Path to the Stanley Cup Final goes through Sunrise
Justin Cuthbert and Julian McKenzie discuss the Panthers' position as the top team in the NHL's Eastern Conference and whether Tampa Bay should still be considered favourites.
JUSTIN CUTHBERT: An amazing run that they're on here as we go down the stretch-- 13 straight wins, above 100 in terms of goal differential, they've scored the most goals in a quarter century, or on pace for it, at least, and they've got the salary cap record for most goals in a season.
They've overtaken the Colorado Avalanche in the Presidents Trophy race. They've ran away with the Eastern Conference, and of course, the division. They are on an absolute heater at the most important time. So should we be talking about them and not the Colorado Avalanche as the NHL's best team and the clear favorite to win the Stanley Cup?
JULIAN MCKENZIE: That-- man. That is really-- I mean, they look really good. They've looked really good all year long.
They're built the right way. They made great additions at the deadline. Maybe the biggest question, I guess, might be goaltending? But it looks as if they could play and withstand through many struggles with that.
If Sergei Bobrovsky really isn't that guy, is Spencer Knight really that dude, too? Maybe that could be possible. I don't see that being that big of an issue. Even though you really need goaltending to go through a postseason, I don't see it being that bad for this team.
I don't know if I'm ready to say they are the team. I mean, them in Colorado, they're so close to each other. And they both have so much to prove. That is the most interesting thing about this, right?
We're not talking about a team that has had lengthy playoff runs, and they've been knocking on the door of contention for quite some time, and this is the year they're going to put it all together. This is still a franchise that has not won a playoff series since 1996. This is a team that is hot right now, and they're doing everything they can to have a lengthy playoff run.
Maybe they win a round or two this year. And if they fall short of that, it's obviously gonna be a failure. But they're not like Tampa Bay. And if Tampa Bay finds a way to go on a run and win, how surprised are we really gonna be, considering they're the team of that era? Like, that's my biggest question about this.
Like, whenever we see teams that look really good, but they don't have a lot of, like, playoff success, and then, when we look at the bracket, we're like, oh, hey, some of the usual suspects, like a Tampa Bay or a Pittsburgh back in the day or a Washington end up there, you're just like, oh, well, why did we believe in this supernova team in the first place?
I don't know if I can do that with Florida. I think they'll actually win a couple of rounds. And I think they're-- I'm willing to say they're gonna be the Eastern Conference representative in the Stanley Cup Final. Are they the best team, though? Are they better than Colorado?
I don't know, only because Colorado can boast just as heavy of a lineup. And you could say they might be a little more shorthanded in goaltending. But even in Colorado's case, are they gonna be the ones to come out? What if Minnesota upsets them? They have pieces, and they have urgency to win now, too.
I have a lot of questions. So maybe I'm ducking out of answering if Florida is really better than Colorado. But, like, they're really good. They're the class of the Eastern Conference that they've been all year. So I'm willing to say that.
But, like, if we asked this January, maybe I'd be a little bit more sure, because it's easy to kind of say who's the best team in the league right now. But so close to the playoffs, where we know that being the best team ultimately doesn't really matter, I hesitate.
JUSTIN CUTHBERT: Yeah, I don't think you can dispute the fact they're the best team in the Eastern Conference in the regular season by far. I mean, the points tell you that. But I just think the way that they have just trucked through this season-- the numbers are prodigious, the run that they are on right now-- like, everything points to them being the clear best team.
But, again, this is not the Premier League. This is not European soccer. You don't win anything based on what you did in the regular season. I don't subscribe to the notion--
JULIAN MCKENZIE: Which is a shame, because you should.
JUSTIN CUTHBERT: Uh, I know everyone hates the playoffs, but I kind of like the playoffs.
JULIAN MCKENZIE: I love the playoffs, too.
JUSTIN CUTHBERT: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
JULIAN MCKENZIE: I also love the idea of teams actually, you know, going through the gauntlet of an 82-game season and being recompensed for, you know, being the best team over 82 games.
