Imagining A Hypothetical Eastern Conference Final: Canadiens vs. Panthers

34 points seperated the Canadiens and Panthers in the year-end standings, but in the parity of the NHL, the Habs are a lot closer than you may think.
Florida Panthers v Montreal Canadiens
Florida Panthers v Montreal Canadiens / Minas Panagiotakis/GettyImages

Picture this: The Canadiens snuck into the second wildcard spot to make the 2023-24 playoffs. In this hypothetical world, they upset the Rangers and Hurricanes in the first two rounds to make it to the Eastern Conference Finals and face the Florida Panthers. You may think this is a moot point, considering they weren't good enough this season to come close to the playoffs, but for this exercise, we want to see how far away the Canadiens are from being contenders in the Eastern Conference. If this hypothetical world had happened this season, how would a Canadiens vs. Panthers Eastern Conference Final look? And how far away are the Canadiens from making this a reality?

We'll break this matchup down by position group to get a true read on how far the Canadiens are from being a contender. For the sake of the exercise, we'll use the Panthers lineup for Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals, and the Canadiens' best lineup from Game 82's roster if Kirby Dach, Arber Xhekaj, and Kaiden Guhle hadn't been injured. The Canadiens were 1-2-1 against the Panthers this season.

All stats in this article are from Natural Stat Trick.



  • Caufield - Suzuki - Slafkovsky
  • Newhook - Dach - Roy
  • Gallagher - Evans - Anderson
  • Harvey-Pinard - Dvorak - Armia


  • Tarasenko - Barkov - Reinhart
  • Verhaeghe - Lundell - Tkachuk
  • Luostarinen - Bennett - Rodrigues
  • Lomberg - Stenlund - Cousins

The Canadiens forward depth took a hit when they traded Sean Monahan to the Winnipeg Jets at the trade deadline. That trade wouldn't have happened in this hypothetical world where they are a playoff team. However, the top six for each team still match up well.

Caufield, Suzuki, and Slafkovsky will match up with any other first-line in the Eastern Conference. This line played 620 minutes together during the regular season and were tops on the team with 16.51 expected goals. The issue is that the Barkov line has a good blend of offense and defense, led by this year's Selke Winner, Barkov. The Canadiens young stars would hold their own in this matchup, but you have to give a slight edge to the Panthers.

The same goes for the second line. We didn't see these three play together after Dach's early injury, but it's an intriguing second line. Verhaeghe and Tkachuk are two valuable playoff performers for the Panthers, and the Canadiens could be under siege with these three on the ice.

The Canadiens match up well in the bottom six, boasting playoff-style players like Gallagher, Anderson, and Armia. These three players were integral in the Habs 2021 run to the Stanley Cup Final, and they could help swing this series. Florida's bottom six has some skill and snarl, but no one should scare the Habs aside from Sam Bennett.

The Panthers have an elite powerplay, but the duo of Jake Evans and Joel Armia would do a good job of slowing them down.

An easy fix for the Habs is the rumor of increasing their depth in the top six. If the Canadiens acquire a skilled player to add to the top six, that will move Alex Newhook or Joshua Roy down the lineup and cancel out the advantage of Sam Bennett in the bottom six.



Matheson - Savard

Guhle - Barron

Hutson - Xhekaj


Forsling - Ekblad

Mikkola - Montour

Ekman-Larsson - Kulikov

Adding Lane Hutson to the backend helps the Canadiens' depth, as he didn't look out of place in his two games to end the regular season. The playoffs are also all about special teams. Hutson in the quarterback role with Caufield, Suzuki, Slafkovsky, and either Newhook or Dach would be a formidable unit we could see as early as next season.

This would be an interesting matchup over a seven-game series. The Canadiens are full of young defensive depth against the veteran-heavy unit of the Panthers. Florida has shut down plenty of top offensive teams over the last two seasons after eliminating teams like the Bruins, Maple Leafs, Lightning, and Hurricanes. The Panthers win the defensive battle due to their experience, but the gap isn't as wide as people may think.

The Canadiens defensive core will be the envy of the league if they all stay on the same developmental trajectory, and there are a lot of good young players waiting in the wings if any of these six players falter.

This is where the fix comes in, as the Canadiens will likely need to trade some of that defensive depth to land a top-six forward to close the gap in that area. The good news for the Habs is that Logan Mailloux, Justin Barron, and Jayden Struble are all worthy of the promotion. The same can't be said about the Panthers, as they could be in trouble if any of their defensemen go down.


This hypothetical series could be a breakout opportunity for Samuel Montembeault. It's time for Montembeault to start getting recognized as one of the better goalies in the Eastern Conference. He is better than his stats suggest, considering there are some nights where he doesn't get much help. It's hard for Montembeault to take over for one of the greatest Habs goaltenders of all time, Carey Price, but he would keep his team in a series against Sergei Bobrovsky.

Goals Saved Above Expected (GSAx) is a stat by Evolving Hockey that measures the difference between a goalie's actual goals allowed and the total expected goals he's faced. Bobrovsky was good in 2023-24, boasting a 12.73 GSAx at even-strength, but Montembeault wasn't far behind with a 10.48 mark. These numbers put Bobrovsky at 11th and Montembeault at 17th in the entire NHL.

Bobrovsky has beaten plenty of good goaltenders over these last two playoff runs, and there would be no shame in Montembeault being outdueled in this matchup, but it would be a lot closer of a battle than people think.


Let's not get crazy here, the Panthers are one of the best teams in the NHL and the Canadiens were the fifth-worst. We know that the Panthers would win most times in a seven-game series, but after this exercise, we can see that the margins aren't that wide.

If the Canadiens add a top-six forward in this year's offseason and their young players get another year of development, the Habs could sneak into a wildcard spot in the next year or two. If the Panthers continue dominating the Atlantic Division, they may be waiting for the Habs in the first round.

The Panthers are a team that the Canadiens should be emulating, and when looking at their lineups, the Habs are well on their way to reaching that level.