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Florida Panthers Show Why Playing Defense Still Matters

The Florida Panthers are two wins away from winning their first Stanley Cup in franchise history, leading the Stanley Cup Final 2-0 over the Edmonton Oilers.

The Panthers have followed a similar pattern in these contests, continuing to play defense against their opponents. They didn’t give the Oilers much ice to work with in the first two games of the series, especially in Game 2.

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The Panthers outshot the Oilers 29-19 in Game 2 and held Edmonton’s high-powered offense to just seven shots in two periods. Sound familiar to those in Toronto? It wasn’t Game 6 of the 2000 Eastern Conference Semifinals against the New Jersey Devils when the Maple Leafs were held to six shots on goal, but the Panthers proved that a good defense will beat a good offense.

Even though the Oilers had the upper hand in total shots and possession time in Game 1, it didn’t feel like Edmonton was in control. Florida can play their style of game and get to their defensive structure in the third quarter. That build carried over into Game 2.

The Florida Panthers are giving up Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Zach Hyman, Evan Bouchard, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Panthers point guard Sergei Bobrovsky didn’t have to be as good in Game 2 as he was in Game 1. When he gave up Mattias Ekholm, the Oilers couldn’t capitalize.

Florida clears the middle of the snow. This trend has been seen in the playoffs since the Devils in 1995, and goes all the way back to the legendary Montreal Canadiens teams of the 1970s. Each team plays a version of the left lock or center trap.

Head coach Paul Maurice knew this when he took over a Florida Panthers team with 122 points in the 2021-22 season. The following year, the Panthers had just 92 points, but it took time for the players to get used to Maurice’s defense-first system. Once they did, the Panthers entered the playoffs and reached the Stanley Cup Finals.

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However, this season, there was a buyout, allowing the Panthers to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals. And it’s not just a buy-in from the top six players or the defense but also their top guys.

Last year, Sam Reinhart and Matthew Tkachuk wanted to play offensively first. Now, they think and want to play defense first, which has allowed the team to succeed in their position. It starts with captain Aleksander Barkov, who also won the Selke Trophy as the best forward, but all five guys on the ice played as a unit.

Just look at what Barkov and that defense did in the playoffs. They closed out Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning, David Pastrnak of the Boston Bruins, Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad, and Chris Kreider of the New York Rangers. And through two Stanley Cup Final games, they held McDavid, Hyman, Draisaitl, and Bouchard to one assist.

That’s how winning in the playoffs is done. The Florida Panthers are limiting chances and keeping outside linebackers, which has helped Bobrovsky. If the Oilers try to get to the middle of the ice, they get hit, or there is a turnover.

When the Oilers get out of their zone, the Panthers don’t give them time or space. The Oilers drop the puck, allowing the Panthers to get the puck and get out of the zone. The Oilers will also ice the puck or turn the puck over, leading to Panthers chances on Stuart Skinner.

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It’s a familiar scene, as the Panthers are doing what teams like the Vegas Golden Knights, Tampa Bay Lightning, St. Louis Blues, Boston Bruins, Los Angeles Kings, and Devils did before them: blocking the center and beating the opposition out.

The Oilers don’t have their answers through two games. The Lightning, Bruins, and Rangers never got their answer. The Florida Panthers make you play a certain way, and they want to see if their opponents can match it in a seven-game series.

It may not be pretty or exciting, and some may call it boring, but the way the Florida Panthers play defense shows that winning is all that matters.

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