JUSTIN CUTHBERT: I do wish it meant more. I do wish it meant more. But just, like, you can't fake that sort of stuff. Like, it just doesn't. You know what I mean?
Like, you can't-- there's an award. But no one cares about the award. Like, you just can't force people to care about something and--
JULIAN MCKENZIE: You have to incentivize it--
JUSTIN CUTHBERT: --teams and players don't care.
JULIAN MCKENZIE: --in a way to get them to care. You have to incentivize it--
JUSTIN CUTHBERT: Yeah.
JULIAN MCKENZIE: --to make it that they should care. Like, I don't know if you add, like, more salary on top of players winning the Presidents Trophy. Do you give them an automatic bye into the playoffs next year if they win just in case some weird crap happens? But even then, like, considering how teams might want to restructure themselves and tank and all that, is that something you necessarily want to do in this era?
Like, I don't know. Like, you have to do something because-- I don't mean to hijack the conversation here.
JUSTIN CUTHBERT: No, go for it.
JULIAN MCKENZIE: You play through 82 games of a season.
JUSTIN CUTHBERT: Yeah.
JULIAN MCKENZIE: And you could be like Tampa and get swept in four, and it means nothing. I don't think that's fair. I don't think that's fair.
If we're gonna say, OK, if the playoffs matters so much--
JUSTIN CUTHBERT: Well, they did win the Presidents Trophy.
JULIAN MCKENZIE: --more than the regular season-- I mean, yeah, they won the Presidents Trophy, and then what happened to them? They got their ass beat by Columbus. And it doesn't matter.
JUSTIN CUTHBERT: Unfortunately, the only comparable, I think, could be golf, where the four majors mean the most, clearly. The Masters probably means even more than the other three. But they have the FedEx Cup. They have the FedEx Cup standings all year based on how you perform all year.
And guess what the prize is? It's not a trophy or a jacket or something that they're trying to make mean as much as a major. It's just cold, hard cash. If there's $25 million at the end of the road for the Presidents Trophy winners, and they all get a $1 million bonus, every player, then maybe there'd be a little action at the end of the year in teams playing really, really hard to try and get that million dollars.
Maybe that's possible. Maybe that's just wishful thinking. You can't just throw money at everything and expect it to work. But I think that would make things a little bit more interesting.
JULIAN MCKENZIE: Why the hell--
JUSTIN CUTHBERT: Anyway--
JULIAN MCKENZIE: --can't you throw money and make a problem go away? That's how all a lot of these billionaire--
JUSTIN CUTHBERT: I mean, pretty much, but it didn't--
JULIAN MCKENZIE: --owners go about it.
JUSTIN CUTHBERT: --fix the all-star game.
JULIAN MCKENZIE: That's how a lot of people go about their life.
JUSTIN CUTHBERT: This is not enough money. There's just not enough money at the all-star game. Like, 100 grand, it's like they'd rather look cool than earn the 100 grand. But that's another story.
JULIAN MCKENZIE: Take from the pot of the all-star game, then. Take it from that, because the players don't care about the all-star game that much anyway. Put it all towards the Presidents Trophy if you have to.
Anyway, again, I'm sorry I hijacked the conversation. But I'm definitely in the camp that says the regular season should absolutely matter more-- not more than the playoffs, not more than the Stanley Cup. But if you're going to go through 82 games, and you go through a season like what the Florida Panthers have gone through, already people do not care about Jonathan Huberdeau having the season that he's having, pointing out the fact that he doesn't play defense and that he plays with Aleksander Barkov.
Literally, the only thing that will matter for the Florida Panthers is if they win the Stanley Cup this year. If they made at least the Presidents Trophy, you know, a little bit more worthwhile to win, they could at least look back on that season with a bit more pride beyond just whatever individual accomplishments that they had and team accomplishments that we know that the team will try to make their fans or everyone else care about but no one really cares about.
