The Florida Panthers' journey to the 2023 Stanley Cup Final has been fuelled not only by a lights-out Sergei Bobrovsky and an inspired Matthew Tkachuk but by an agressive forecheck that caused numerous turnovers and eye-catching goals in series wins over the Bruins, Leafs and Hurricanes.
ANTHONY PETRIELLI: The NHL is a copycat league. Every single summer, we watch teams line up, take notes on what the previous Stanley Cup finalists did to get there, and they try to replicate it as best as possible. We see these examples year after year, whether it's teams trying to follow the Pittsburgh model with their stud two top centers, whether it's teams trying to follow Chicago and their model, both done by high draft picks, tanking, at the time, back-diving contracts.
The previous LA, Boston teams that were big on possession and grinding. We're always seeing teams try to copy what other teams have been doing to get to the Stanley Cup Final and have that ultimate success that has often eluded them.
Traditionally, when lower seeds have made the Stanley Cup Final, they have done so because they've been so good defensively and they've been really tight checking teams. Obviously, they usually have great goaltending that they ride. We can look back at teams like when Montreal made the cup recently. They had Carey Price, but what they also had was a really, really good shutdown line, led by Phillip Danault and Shea Weber back there on defense.
The Florida Panthers this year have not followed that path. Yes, they have Sergei Bobrovsky playing lights out, but that is not the only reason that they've made the Stanley Cup Final, of course. It can't possibly be just one player. It can't be two, either, if including Matthew Tkachuk. How they have played is they have challenged teams physically and aggressively, and they've done that to create turnovers and drive offense in an exciting way that's really opened up games.
This is something we noticed in week one of the playoffs against the Boston Bruins. High-powered, most successful regular season team of all time. And Florida aggressively attacked them and often looked for opportunities where they can create turnovers, wreak havoc, and shove offense right down their throat based on their forechecking abilities. And they did it to the Leafs, and they did it to the Carolina Hurricanes, and now they're in the Stanley Cup Final.
When the Florida Panthers attack teams offensively, they send two men in deep almost every single time whenever possible. As part of sending two men in deep, what they're trying to do is have a short chip in and attack the first defenseman. So when we have our first puck carrier who has the puck, he is soft chipping right away against the defenseman that he is going down against.
Now the reason you do that is if you try to ring a puck in or you go cross ice, you give an extra second or two for this defenseman. And this defenseman is then able to communicate with his partner and bark out orders as to where you are going, right? So it's not just about the longer time that it takes the puck to get here when you're ringing it around. It's about you're not taking away this defenseman's eyes.
So ultimately, when you lay a soft chip in, this defenseman has no real ability to go back and make a read on where exactly to go. So if we just isolate this one section, this defenseman is going to go back, and they're going to be pressured right away. And their winger is going to come down on the wall for the short outlet, which Florida is applying pressure to. And the D partner is also getting pressured.
So your main reads here, up to your quick winger or to your D partner, are both being taken away instantly. This defenseman is going to find it more difficult to communicate with his partner because he has someone on him the whole time. And this winger, you're going to hope that he just wins a battle and gets the puck out.
Now the obvious play would be to hit the center in the middle. This is easier said than done, especially come playoff time. In the regular season, we see a lot of teams use the middle of the ice. Teams love to use the middle of the ice in a regular, weekday game, January, February, you name it.
In the playoffs, not so much. The checking is so much tighter. The game is so much more physical. Any sort of mistake up the middle is almost certainly going to get just put right back on you, and you're going to sit.
So in this situation, when Florida is attacking, we're seeing two men in deep, usually below the goal line. We're seeing their forward, their third guy, instead of hanging high in the middle, he's taking away the wall right away. He is on it.
What this is doing is Florida is creating a lot of turnovers in this general vicinity. Whether it is the second guy in, whether is the third guy high, whether it is the initial forechecker getting to the defenseman, who takes an extra second and doesn't know what to do because he's trying to read the play, Florida's being able to create turnovers and take it right to the net in short order.
In Florida's four-overtime epic against Carolina, let's look at the overtime winner. If we were to freeze the play right before the puck gets turned over, this is essentially how it looks on the ice. Matthew Tkachuk goes at Brent Burns. Jaccob Slavin was actually along the wall, which it was a tight dump in originally. The two defensemen were-- one was around the faceoff circle. The other, Brent Burns, was in the middle. So when the puck got chipped in, they actually ended up like this.
That makes Florida's life even easier. Sam Bennett went right up against the wall. Jordan Martinook was up a little bit higher as a bit more of a breakout option, and he was easily covered by the defenseman, Aaron Ekblad. Nick Cousins went all the way to the far side. So if there was any sort of idea of wrapping the puck around, he was there to try to pick it off. And then the other two, the defenseman and the forward, were essentially accounted for and even.
If you're Brent Burns-- you can actually see him shoulder check. He looks and tries to figure out where to go, and he has nothing. Nobody's open. And at that point, I mean, he's played over two games at that rate. it's fourth overtime. He tries to go up the wall, Sam Bennett cuts it off. Goes back to Matthew Tkachuk. And all he does is curl, turn, shoot. Game over just like that.
