Where did all the scoring go?
Offense was supposed to be the Florida Panthers' specialty this year. This was a unit that could outscore any problem, becoming the first and only team of the salary cap era to average over four goals per game in a season, and the first to maintain that torrid pace since the 1995-96 Pittsburgh Penguins.
Florida didn't just win the President's Trophy through sheer firepower, of course.
This Panthers' notoriously rocky goaltending, for instance, finally solidified itself this year with a Sergei Bobrovsky bounce-back performance and star-in-the-making Spencer Knight waiting just behind him. The blueline also took some needed strides thanks to Aaron Ekblad (before his injury), Mackenzie Weegar, Gustav Forsling, and Brandon Montour all providing good-to-great quality minutes, while the unit only grew deeper down the stretch after deadline acquisition Ben Chiarot was brought in to add some size and experience.
There were strong suits to this Panthers squad aside from its offensive arsenal. But, make no mistake, scoring was the name of the game. Their four 30-goal scorers, six 20-goal scorers, and three point-per-game producers (four, if you include Claude Giroux's 23 points in 18 games since arriving at the deadline) made that crystal clear.
But that scoring has vanished now -- precisely at the time the Panthers needed it most. And not only that, but their cross-state rivals have seemingly taken it for themselves, with the Tampa Bay Lightning draining the Panthers of their power through their second-round series like the Monstars in Space Jam, cruising to a dominating 3-0 series lead.
The Lightning are beating the Panthers at their own game -- and badly.
Through the first three games of round two, the Lightning have received goals from six different players, the bulk of whom can be classified as secondary scorers or depth contributors such as Corey Perry, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Ross Colton, and Ondrej Palat, while their two most crucial offensive weapons, Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, have led the way with four and seven points, respectively.
The Panthers cannot say the same.
Not only has their vaunted roster been held to just three goals thus far, their power-play been mired in a goalless drought dating back to April 29th before finally scoring once in Game 3, and their secondary scorers having vanished into thin air, but Florida's stars have been completely invisible, too.
That's the real cause for concern. Those top players should be the safety net to guide the team through any rough patch they encounter, providing an offensive safety net when all else fails.
It certainly worked that way in the regular season, when Jonathan Huberdeau's 85 assists were a certified Slump Buster™ and Aleksander Barkov's 39 goals in 67 games gave the Panthers an offensive cheat code they used to earn the best record in the league.
But both players have been completely neutralized thus far -- in all areas, too. Even outside of the box score stats, neither Huberdeau nor Barkov have impacted the game to the level they are expected to, with the two posting disastrous 49.82 percent and 43.07 percent expected goal shares, respectively.
The struggles of those marquee performers have not merely been confined to just this series, either. Neither player has given the Panthers a chance to win throughout these playoffs as a whole, with Huberbeau, in particular, being limited to just one goal and three points in six first-round games by a Washington Capitals squad that, frankly, shouldn't have even had a chance.
The Panthers were forced to rely on 26-year-old Carter Verhaeghe in order to make it out of that series alive. And that was despite Washington ultimately finishing the series with a different goaltender than the one they started with.
The Panthers should have breezed past an aging and inferior Capitals squad in round one. But they didn't, allowing the Capitals to establish a big enough foothold in the series to allow doubt to creep in before their deficiencies ultimately did themselves in in the end.
Florida has taken a largely similar approach in round two, with the major difference being that this Lightning squad doesn't have nearly as many deficiencies as the Panthers' previous opponent -- with the minor flaws that do pop up being successfully painted over with a healthy portion of timely goals.
That was supposed to be the Panthers' strategy. And now here they sit, on the brink of elimination as their own weapons have been turned against them.
This is a bombastic group. They can't go out like this, can they?