The Florida Panthers won the Presidents' Trophy, given to the team with the best record during the NHL regular season. However, that is no guarantee for playoff success. The last team to win the Presidents' Trophy and the Stanley Cup in the same season was the 2013 Chicago Blackhawks, during a lockout-shortened season. The last team to accomplish that feat in a normal, 82-game regular season? That would be the 2008 Detroit Red Wings.
Florida will look to put an end to this streak as it enters the playoffs with the second-best odds to win the Stanley Cup at BetMGM, behind only the Colorado Avalanche. First things first for Florida, and that's a Round 1 series against the Washington Capitals. Oddsmakers have the Panthers installed as a massive -350 favorite to eliminate the Capitals. On paper, the series looks rather lopsided, but the game isn't played on paper.
How they got here
As mentioned above, the Florida Panthers were the best team in hockey this past regular season. Their 58-18-6 record was good for 122 points, and gave them a two-win and three-point cushion over the Avalanche, the league's second-best team. The Capitals finished the season with 100 points and 44 wins. The 14-win gap is the largest gap between any two teams matched up in the first round, while the 22-point gap is tied for the largest gap with the Colorado-Nashville series.
The Panthers led the league in goals scored with 340. No other team in the league eclipsed 315 goals. If you look at the advanced metrics, it's no fluke either.
According to Natural Stat Trick, the Panthers led the league in expected goals, high danger chances, scoring chances and shot attempts per hour at 5-on-5 play this season. Quite simply, no other team in this league generated the quality and quantity of offense Florida did during the 82-game campaign. By comparison, Washington ranked 17th, 20th, 17th and 15th in those respective categories.
Defensively, the teams were more evenly matched, with Washington actually posting a small edge in expected goals against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5. The Capitals ranked 10th in the league in that metric while the Panthers came in 13th. However, that difference is negligible when you consider how much better the Panthers are at creating offense than their counterparts in this series. Overall, the Panthers ranked 2nd in the league in expected goal rate, while the Capitals were middle of the pack, ranking 14th.
Breaking down the matchup
When preparing for a playoff series against the best offense in the league, it's probably a bad thing when the biggest question mark surrounding your team is the goaltending position.
Washington started both Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov 39 times this season, alternating the two goalies and praying one of them would take the ball and run with it. That never happened. Both goalies finished the season with save percentages below .910, which is considered by most as the bare minimum you need from your goaltenders.
Vanecek will get the start in Game 1 for Washington, and that's the right call from a numbers point of view. Vanecek's .908 save percentage ranked 29th amongst eligible goaltenders, while Samsonov's .896 ranked 46th. During the regular season, Vanecek posted a -2.9 goals saved above expectation (GSAx), compared to a -11.1 mark for Samsonov. Basically, Vanecek was below average, Samsonov was bad, and therefore Vanecek earned the start in Game 1.
For Florida, Sergei Bobrovsky has had a solid season. He finished the season ranked 11th in GSAx at Evolving-Hockey with a +11.6 mark. It's been a disappointing tenure for Bobrovsky with Florida, but he's having his best season since his 2018 season with Columbus. Bobrovsky has been good enough this season to give Florida a noticeable edge between the pipes in this series.
In a series where Washington has Alex Ovechkin, it's actually the Florida Panthers who have the two biggest offensive stars. Jonathan Huberdeau finished second in the league in points for the Panthers, behind only Connor McDavid on the leaderboard. Aleksander Barkov also scored 88 points in just 67 games while maintaining his dominance at both ends of the ice. Ovechkin was playing at an MVP-level in the first half of the season, but his production declined in the second half of the year. Ovechkin scored 24 goals and 50 points in his first 33 games of the year, but just 26 goals and 40 points in the last 44 games. He also missed the final few games of the regular season, which obviously raises questions about whether he's 100% entering the series.
In terms of secondary offensive pieces, in most series, the Capitals would be in decent shape. Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, Anthony Mantha and Tom Wilson would make a solid top-6 alongside Ovechkin. However, in this series, the Panthers are better and deeper.
I was tempted to mention Sam Reinhart with the stars, because he's developed into one. The former Sabres forward had 33 goals and 82 points on the season, and he's on Florida's third line entering the series. Deadline acquisition Claude Giroux had 23 points in 18 games with his new team. Anthony Duclair scored 30 goals and Carter Verhaeghe and Sam Bennett are productive players who do it all on the ice for the Panthers. In their first full seasons in the league, Mason Marchment and Anton Lundell have developed into quite the duo. There's a reason this team led the league in goals; they are deep and good.
Defensively, the Panthers get even better as we enter the playoffs. Aaron Ekblad missed the final 21 games of the regular season due to injury, but he will be back in the lineup for the Panthers in Game 1. Ekblad is a borderline Norris-level defenseman who is the best defenseman on the ice in this series. John Carlson is a former Norris winner on the backend for the Capitals who is still producing offensively, but he doesn't impact the game nearly as much in his own zone as Ekblad does.
Beyond that, it's pretty equal on the backend. Both teams have solid defensive cores and good depth on the back end. It's the goaltending and offensive firepower that tilts this series heavily in favor of Florida.
How to bet the series
The Florida Panthers are heavy -350 favorites to win this series and advance to Round 2, and it's easy to see why that's the case. Unfortunately for us bettors, that makes this series harder to bet unless you're willing to risk that kind of juice.
There are some other ways to bet the series at BetMGM, but those bets will require a little more precision and probably some luck along the way.
You can look toward the series spread. Florida is -175 to cover the series spread of 1.5 games. This means you'd need the Panthers to win in six games or less, but -175 is still pretty heavy juice. If you bet Florida to cover the series spread of 2.5 games, you can get +140 odds. In order to cash that bet, you'd need Florida to sweep or win the series in five games.
You can bet Florida to win Game 1 (they are -225 favorites) and then the series and get -160 odds. It's a good way of knocking the juice way down, but if the Panthers come out flat tonight, your bet is shot from the get go.
You can bet the Panthers to sweep the series at +550 odds, or you can back the gentleman's sweep at +300 odds. If you think Florida will wrap the series up quickly, you can bet under 5.5 games at +125 odds.
Or maybe you don't think Florida's offensive, run-and-gun style will translate well to the playoffs and you'd rather back an experienced team that won the Stanley Cup just four years ago. Peter Laviolette is a Stanley Cup champion and has appeared in the Final three times in his career, while Andrew Brunette is in his first year behind an NHL bench in Florida. If you think Washington will shock the hockey world, the Capitals are +275 to win the series.