The Florida Panthers have come out of the All-Star break firing on all cylinders with wins in four consecutive games. The Cats have outscored their opposition 14-6 with a mixture of positive changes and outbursts.
This has put Florida back in the hunt; six points out of the final wild card spot with two games in hand on the Columbus Blue Jackets. The team knows of their dark horse status, and it’s up to them to make the second half of the ’17/’18 season one to remember.
The Panthers’ squad didn’t look very good coming out of the All-Star Break; the team oozed inconsistency and showed little signs of life. The first line was forced to carry the rest of the squad, the defense was strong one minute and stagnant the next minute, and James Reimer, who already had a lot of the weight on his shoulders, went down with an injury.
This was the time Bob Boughner turned a new way of motivation to his players; urgency and positivity would be the way the team resurfaced from the mediocrity of 5th place in the Atlantic Division.
In an interview with the Sun Sentinel, Boughner called out his situation at hand, saying:
"“We’re at a point in the season where we can’t afford to have any passengers…we got to make sure we have 20 guys playing hard every night. It’s my job as a head coach to keep guys accountable.”"
Boughner made two personnel changes before the game against the New York Islanders, calling up Maxim Mamin from Springfield and reinstating Jared McCann for Connor Brickley. If Boughner made these changes for energy purposes only, it’s looked good so far; the two have just one point between them through the last four, but their energy together is making up for it.
Mamin is averaging 1.8 hits per game and is using his smaller figure to get to pucks along the boards. In the last game against the Vancouver Canucks, Mamin and McCann combined for eight hits (5 from Mamin, 3 from McCann). McCann has seen an increase in ice time, which shows trust in the reliability of this line. The real bold move from Boughner came where it least expected to:
Hold on a second, Jonathan Huberdeau on the second line? This is the guy leading the Panthers in points, why move him from the spot where he’s made the team better?
Boughner is playing 4-D chess with his men, moving one piece to benefit the others. Denis Malgin’s been able to stay wide and shoot a little less than he has to while Huberdeau takes on some of his shots.
For example, Malgin didn’t record one shot against the Detroit Red Wings, but was involved in both goals, scoring a +2 rating on the night. Huberdeau hasn’t taken any knock to his great season, both he and Vincent Trocheck have four points in their last four games.
Meanwhile, Nick Bjugstad and Evgenii Dadonov have paved the ice for Aleksander Barkov to work his magic. He has four points in four games and was the main reason the Cats prevailed over the Canucks Tuesday night with his two goals.
His first was a pure way of how that line should work. Bjugstad and Dadonov go wide, which gives Mark Pysyk the room to thread a pass to Barkov. The rest is all him; first touch takes the puck between the legs, splits the defense, dangles to the backhand and slots it past Jacob Markstrom to restore Florida’s lead:
Did I mention that he did this while being hooked?
One name definitely deserving of praise is the unexpected rise of Harri Sateri, who seems to have no issue working under Bob Boughner. Since the first three games in which Sateri faced over 28 shots in all three matches (including 46 against the Washington Capitals) Sateri has had fire in his glove.
He’s allowed just six goals in four games, making a combined 120 saves, winning not just his first NHL game against the Islanders, but his first consecutive win streak came immediately afterwards. Sateri was named to the NHL’s 3 Stars of the Week across their social media, partnering with Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin and Vegas’ Reilly Smith.
The win streak has caught the NHL and its fans by surprise due to the team’s pedestrian pace in the first half of the season. The talent’s been there, it’s not like the Panthers have dealt with too many serious injuries, but the difference is the way Boughner has the team playing.
Every player deserves recognition for the way the team has played up until this point, but it’s clicking now because of the way Boughner has set up the team. Mamin and Bjugstad may not score goals or tally up points, but their performances away from the puck has been exactly what Boughner’s been praising. The Florida Panthers are playing and progressing faster, possibly fast enough for postseason hockey.