Two guys in deep, pressuring. Everyone else essentially man on man. The far wall's cut off, and it's a turnover. Florida capitalizes, they win that game, they never looked back In that series from that point forward.
Now let's talk about Florida in game 7 in Boston. To me, this is why they're an exciting team. They're winning 1-0. They can hang back. A lot of teams in this situation traditionally do hang back. But here is Florida, once again, sending two deep, attacking, pushing to grow their lead, and continue to put the heat on Boston. Again, in Boston, which is a tough place for a lot of teams to play.
All right, so on the goal that Florida scored in order to make it 2-0, they kept the puck in. A little bit of a broken breakout by the Bruins. And they soft chipped it again back on the short side. It was not a far side rim. It was not a cross-ice rim. It was a short, little dump in.
Anton Lundell immediately pressures Brandon Carlo, and he responds by going D to D. Because the play was a little bit broken on the original dump in, Eetu Luostarinen was a little bit behind in terms of pressuring Lindholm when he receives the pass. But he does close the gap. And he's had a really good playoffs. He is a big dude out there that covers a lot of space. And this goal is a really good example of how he was able to kind of close off Lindholm and force a chip up.
But this is where Florida is really, really aggressive. Because Aaron Ekblad wins the puck on that chip up. And once he does, Florida instantly-- quick tic-tac-toe passing play. Sam Reinhart, who was up top, covering that option, that middle option, immediately breaks open and then ends up ripping home a snipe from the top of the circle.
And all that is is just, again, immediate puck pressure. The second puck carrier because it's two guys in deep. The defenseman stepping up on the wall and attacking the puck as opposed to hanging back. It would be really easy for a defenseman in that situation to kind of gap up and pull back, maybe force a dump in at center, try to avoid a big mistake.
Taylor Hall was kind of lurking up high at one point to see if there was any potential opportunity for him to break free. But Ekblad attacks. Florida, again, continues that theme of two men in deep. And once they create the turnover, it was done. That's when their talent shone. But it's all started by two forecheckers aggressively attacking.
So now Florida is on the road. Game 2, they're in Toronto. They've gone down 2 early, and they're just trying to make it a game. So of course, they're going to be attacking and pressuring heavily. If we actually still-frame this goal prior to them actually scoring, what you'll see is this. These yellows, all five are Toronto Maple Leafs. And these three are Florida. But they, again, send two deep, which will go through. And this third one-- this ends up being Anton Lundell-- ends up being the goal scorer.
So even though Toronto's outnumbered them five to three in this still shot of how everything is aligned, what ultimately ends up happening is Florida pressures them, creates a turnover with two guys behind the goal line, and their third guy, who cuts off the wall, which is a common theme that we see here with Florida, ends up squirting free and then easily puts one in.
So on this goal, Sam Reinhart is the original puck carrier. So when he has the puck, it's off a breakout. He wins a battle along the wall against Mark Giordano, who is actually this player. So Calle Jarnkrok covers for him, and Sam Reinhart is going to chip the puck in deep. Again, I want to focus on the fact that it's a short side dump in. It's not far side. It's not long. It's not the puck is rimmed around or flipped up in the air so that the Leafs have time to gather themselves and communicate.
It is a soft chip into the immediate corner. And this time, we see the Leafs play it a little differently than some of the other examples. So Calle Jarnkrok is actually going to run a pretty good pick on Sam Reinhart and slow him up. And Timothy Liljegren is going to skate to the corner and get pressured by Eetu Luostarinen. He's going to lay a good hit.
But Sam Reinhart-- this is really important to the play. And he ultimately ends up making a great play on the goal itself once he has the puck. But he fights through the backchecker and the little interference pick that was getting run on him to get below the line. And when John Tavares goes down behind the net, he's there and has the puck. Because he fought through a check, he got below the goal line because Florida, again, is pressuring too deep. And Anton Lundell ends up on the wall with Mark Giordano.
Again, Florida is-- it's a little bit of a triangle of sorts that we're kind of seeing here where they have a man in the corner pressuring. They have a man below pressuring the far side pass. And they have another one on the wall, cutting off the puck. So when Florida goes-- or when the Leafs go off the wall and back, it's picked off. It's a quick pass here. An Anton Lundell one-times it home.
All in all, what we're seeing from Florida is how we want to see teams play hockey. Honestly, as a fan, it's way more exciting if we're watching teams actively look to create offense, look to engage physically, look to create turnovers and opportunities. We've seen Florida lay any number of big hits this playoff as a team. We have seen them score any number of pretty goals this entire run that they've been on.
There's been a lot of exciting components that we hope teams ultimately pull from. So we've seen a lot of themes in terms of soft dump-ins into the immediate corner, two men in deep hard, cutting off the wall. It's a big, big change from what we see from a lot of teams that make it that are lower in the standings. It's usually one man in deep, two high, grinding games down to a pulp, to absolute dust, making it as slow and painful as possible, almost boring you to death watching the gameplay.
Florida hasn't done that at all. That's a really exciting thing for hockey. It's been great for them to have success this year. It's something that we hope that teams continue to learn from and build on and take forward for years to come.