But a Presidents Trophy, having that matter and mean something, having that incentivized, that would make it really cool. But I get that's a whole other argument for another story. But, like, I just think that has to be pointed out here.
JUSTIN CUTHBERT: Definitely a harsh reality of hockey is you can be brilliant for 82 games, 200 days-- I don't know how long the regular season actually is. But you can be great for so long, and then it goes up in smoke like the Tampa Bay Lightning have recently experienced, although they've erased those memories pretty efficiently.
One thing that could help incentivize would be the play-in. I don't know if I love the play-in. I'm sort of on the fence there.
But if there was the play-in, at least the Florida Panthers would avoid the play-in, obviously. They'd get a team that's already played an important game, maybe on the second night of a back-to-back. Maybe there's incentive there. But again, I just don't think-- I think, in your mind, it makes a lot of sense. But in reality, and when played out in real time, I'm not sure it would make much of a difference.
But anyway, Florida Panthers-- they are clearly the best team in the East. Like--
JULIAN MCKENZIE: Yeah.
JUSTIN CUTHBERT: --they're coming in as deserved favorites. They should be considered that. However, however, just like the Toronto Maple Leafs, you have the specter of the Tampa Bay Lightning lingering. And the Tampa Bay Lightning provided a reminder this week that they can still be the Tampa Bay Lightning of old, having hammered and humiliated, in many ways, the Toronto Maple Leafs in an 8 1 victory where they were basically bullying the Maple Leafs throughout the entire game.
They can do that sort of thing. I mean, I jumped the gun a little bit. I was so excited to pick Toronto. I think Toronto is better than Tampa. However, when you play that sort of game, and you've got guys like Alexander Kerfoot freaking out because they took a body check and other guys tapping Corey Perry on the top of the head with their stick like they're playing the bongos, like, they--
JULIAN MCKENZIE: Book.
JUSTIN CUTHBERT: --got them out of their element. And Tampa Bay can get any team out of their element. So they've got a lot of landmines ahead, the Florida Panthers. But I think this team, who's played without Aaron Ekblad for a little while, is going to be healthy. All they really, really, really have to worry about, I think, is Sergei Bobrovsky.
I mean, Mitch Marner beat him clean with a slap shot in last night's game. You probably missed it because you were dialed in to the Senators and Canadiens. But this is a guy who can give you an uneven performance. And if you're gonna go through Tampa or Toronto-- Washington first, it might not be as critical-- but you need the goaltending. And if you lose the goaltending battle, everything you did in the regular season won't mean anything.
JULIAN MCKENZIE: I was dialed into two games, actually. I was dialed to the Senators-Canadiens and the Laval Rocket and Syracuse Crunch because the Rocket--
JUSTIN CUTHBERT: There you go.
JULIAN MCKENZIE: --are trying to make the playoffs in the AHL. So I definitely missed that game. But I did catch the OT winner. I think Brandon Montour--
JUSTIN CUTHBERT: They won anyway.
JULIAN MCKENZIE: --took that pass from Leafs legend Mason Marchment.
JUSTIN CUTHBERT: Yeah.
JULIAN MCKENZIE: [INAUDIBLE] a lot of people.
JUSTIN CUTHBERT: Mason Marchment's a stud.
JULIAN MCKENZIE: Yeah. Denis Malkin, though.
JUSTIN CUTHBERT: [? Deny ?] Malkin will live forever.
JULIAN MCKENZIE: Oh. Well, here's the point I want to bring up with the Florida Panthers and the Tampa Bay Lightning. You are absolutely right. The Tampa Bay Lightning reminded everyone that they could still lay a whooping if they could.
But the Florida Panthers went toe-to-toe with them in a playoff series. And even though they lost that series, they threw some lumps at the Lightning, too. And the way that the Florida Panthers-- I'm sure you've seen them enough this year. They look like a team that if another team walks that smoke, they're willing to punch back and deliver it, too.
I think if we get a repeat of that series between the Panthers and the Lightning, it might end differently. There might be more bloodshed. And definitely, the Florida Panthers, if they're going toe-to-toe in those scrums and fights or whatever happens, oh, they might win a few of those battles themselves.
