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Panthers will need answers on special teams

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If the Florida Panthers are going to repeat as Eastern Conference champions, they’re going to need a solution on special teams.

Florida’s eight power-play goals (6.8 per 60 minutes played) in their first 10 playoff games is nothing to sneeze at, especially considering their first two foes – Tampa Bay in the first round, Boston in the second – are both sound defensive teams. But on a rate basis, their production has definitively slowed from their blistering regular-season production.

Their third-round opponent is the New York Rangers, who carry a zero goal differential on the penalty kill into the Eastern Conference Final. Yes, you are reading that correctly. Zero.

With a complement of high-pressure, counter-attack-capable forwards in front of the venerable Igor Shesterkin, the Rangers penalty kill has been an impossible nut to crack during the playoffs. The Rangers have conceded just four power-play goals in their first 10 games, and have added four goals of their own shorthanded from Chris Kreider, Jacob Trouba, K’Andre Miller and Barclay Goodrow.

Any time you are generating offence shorthanded, it’s a great sign. But the big story with this Rangers penalty kill is how effective it has been at keeping the pressure off Shesterkin in the first place. 

Typically, when you see such impressive penalty-kill splits, much of the credit goes to the goaltending, and in New York’s case they certainly have one of the best in the business. But this penalty-kill unit has been extremely effective all season long, haranguing puck carriers in the neutral zone, and limiting opportunity between the circles and in the slot.

A quick glance of their shot profile from the regular season shows just how good they are at the latter. Consider New York’s defensive performance over the full season, and pay attention to where shots against are – and more importantly, are not – coming from: (via HockeyViz)

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Shot pressure from in tight is virtually non-existent against the Rangers, and in the fleeting moments teams can get the puck into those dangerous scoring areas, the Blueshirts have the ultimate eraser in Shesterkin. To that end, much of their postseason dominance here is a carryover from what we saw in the regular season, a key reason this team won the Presidents’ Trophy.

One of the reasons the Rangers are such a challenge is that, even down a man, most of their top talent is still on the ice. Trouba and Ryan Lindgren do much of the heavy lifting on the blueline. But even more notable is the fact that Mika Zibanejad, Vincent Trocheck, Adam Fox, and Kreider are four penalty-killing regulars. All four, notably, are key fixtures at the top of the New York lineup at even strength. 

That’s not a luxury every team has, but the versatility in Peter Laviolette’s lineup is what makes this team so dangerous. The skill on the ice also keeps the opposition on their toes: gamble too aggressively against the Blueshirts, and you will be dealing with a ferocious counter-attack coming the other way. 

Married to a disciplined lineup, it’s a recipe for long-term success. And to that end, if the Florida Panthers are going to hoist the Prince of Wales trophy once more, they are going to need answers for the Rangers penalty kill — answers the Capitals and Hurricanes simply did not have. 

Data via Natural Stat Trick, NHL.com, Evolving Hockey