A title like this certainly has to draw some attention, and that’s precisely why I wrote it that way. While I’m not here taking a blind stab at the recent play of the Florida Panthers, I’ve noticed like many others a concern that I feel needs to be addressed. First let me say that we should be very pleased with our current position not only in the Southeast Division (first), but in the Eastern Conference as well (third). With 12 wins and the four overtime/shootout losses we’ve captured 28 points. However there have been games where points have been lost due to a few issues that the Panthers need to get their hands around.
I’ve been preaching more physicality almost from day one, as we all want to have a team that is tough to play against. The puck possession style that coach Kevin Dineen has put in place is an exciting and refreshing one that we’re all pleased to see after watching paint dry on ice over the past six seasons. But it can’t stop there, and while I’m not a head coach, and my guess is all of you reading this aren’t either, it appears that the toughness element needs to be ramped up slightly. Don’t get me wrong, I am extremely happy with where we are at this point, but some slight changes in the approach to the game could make things even better.
If we look at the physicality part of this, the Panthers currently rank in the bottom 25% of the NHL in hits with 435. As of Saturday nights games Dallas had 699 to rank first. Much like the plus/minus stat this statistic can be misleading. Is the hit a bruising blow to make the opponent think twice, is it a hit that’s more like a bump to remind you that “were here”, or is it a love tap that really doesn’t mean anything other than I swatted you with my pillow? Hard to say, but my guess is most of our hits haven’t been of the think twice variety, and are more of the latter that I described. The player with the most hits on the team is Jack Skille with 39, as that should be no surprise with his crash and bang style. Most of the other Panthers are averaging approximately one per game, which is fine I suppose, but some players you would think should have more, actually have less.
Shawn Matthias and Tomas Kopecky each have 11 hits. That to me is surprising. Matt Bradley has 31 in the 17 games he’s played, and obviously we miss his grit since he’s been out of the lineup. On defence, you’ll be pleased to know that most of the seven defenceman are averaging at least one per game or slightly more, but a couple players should actually have even more, or at least have more of the bone shattering kind. Believe it or not Jason Garrison leads all defencemen on Florida with 31 hits, to go along with his 8 goals. Jason is obviously doing his part at both ends of the ice. My goal with this analysis is to stress that being a more physical team slows down the opposition, makes them hold onto the puck less if they know they’ll get bumped, and can force mistakes that we can take advantage of. I’m sure this point has been stressed, but if the Panthers are expecting to be in the playoffs, that part of their game is going to have to improve. Too many times teams aren’t tough enough in the post season, and this element is the prime reason for many early exits.
The other area of play that needs attention is related to scoring from the dirty areas. The top line of Weiss, Flash and Versteeg can’t be expected to continue this rabid pace all season long without help from the other 9 forwards. This unit has scored goals from all areas of the offensive zone, but it’s the rest of the offence that has to close the deal. There have been many low percentage shots taken that goaltenders gobble up with ease. Too many shots from the perimeter and not enough from close in. I’ve seen too many times where players should drive to the net, but either hold up along the wall, and wait to make a pass, or cruise behind the net, and instead of trying a wrap around, push the puck out to the points, only to see the defencemen pass to someone else along the wall where yet another easy shot is taken. Speaking of the defence, too often they’ve tried to create offence which has led to quite a few odd man rushes, and some goals that maybe wouldn’t have been allowed.
The power play numbers have been directly affected by the five goal barrage against Tampa early in the season, and could use more shots and less passes. Take away that Tampa game, and our numbers with the man advantage aren’t so impressive. As we saw with Tampa, they’ve adjusted, and the Panthers were 0 for 6 Saturday night. This is another area that will be crucial come playoff time. While Jason “Boom Boom” Garrison has been shooting lasers from the blueline, teams are willing to sit back at times and let it happen. The creativity is there, but we need to throw more pucks at the net, even from bad angles. Planting a big body in the crease would work wonders as well. We haven’t had that on a power play since Gary Roberts wore a Panther uniform.
In closing this article out, let’s not jump to conclusions and panic just yet. Let’s also not think that I’m trying to be overly critical. These are just observations that I’ve been watching closely since the year started, and would like to see improved sooner rather than later. We’ve had a terrific start, and it’s been a lot of fun to watch. I just think we need a little more lunch pail, and a little less pillow fight.
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