Just the way that they look-- they're aggressive, they're mean, they're heavy, they can forecheck well. And they can score like crazy. Their offense is loaded. Like, this Florida Panthers team-- clearly the best I've ever seen since they've been in this league. Like, they're really good.
And I think, like, if they go up against a Tampa, like, obviously, you have to give Tampa that respect because they have Andre Vasilevskiy. And that might be the difference if it goes seven games. But I don't think the Florida Panthers, at least with them, compared to other teams in the Atlantic Division like the Leafs, if they go up against Tampa Bay, they might pose the biggest threat of any team-- them and Carolina, I guess. They might pose the biggest threats of any team in the Eastern Conference to derail the Tampa Bay Lightning.
And you know what? We're all here for it, not that we don't respect the Lightning. We all know about how great they are. But seeing the Florida Panthers get the better of the Lightning, having them be the team that kind of topples a potential dynasty trying to be formed here, that would be an interesting story. That would be an incredible way to see them go down, at the hands of the Florida Panthers. So I'm not saying I'm rooting for it. But that would be a really fun story.
JUSTIN CUTHBERT: The way the Panthers have scored this year, it's hard to imagine even the best goaltender on the planet, and that is Andrei Vasilevskiy-- I'm sorry, Igor Shesterkin, but until you do it over a couple of seasons, it still belongs to Vasi.
JULIAN MCKENZIE: I agree. I agree with that thinking.
JUSTIN CUTHBERT: It's hard to imagine, even then, that Florida gets completely shut down. Like, I mean, the way that they've put the puck in the net, it's not just, you know, throwing 40 shots on net and hoping a couple squeak through. They are earning their goals on a nightly basis, and they're scoring 4, 5, 6 a night, it seems like, every time they go out.
It's gonna be hard for a goaltender to be the thing that just, like-- the sole reason why a team beats Florida, a goaltender. I just cannot see that happen because they are so explosive.
However, Tampa can-- or Vasi can minimize some of it. He can do his part. And we know Tampa can score.
So, listen, I'm in Toronto. I'm gonna be covering the Maple Leafs very closely in this playoffs. And I don't want to write the same story again this year. I don't. I'm just gonna be honest with you. I'd like to see them win, because I don't want to write the exact same story for the fifth or sixth consecutive spring.
However, it's hard to imagine that it doesn't happen in the second round, Tampa and Florida, even though I was so bullish on Toronto, like, four or five days ago. I just thought it was different. And then I saw the old Tampa Bay, where they're bullying everyone and outclassing everyone. And I'm thinking, oh, my gosh, I've gone-- I jumped the gun a little bit.
I still think it's gonna be an incredible series between Toronto and Tampa Bay. And whoever gets Florida has a chance to beat Florida. But I just think Florida is on another level right now. And I think, either way, whether it's upsetting Leaf fans or taking down the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions, Florida is in a great position right now.
JULIAN MCKENZIE: Can I offer some words of reassurance to you with regards to your thinking of the Toronto Maple Leafs, which I'm sure you've already seen with both Jon Cooper and Wayne Simmonds kind of reiterating this?
JUSTIN CUTHBERT: Mm-hmm.
JULIAN MCKENZIE: That 8-1 game, as much of a demolishing that it was for Tampa, it's a one-off.
JUSTIN CUTHBERT: It is.
JULIAN MCKENZIE: Like, Jon Cooper himself said, like, he doesn't expect that from the Leafs. And Wayne Simmonds said, hey, like, they know they're a good team. That's not going to happen again.
I'd be stunned if we saw a game in the playoffs like that between those two teams. I still think Tampa--
JUSTIN CUTHBERT: See, I wouldn't.
JULIAN MCKENZIE: --has the edge on the Leafs.
JUSTIN CUTHBERT: I wouldn't be stunned.
JULIAN MCKENZIE: It'd be stunning.
