It wasn’t that long ago that I got nervous when the Florida Panthers had a lead in the third period. Especially in those two-goal games, both the players and the fans would have a gut feeling that the opposition would put some plays together and somehow come back to tie or win.
But that was last year, and now it feels like a distant memory.
For the first time in a long time, the Florida Panthers are taking leads into the third period and closing the door. Last night’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs was a perfect example of how far the team has come.
Going back to the coaching eras of Jacques Martin and Pete DeBoer, you could just see the Panthers recoil into a defensive shell in the third period. Those Panther teams played not to lose, so they never won. Opposing teams played in our zone for almost the entire period, and it seemed like teams got as many goals as they needed in the third. Goalies like Tomas Vokoun and Craig Anderson were constantly hung out to dry by the conservative system. The Panthers lost a ton of points by not closing out teams when they had a chance, and they sat on the sidelines in April and May because of it.
Things are different now, though, and it was very apparent last night against the Leafs how the Panthers’ culture has totally changed. When Mikhael Grabovski scored Toronto’s third goal to pull the score to 4-3 with ten minutes to go, last year’s team would have folded and allowed the tying goal. Instead, the Panthers turned right around and scored a fifth goal on a gorgeous shot from Tomas Fleischmann. Disaster averted, and Florida left the Bank Atlantic Center with two points while the Leafs left with zilch. That is how you make the playoffs.
So who is the biggest factor in this sudden change of attitude? I can pin our third period success on two people: Kevin Dineen and Jose Theodore.
Dineen has preached a different style of hockey from behind the bench, and it works the best in the third period. His aggressive puck possession offense has guaranteed that the Panthers keep the pressure going on the other side of the rink, preventing the other team from playing exclusively on offense. Also, the players he coaches have bought into the system; every Panther on the roster steps up their game in the third for their coach. His schemes late in games have been very effective, too. The Leafs’ big scorers in Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul were shut down in the final third of the game, and that starts with great coaching.
And definitely the biggest player on the ice is the goalie, and Jose has been stellar with the game on the line. Theodore has shut the door when the play comes into his zone, and even though he sometimes bends (Tuesday night for example), he hardly ever breaks. Panthers forwards can afford to play more aggressively when they know Theo has their back behind them. That is a big upgrade from Vokoun, who couldn’t seem to come up with the big saves at the big times for the Panthers. Even though I liked Vokoun, I couldn’t shake the notion that he wasn’t a clutch goaltender. I don’t get that notion from Theodore.
Of course, I can’t only point out Dineen and Theodore: it has been a team effort to change the culture in Sunrise. Now Panther fans can expect their team to win with a third period lead, not find some way to lose it.
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