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Five Reasons why Florida Panthers primed for another Stanley Cup Playoffs run

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The Florida Panthers have officially made themselves known as one of the NHL’s perennial playoff contenders, clinching a postseason berth for the fifth-consecutive season.

And unlike last season, when they snuck in as the eighth seed and went on a run to the Stanley Cup Final, they have been dominant from the start.

In the team’s second season under head coach Paul Maurice, Florida has looked like the same team that tore its way through the Eastern Conference side of the bracket in 2023 with a combination of physicality, skill and responsible defensive play.

And they are primed to make another run in the 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Panthers close out the regular season Tuesday night at home against Toronto and will be either the first or second seed in the Eastern Conference, depending on how Boston does in its last two games. Florida will play either the Maple Leafs or Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the playoffs, starting in Sunrise this weekend.

Here are five reasons why they will be a team to watch this spring:

Panthers have been there before

The most obvious reason why the Panthers can do this? They are returning a roster full of players who just did so last year.

Florida returned 15 players who made it to the Stanley Cup Final and added two players who won the Cup in 2019 with St. Louis in Nikko Mikkola and Vladimir Tarasenko via free agency and trade, respectively.

That returning group has been playing the same style, which helped them in last year’s playoffs, resulting in a top-two seed in the Atlantic Division.

“Everybody can feel the playoffs coming. I have no concern about our energy levels for the playoffs or the intensity of it. None,” Maurice said. “And that goes back to training camp. We’ve been preparing for this for the entire year. They’ve been waiting for it over the last almost month for it to come. They’re going to be ready.”

Panthers deeper than ever thanks to additions

The Panthers will enter the playoffs with arguably a better roster than they did during last season’s run.

Tarasenko (23 goals, 31 assists, 54 points in 75 games) and Evan Rodrigues (12-27-39, 79 games) add reliable scoring depth that was missing last season. Florida also adjusted well to the departure of reliable defenseman Radko Gudas, adding Mikkola, Dmitry Kulikov and Oliver Ekman-Larsson.

More: Florida Panthers welcome back injured star defensemen Brandon Montour, Aaron Ekblad

Florida picked up former Buffalo Sabres captain Kyle Okposo at the trade deadline. He can step up and play anywhere in the lineup if injuries occur. He also is potentially one of a few playoff-ready players who could find themselves on the outside looking in of the Panthers’ lineup, which is a great problem to have.

Sam Reinhart has emerged as a scorer

The offensive explosion of Sam Reinhart has arguably been the biggest story all season.

Reinhart, whose previous career-high was 33 goals, broke out and notched the first 50-goal season of his career. And he has been one of the best defensive forwards in the NHL in the process.

Reinhart has 55 goals, 92 points and 10 game-winning goals on the season.

“I think that speaks to the way we try to play,” Reinhart said of his success. “Everyone’s playing the same way, everyone’s creating offense the same way and that’s not cheating the game. It’s coming back, being on the right side of pucks and creating ice that way. So it fits in well with our system.”

Sergei Bobrovsky in prime form

After playing a crucial role in Florida’s playoff run last year – going 12-6 with a .915 save percentage and a 2.78 goals-against average in 18 starts – goalie Sergei Bobrovsky has looked elite once again.

Bobrovsky is 36-17-4 while ranking in the top 5 in goals-against average and having a league-leading six shutouts this season.

“I mean confidence is everything and it’s never easy to gain in this league,” Aaron Ekblad said. “He’s doing the right thing; making big saves at the right times every night.  It’s really easy to come to work every day when you got a brick wall behind you.”

Matthew Tkachuk ready to wreak havoc

A year ago, Matthew Tkachuk proved that he is one of the most clutch playoff performers in the NHL. During that run, Tkachuk had 11 goals, 24 points, four game-winning goals and three overtime winners.

That fourth game-winning goal happened to be the goal scored with four seconds left in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals, which broke a tie and sent the Panthers to the Stanley Cup Finals.

Tkachuk has been that guy again during the regular season, scoring 26 goals and 86 points in 79 games.

”He’s just a big-game player,” frequent linemate Nick Cousins said. “He doesn’t shy away from the moment. I think he’s got underrated playmaking ability and really good vision. Whenever you’re open, he is going to get you the puck so you just got to make sure you’re ready for the puck. He showed up in the biggest moment on the biggest hockey stage last year in the playoffs and we’re happy to have him.”

Bill Zito promoted, contract extended

The Panthers announced Monday that the club has agreed to a multi-year contract extension with Bill Zito and promoted him to President, Hockey Operations and General Manager.    

“From his first day as a Panther, Bill has demonstrated his complete commitment to success both on and off the ice. He has worked steadfastly and tirelessly to establish a new standard of excellence for our franchise,” said Panthers owner Vincent Viola. “The future has never looked brighter in South Florida and we are thrilled that Bill will continue to lead the way.” 

Through Zito’s four-year tenure as general manager, the Panthers have been a playoff team. Since 2020-21, they rank first in shots on goal per game (35.7), second in third-period goals (370) and third in goals per game (3.56), while leading the league in overtime goals (34). Florida’s 188-88-25 record in that span ranks fifth among NHL clubs.

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