JUSTIN CUTHBERT: I wouldn't be stunned if we saw--
JULIAN MCKENZIE: You can't lose 8-1--
JUSTIN CUTHBERT: --that once.
JULIAN MCKENZIE: --like that.
JUSTIN CUTHBERT: I wouldn't be surprised-- maybe not 8-1. But there's something-- I don't even know how much it matters. But when the Leafs get dragged into a game that's played exclusively in the muck like that, like that one was, where it's just nonsense, and sticks are flying around, skates are flying around, chirps, fights, retaliation, whenever all that stuff is happening, it doesn't come naturally to the Maple Leafs. And it always comes naturally to the opposition.
I mean, Tampa was in complete control of all that hijinks where Toronto clearly was out of control and not dealing with it very well. So if you can press the right buttons, if you're the opposition, if you can do that again, then you can have an advantage.
And the thing about Tampa is they are so good in the muck. They excel in the muck. They are the dirtiest-skilled team there is. They know what they're doing. And that, if you're a Leaf fan, has to be scary. If they can drag them into that fight, into the muck, they're not gonna be successful in the muck.
We've seen it a million times. The Leafs don't win games in the muck. They struggle in the muck. Tampa excels in the muck.
JULIAN MCKENZIE: Playoffs are all about being in the muck.
JUSTIN CUTHBERT: And playoffs are all about being in the muck. And Tampa, that's the reason-- that's how they've overcome it. They were the ultra-skilled team before that was doing what the Leafs are doing. And then they became a team that does it both ways, and they can win a variety of ways.
And I think the Leafs have to learn from that experience and not enter the muck. Stay out of the muck. Make it skill versus skill, fire versus fire.
I think it's great that the Leafs had to go through that, that they lost that game 8-1, that they got embarrassed from a physicality standpoint. I think those are great things because it's a reminder that you can't play that game. No matter how many Wayne Simmondses, Kyle Cliffords are in the lineup, Ilya Lyubushkins, it doesn't matter. They're gonna do it better than you.
So I think it's good that the Leafs experienced that. And I think it's wise if they remind themselves that they can't get sucked into it.
JULIAN MCKENZIE: Yeah. But, I mean, 8-1. I'm with you on the fact that, you know what? Maybe the Leafs won't be able to handle some of the more rougher stuff. But an 8-1 loss, that is the wheels falling off on every quarter of your car or whatever device you use to get around.
Like, that's not-- that's a scoreline that's not going to repeat itself in the playoffs, especially with how teams are supposed to lock down when it comes time. The Leafs are not gonna lose a game 8 1. We can play this clip back if they eventually do in the playoffs. But they won't do that.
JUSTIN CUTHBERT: But they can get embarrassed. It doesn't have to be 8-1 to be embarrassing.
JULIAN MCKENZIE: Fine. They can get embarrassed.
JUSTIN CUTHBERT: So I just think they have to do what they do. And if they decide that they want to fill the fourth line up with guys who might be able to fight Pat Maroon, I'm of the mind ignoring Pat Maroon is really-- like, you can fight him once. But if you just try to play that game, I believe they're gonna lose that game. And it's the opposite of how I felt four or five days ago.
I shouldn't be reacting to that game as much as, like, as I am. But--
JULIAN MCKENZIE: It really did an effect on you.
JUSTIN CUTHBERT: --that's what Tampa has done to win two straight Stanley Cups. They're more skilled than you, and they know how to be dirtier than you. They've done it for two straight playoff rounds or playoff showings.
JULIAN MCKENZIE: Yeah.
JUSTIN CUTHBERT: It's something to think about. Anyway--
JULIAN MCKENZIE: Look, anyway.
JUSTIN CUTHBERT: It was supposed to be about Florida. We were talking more about who Florida might play. But just to tie a bow on them, I think it's just another reminder that not all teams are built the same. I mean, this is not a team that was scorched-earth.
