BOCA RATON, Fla. – Winning games during the Stanley Cup Playoffs can be one of the hardest, most challenging things that a hockey team can do.
Sometimes, however, it can boil down to one simple thing.
A hot goalie.
Where hockey differs from most sports is in the unpredictability that comes with the postseason. Every team knows that once you're in, anything can happen, regardless of whether you're a division winner or squeak in on the last day of the season.
Hockey is a team game, to be sure, but goaltenders are often left on their own little island and have to withstand everything the opposition throws at them, which can include crazy bounces and fluky deflections that are impossible to anticipate.
The significance of good goaltending during the postseason is something that Florida Panthers head coach Joel Quenneville knows all too well, as only two other men (Scotty Bowman and Al Arbour) have more Stanley Cup Playoff victories than Q's 118.
Side note: Quenneville is five away from tying Arbour (123) for second place on the all-time postseason win list.
That is especially true for teams playing in this year's qualifying round, which is best-of-five instead of the traditional best-of-seven. During a five-game series, there is much less of a margin for error, which means falling behind early can lead to a quick exit from the quarantine bubble.
“Goaltending, especially right off the bat, is going to be so important for teams,” Quenneville said Wednesday during an appearance on WQAM’s The Joe Rose Show.
Understanding the importance of having stability in net, Florida made a point of targeting free agent goalie Sergei Bobrovsky last summer, signing him to a massive 7-year deal worth $70 million.
The season was not a great one for Bobrovsky, who will be the first one to admit that he fell well short of expectations. Nobody is a harsher critic of Bob than himself.
Bobrovsky finished the season with mediocre numbers, going 23-19-6 with a 3.23 goals against average, a .900 save percentage and a single shutout (which came in early November against league-worst Detroit) after logging a career-best nine goose eggs last year.
But that was the regular season, and now we're talking playoffs.
A big part of why Bobrovsky was so highly coveted last summer was his performance during the spring, when he backstopped Columbus to a shocking sweep of top-ranked Tampa Bay during the first round of the playoffs.
Despite the inconsistent regular season, Quenneville knows what Bobrovsky is capable of and is confident he can recapture the top form needed to help Florida reach the next level.
"As the year went along, he had some stretches where he was fine," Quenneville said of his goaltender, adding that he needs Bob to "be at that level where he can win hockey games and give you a chance to get points in every single game."
During the NHL stoppage, Bobrovsky quarantined at his waterfront home in Fort Lauderdale with his wife, Olga. Back in April, Bob said he was staying in shape by doing "the basic things; cardio, weightlifting, stretching," and bike riding.
Since the NHL moved into Phase 2, allowing players to return to their respective team practice facilities, Bobrovsky has been a regular in Coral Springs at the Ice Den.
Quenneville noted that Bob has been working with Panthers goaltending coach Robb Tallas quite a bit in recent weeks, figuring out the best ways to prepare the 31-year-old for what's to come.
The Hall of Fame-bound head coach knows as well as anyone that a little playoff success will go a long way toward erasing the struggles of Bobrovsky's first season in Florida.
“Bob’s doing everything he can to help himself,” Quenneville said. “I think it’s a great opportunity for him to put this season where, all of a sudden, we’re only going to remember how he finishes.”
Quenneville revealed that teams will be permitted to carry up to 28 skaters and as many goalies as they wish when the NHL officially launches Phase 3.
At the moment, Florida has almost 20 players participating in Phase 2, which, as of last week, allowed for groups of ten to be on the ice together.
Training camps are likely to begin in less than two weeks, which means every player participating in the playoffs will need to be in town and ready to roll at the start date.
“We’ve got a lot of guys in town right now,” Quenneville said. “We’ve got 19 guys that are skating. We’re probably going to get close to 20-something in the next few days.”
The players have been split into two groups, with about ten skaters in each group and two goalies.
Coaches are not permitted inside team facilities during Phase 2, but Quenneville has remained well informed about the day-to-day activities at the Ice Den.
“They seem like the last few days they’ve been turning up the intensity,” he said. “It’s been an interesting time right now, but I’ve got to commend our guys in how well they’ve been preparing themselves and doing everything they can to get themselves ready to go.”
When Phase 3 arrives, things will begin moving very quickly.
Before they know it, the 24 NHL teams participating in the postseason will travel to their respective hub cities, with the Eastern Conference setting up camp in one location and the Western Conference heading to another.
Quenneville expects to find out where Florida is going sometime in the next week. When asked specifically about Toronto and Edmonton, the two ‘leaders in the clubhouse’ as of the holiday weekend, he said “They’ve got great rinks. They’ve got not a lot of reports of (COVID-19) incidences.”
Quenneville anticipates having around three weeks for training camp before the Panthers begin their best-of-five series against the New York Islanders.
PREPARING FOR BATTLE
During the regular season, Florida tied for fifth in the league in scoring, averaging 3.3 goals per game.
Despite the consistent success putting the puck in the net, Quenneville doesn't want the team to be focusing on offense. Quite the opposite, actually.
According to Q, when the Panthers hit the ice for the postseason, the goal shouldn't be trying to outscore their opponents, but rather to try and control the pace of the game, regardless of who has the puck.
"We want to reinforce how we want to play," he said. "We want to get back to the way we finished playing (prior to the pause). It looked like we were playing a much better and effective game without the puck. More of a check mentality when we don't have it."
Translation: Less pretty, more gritty.
As the team gets closer to playing actual games again, Quenneville said they will be reminded of how the Islanders play, their tendencies and what specifically Florida needs to be aware of and watch out for.
The Panthers went 0-2-1 against the Isles during the regular season. All three games were tightly contested and went down to the wire, with a pair of one-goal games and a two-goal New York victory that included a late empty-net goal.
"We felt we played pretty well against them all three games this year," Quenneville said. "The games were all close. I felt territorially we did some good things."
The main compliment Q had for the Islanders was that the team plays a very patient game. They take care of the puck and are smart in the defensive zone, which has made it difficult for Panthers forwards to find room and generate scoring chances.
“They play the right way,” he said.