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The Panthers Won The Battle Of The Anxious Giants

11:23 AM EST on January 11, 2023

Mikko Rantanen and Colin White jostle on the ice
Aaron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

The NHL is built to grind down wannabe dynasties. If the salary cap doesn't push key players out to seek raises elsewhere, the sheer physical toll of a long playoff run, or multiple in a row, will wear a team down. A short turnaround to the next regular season, which leaves a team well below 100 percent, will make it all that much harder to do again.

The defending champion Colorado Avalanche are battling all that this year. In the offseason, the team opted to give its top forward Nathan MacKinnon a $100 million extension, but also had to let fly starting goalie Darcy Kuemper, plus their third and fifth-leading points-getters in Nazem Kadri and Andre Burakovsky. While they still had more than enough talent in place to be a great team, if not a juggernaut, the first half of the 2022-23 season has seen a plethora of Avs struggle with injuries, including MacKinnon, team captain Gabe Landeskog, Kuemper's old backup Pavel Francouz, 2019's fourth-overall pick Bo Byram, and last year's third-leading team playoff scorer Valeri Nichushkin. As a result, particularly over the last month and a half, the Avs have barely eked out their wins and suffered too many bad losses. They're currently 20-16-3—the ninth-best record in the West—with a golf-score goal differential of +1. This moment from a blown 2-0 lead against the Canucks last week sums it up.

The defending Presidents' Trophy winners, the Florida Panthers, are faring even worse. In that case, though, they mostly have themselves to blame. After a wild regular season that featured a coaching mess at the start, plenty of comeback wins in the middle, and a record that beat the second-place Avs by three points at the end, the Panthers looked ready to return from a round-two defeat and put together their first-ever era of real sustained success. But an offseason of big changes hasn't panned out anything like they hoped.

In a blockbuster trade the likes of which we rarely see in hockey, the Panthers sent NHL assist leader Jonathan Huberdeau and their second-best defenseman MacKenzie Weegar to Calgary for the high-scoring young superstar Matthew Tkachuk, who had said he wouldn't sign a new deal with the Flames. And after coach Joel Quenneville resigned in disgrace two weeks into last year, and interim coach Andrew Brunette piloted the team into uncharted territory, the Panthers' brass decided to demote Brunette and hire Paul Maurice, who could never make the most of his old Winnipeg Jets. (Brunette balked at that outcome and went to help out in New Jersey.)

Tkachuk is producing at about the same rate he did last year, so the Panthers got what they wanted. But their depth clearly took a hit in the process, exacerbated by a couple of short-term injuries to usual ice-time leader Aaron Ekblad and top center Aleksander Barkov (plus a longer one to 30-goal scorer Anthony Duclair). The bigger disaster, though, feels like Maurice. As the Jets buck expectations and sit second in their division under new coach Rick Bowness, the Panthers' boss already feels like a lame duck struggling to get inspired performances out of his charges.

Maurice was meant to rein in the defensive sloppiness while maintaining Florida's destructive offensive attack, but every aspect of the Panthers' game has instead taken a significant step back from last year. Without Huberdeau's magic hands and altruistic approach, scorers like Barkov, Sam Reinhart, and Sam Bennett are all way down from their levels a season ago. And on the back end, with second-tier veterans like Brandon Montour and Gustav Forsling shouldering more responsibility than ever before, more shots are getting through to goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, who's stopping them at the worst rate in his entire career. It's real bad! Only four teams in the East have a worse record than the Panthers' 19-19-4, and if something doesn't change Florida's in serious danger of becoming just the fourth Presidents' winner to miss the playoffs in their next campaign.

Guess who the Panthers traveled to play on Tuesday night? You got it, dude. The best team of last year's regular season went to Denver to face the best team of last year's playoffs, with both of them desperate to build a little momentum. The game turned out to be a perfect reflection of two teams with plenty of talent and plenty of problems.

The Panthers didn't start hot in terms of creating chances, but they did get early results by jumping on Avalanche turnovers and turning them into goals. Through this method alone, they opened up an impressive 3-0 advantage that had the Avs reeling, and though Andrew Cogliano calmed them down with a redirect goal right before the first break, tempers were running hot in the second. It was clear that both these teams were stressed.

And nobody loves when his opponent is stressed more than Matthew Tkachuk. He tapped in a rebound with under a minute to go that dulled the home crowd before the second intermission. The Avs are still the champs, though, and they unleashed their full might in the third. Mikko Rantanen scored a highly athletic beaut, then MacKinnon surprised a clumsy Bobrovsky with a follow-up 20 seconds later. An ecstatic game-tying goal for Artturi Lehkonen was overturned on an offsides call, but a shot through traffic by J.T. Compher achieved the same result soon after, with eight minutes remaining. Mikko's was the coolest, so here it is:

But the night didn't end so well for him, because if there's anything Matthew Tkachuk loves more than a stressed-out opponent, which we have already established that he really loves, it's puncturing the hopes of a happy one. Rantanen got called for a late interference penalty that the Avs were decidedly unhappy about in the postgame, and on the ensuing power play, Tkachuk skated up to Alexandar Georgiev's door and knocked until he got an answer. This was the game-winner, 5-4, and perhaps the goal that temporarily saved Paul Maurice's butt.

It's an infuriating way to lose for Colorado, a team that's so used to everything going the way they want. For Florida, though, it's a boost from a hard-fought win on the road and a critical bounce-back after a 5-1 loss to Dallas. While it's easy to speculate about each roster's mental state and the emotions in their respective dressing rooms, that's all secondary to the real prize these teams are fighting for each time out. Last year, the back stretch of the regular season was a luxurious chance for these teams to fine-tune for their playoff prep. This time, the stakes are much higher. The most important thing the Panthers and Avalanche need from their games right now is not a sense of camaraderie or confidence in their ability to upset a goalie. They just gotta have those two precious points.

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