I mean, they've been bad for a long time. They've got some good players through drafting over many, many years. But this was kind of put together really quickly, slapped together, built, obviously, around Ekblad and Huberdeau and Barkov.
But they just went out and be like, hey, we want this, this, this. Let's put it all together, and let's see what happens. They just made a string of really, really smart moves. They way overpaid on a goaltender making $10 million a year who's not even that great.
JULIAN MCKENZIE: Yeah.
JUSTIN CUTHBERT: But they built this team really quickly, and maybe even, in some people's minds, sort of sloppily. But it all came together perfectly. And this team is just a reminder that there's different ways to skin the cat. And I guess that's pun intended or perhaps not, because Tampa will be trying to skin the cat.
JULIAN MCKENZIE: Ah. I see what you did there, skin the cat because the Panthers like to--
JUSTIN CUTHBERT: Yeah.
JULIAN MCKENZIE: --refer to themselves as cats. But that is a good point, though. I mean, like, not to kind of peel the curtain back here with the CJ show, but we put out this poll where we're allowing fans to vote on who they think should win a lot of the major awards. And an overwhelming amount of people are voting for who I think will probably go down as the obvious candidate to win is Bill Zito because of the moves that he's been able to make, to make the team as good as it has been.
JUSTIN CUTHBERT: Amazing.
JULIAN MCKENZIE: And it's interesting to see sloppily. I don't know if it's sloppily. It's just good fortune. I mean, the fact that they were able to make that Sam Bennett trade work from last year, like, that is really incredible to see. Now they have [INAUDIBLE].
JUSTIN CUTHBERT: It was just free wheeling. It was just free spending.
JULIAN MCKENZIE: Yeah.
JUSTIN CUTHBERT: Like, we don't--
JULIAN MCKENZIE: It just kind of happened.
JUSTIN CUTHBERT: --normally see that. And we're like, when people are doing that, like, whoa what are they doing? What if that doesn't work? They're gonna be screwed. But literally, everything he did worked out perfectly.
JULIAN MCKENZIE: It worked. And now they have Reinhart, too. The Ben Chiarot trade, a lot of people were like, oh, man, they have Ben Chariot?
JUSTIN CUTHBERT: Giroux? They spent a lot for Giroux but Giroux's been amazing these last [INAUDIBLE].
JULIAN MCKENZIE: You have Claude Giroux as, like--
JUSTIN CUTHBERT: He's just a weapon.
JULIAN MCKENZIE: Yeah, he's just there.
JUSTIN CUTHBERT: They just have a former captain, like, one of the best players of the last-- of the salary cap era--
JULIAN MCKENZIE: He's been to the Stanley Cup Final before--
JUSTIN CUTHBERT: --chilling on the second line, just doing damage like, hm. Two Hart Trophy candidates, if you ask me-- I think Barkov has just had as good of a season as Jonathan Huberdeau-- I actually think maybe even better. Like, they're just-- they're a machine. They're a machine. And they've just been built a different way.
JULIAN MCKENZIE: Absolutely.
JUSTIN CUTHBERT: And Zito, as you mentioned, deserves a lot of credit for it.
JULIAN MCKENZIE: They absolutely do. And just to kind of do a callback to the Presidents Trophy, it means absolutely nothing if they get dusted in the first round. But, like, I think this is a Florida Panthers team that has the stomach to go win more than one round and even go all the way to the final this year. I'd be-- if it's not Tampa Bay or Florida, I'd be stunned at whoever else would come out, right? So I think the Panthers have a really good chance. They're really built to win this year.
JUSTIN CUTHBERT: And just to insert Toronto again, I think Toronto has a better chance. I think they're better matched up against Florida than they are Tampa. So if they get through Tampa, if you beat the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions, the amount of good-energy vibes coming out of that, and coming out of a matchup where you might just think, hey, we're as powerful as Florida. We haven't shown it necessarily all year, but we got the guns, too.
Anyway, the Atlantic Division is gonna be very, very interesting. And, of course, it runs through Sunrise with the Florida Panthers.