Florida Panthers In Hunt Thanks To Young Guns


In the first forty games of the season, the Florida Panthers consistently played a brand of hockey that helped them stockpile very valuable points and wins to keep them within striking distance of the playoffs. In the ten games that followed them, they only went 3-6-1, losing a handful of those games to teams that were below them in the standings. In fact, before the All-Star Break, the team went out on a four-game losing streak, and this was after winning three games in a row.

This was not Panthers Hockey.

Since the All-Star Break ended, the Panthers are 3-3. The main reason why the team has jumped back into the playoff race has mainly been in part to the improved play of the Panthers young stars. Players such as Aleksander Barkov and Brandon Pirri, among others, have contributed to bring the Panthers back into the playoff conversation.

The conversation has to begin with Brandon Pirri, who has become one of the hottest players in the National Hockey League with seven points in his last seven games, including six goals. The 23 year-old currently on a four-game goal scoring streak. While he has been one of the Panthers top contributors since the All-Star Break, none of his goals were bigger than his game-winning goal with three minutes remaining in regulation against the Los Angeles Kings this past Thursday.

The Panthers have been looking to trade for a goal scorer for most of this season, but what if the goal scorer that they have been looking for all along has been Brandon Pirri? If he continue to score on a consistent basis, then he will become a player that the Panthers have not possessed since the early 2000’s when Pavel Bure graced his presence on the National Car Rental Center’s ice: a natural sniper.

In addition to Brandon Pirri, the Panthers’ top-line center has finally awoken from his sophomore slump. Yes, Aleksander Barkov is back to playing in a top-line role for the Florida Panthers. The 19 year-old has ten points in his previous ten games (5-5-10). While many fans were concerned with Barkov’s play early in the season, the young Finn has turned the tables as of late and has consistently contributed to the score-sheet while maintaining his defense-first mentality.

Joining ‘Sasha’ Barkov on the team’s resurgence has been Jonathan Huberdeau. Often criticized by fans for his play over the past season and a half, the 21 year-old winger has finally returned to playing up to the expectations that he set during his rookie season that earned him the Calder Trophy as the league’s top first-year player. With assists in his previous two games, Huberdeau has already tied his point total from last season and is only three points away from tying his career high in points. He has also tied his career-high in assists.

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It’s not only his impact on the score-sheet, too. Huberdeau has done a great job of playing north-south hockey while winning his battles in the corners and coming out with the puck. While Huberdeau’s point total doesn’t look great over the past ten games, he has done his part in setting up scoring plays for his team. If he keeps up his work ethic, he will surely get the bounces needed to help the Panthers continue their successful ways.

And while they are not currently hot, there are plenty of praise to go around to the Panthers other young stars, such as Nick Bjugstad, Aaron Ekblad, and Jimmy Hayes.

Nick Bjugstad continues to shine with three points (1-2-3) in his last two games to lead the Panthers in points with 32, only six points behind his career high. 18 year-old Aaron Ekblad continues to contribute to the score-sheet while playing a steady defensive game with two points (1-1-2) in his last five games and leading all defense-men in points with 29. These two players are the only two Panthers that are on pace to end the season with 50+ points. In addition, Ekblad will certainly be in the conversation for the Calder Trophy.

After recently getting benched for a game after going pointless in six straight games, Jimmy Hayes had a two-goal game on Long Island last Tuesday. He now has fifteen goals on the season, four more than his previous career high of eleven. Hayes has become a staple on the team’s second line along with Nick Bjugstad and Jussi Jokinen and will look to become one of the team’s only twenty goal scorers this season.

With nine players on the roster below the age of twenty-four, the team is heavily relying on their youngest stars for their success this season. And while it would be nice for the veterans to be the ones leading the way, that will simply not be the case if the first half of the season is an indication. While Brad Boyes, Derek MacKenzie, Willie Mitchell, and Jussi Jokinen have done a fine job fifty games into the season, the same cannot be said for most of the team’s other veterans.

Brian Campbell has been playing for the past two seasons like he is thirty-five years old, instead of thirty-five years young. While he has done wonders to help Aaron Ekblad along throughout his rookie season, Campbell’s point production has slowed down as of late. Other players such as Scottie Upshall, Sean Bergenheim, and Tomas Fleischmann have simply not performed up to standards.

Without the Panthers young stars, would the team be in contention for a playoff position at this point in the season? Probably not. If the Cats hope to make the playoffs for only the second time in the past decade, the team will have to hope that their young guns will continue to lead the way over the final 30+ games of the regular season.

Which young gun do you think will lead the Panthers to a playoff position? Let us know in the comments below as your input is greatly appreciated. Thanks for reading.