they set in the regular season and their power play still haven’t scored, now in seven tries in the series and 25 in the 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs.

The Panthers, who were the first team in more than 25 years to average at least our goals per game in the regular season, scored just one goal in each of their first two games against the Lightning and now face a virtual must-win Game 3 at 1:30 p.m. on Sunday at Amalie Arena in Tampa.

“The frustration level is maybe affecting them a little bit,” interim coach Andrew Brunette said Friday, “so maybe I guess you could say that’s a little bit of a concern.

Now, Florida’s season-long scoring average, when combining the regular season and Stanley Cup playoffs, is down to 3.99 goals per game after it averaged 4.11 in the regular season. Huberdeau has just one point in Round 2 and Ekblad, Barkov, Giroux and star defenseman MacKenzie Weegar all have zero. In Game 2, the Panthers’ only goal came from the stick of fourth-line center Eetu Luostarinen, whose slap shot from the top of the left faceoff circle only trickled past Andrei Vasilevskiy after the All-Star goaltender blocked most of it.

If Florida goes down quietly and can never recapture the offensive prowess it displayed throughout the regular season, Ekblad, Huberdeau, Barkov, Giroux and fellow forward Sam Reinhart will bear the brunt of the blame.

Florida Panthers right wing Patric Hornqvist (70) and center Eetu Luostarinen (27) battle for the puck against Tampa Bay Lightning left wing Pierre-Edouard Bellemare (41) and defenseman Zach Bogosian (24) during the first period of Game 2 of a second round NHL Stanley Cup series at FLA Live Arena on Thursday, May 19, 2022 in Sunrise, Fl.
Florida Panthers right wing Patric Hornqvist (70) and center Eetu Luostarinen (27) battle for the puck against Tampa Bay Lightning left wing Pierre-Edouard Bellemare (41) and defenseman Zach Bogosian (24) during the first period of Game 2 of a second round NHL Stanley Cup series at FLA Live Arena on Thursday, May 19, 2022 in Sunrise, Fl.

The Panthers’ power-play problem

Those five form the usual top power-play unit — occasionally, Brunette will opt for a five-forward look and swap out Ekblad for winger Anthony Duclair — and they’ve alternated aimless efforts with near misses.

No matter how the power plays have gone for their two minutes, they’ve ended the same. The Panthers have had seven power-play tries in their second-round series and 25 in these Cup playoffs, and haven’t scored on any of them.

In Game 2, Brunette started pulling his top unit off the ice a bit quicker, usually after a minute rather than 80 or 90 seconds, to give his No. 2 group an expanded opportunity. In practice Saturday at Coral Springs’ Florida Panthers IceDen, Florida bumped right wing Patric Hornqvist up to the top unit, in place of Giroux.

It’s an old sort of look for the Panthers — Hornqivst played in front of the net last year — and lets Reinhart move away from the net, and into more of a shooting and playmaking role.

“We’re obviously going to be trying a whole bunch of different things, trying to catch lightning in a bottle,” Ekblad said. “It’s obviously been tough for us. It’s part of the reason that we’re in this, but, at the end of the day, it’s a simple game on the power play: It’s get pucks to the net and outnumber at the net.”

Hornqvist is one of the best net-front players of the last decade, ranking fifth in the NHL in tip-in goals in the last 10 years. Reinhart is also excellent in front of the net — his seven tip-in goals were tied for fourth in the NHL in the regular season — but he also led Florida in shooting percentage on snap shots, and was third on the team in both shooting percentage on wrist shots and overall shooting percentage in the regular season.

The Panthers have badly needed another shooting threat on the power play with Huberdeau, Barkov and Giroux all bringing a pass-first mentality. Florida has just eight shots on goal on seven power plays and Huberdeau has just four total shots on goal in the series.

Whether the power play is struggling because stars are or vice versa, the end result is another 2-0 series deficit for the Panthers, who did the same thing to squander home-ice advantage against Tampa Bay in the first round of the 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs.

“A lot of it probably stems from the power play,” Brunette said. “We just haven’t been able to find their groove and it’s kind of leaked into their 5-on-5 game.”

Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) defends the goal as defenseman Ryan McDonagh (27) and left wing Brandon Hagel (38) collide with Florida Panthers defenseman Radko Gudas (7) during the third period of Game 2 of a second round NHL Stanley Cup series at FLA Live Arena on Thursday, May 19, 2022 in Sunrise, Fl.
Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) defends the goal as defenseman Ryan McDonagh (27) and left wing Brandon Hagel (38) collide with Florida Panthers defenseman Radko Gudas (7) during the third period of Game 2 of a second round NHL Stanley Cup series at FLA Live Arena on Thursday, May 19, 2022 in Sunrise, Fl.

Florida’s 5-on-5 futility

In Round 1, it wasn’t quite the case. Giroux had eight points and Barkov had six — the second and third most on the team, respectively — and they spent most of the series as linemates with fellow forward Carter Verhaeghe, who led Florida with 12.

The Verhaeghe-Barkov-Giroux grouping has still been the Panthers’ most frequently used line in Round 2 and it’s because the trio is still creating at a high level. Through two games, Florida has had a 27-9 advantage in shot attempts, a 16-4 advantage in shots on goal and a 14-5 advantage in scoring chances when the top line has been on the ice.

Ekblad, Huberdeau, Duclair and Reinhart, on the other hand, have all played to a negative 5-on-5 shot differential.

The Huberdeau-Duclair line with forward Sam Bennett has at least generated nine high-danger chances. The Verhaeghe-Barkov-Giroux line has created just two and still not scored.

As a whole, the Panthers are averaging 2.83 fewer high-danger chances per game than they did when they led the NHL in the regular season.

“They’ve done a good job of keeping us to the outside,” said Bennett, who led Florida in shots in the regular season and is tied for the team lead with eight in this series. “Now it’s just on us to battle that much harder, get to the net and we’ve got to find a way to really find greasy goals.”

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