As late as the last game before the All Star break, the season looked like a lost cause for the Florida Panthers. Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov were broken up as a pairing, both James Reimer and Roberto Luongo were injured and Florida was closer to the draft lottery than it was to the playoffs.
On March 5th, they’re one point out of a playoff spot and some metrics say they have as good as a 75% chance to make the postseason. They’ve won 13 out of 16 and only for the second time in team history have swept a homestand of six games or longer. How did this season change so dramatically so fast? And are there concerns under the hood about how they’ve gotten here?
It’s almost amazing to think that last year, the Panthers were in an almost identical position at the beginning of March when they played against the Flyers. That day, they lost in a shootout and it was also Roberto Luongo’s last game of the season. The momentum from a sensational five game winning streak was already waning, and this game pretty much shut the door on what was a tiny bit of promise in what otherwise was a terribly glum season.
Why is 2018 therefore different? Besides Roberto Luongo being healthy, and looking like the Luongo that backstopped a dominant Vancouver team earlier in the decade, the Panthers are playing as if they know what they’re doing and believe in what they’re doing. There’s ample evidence beyond quotes from players that was not the case a season ago.
Four Panthers have 20+ goals, which makes this season only the fourth time in franchise history this has happened. Two of the other three times when they did, they made the playoffs. It also helps that when two of them, Huberdeau and Trocheck, have seen their numbers slip just a touch recently, Barkov and Evgeni Dadonov have gone on a tear.
Since February 12th in Edmonton, Dadonov has 16 points, only bested on the team by Barkov, and only two players in the league since then have more goals than Dadonov: Patrik Laine and Eric Staal. This surge has also been welcome when Denis Malgin, who was starting to get into his stride, went out with an upper body injury.
These Panthers are opportunistic, getting great goaltending, and riding on the shoulders of a potential Hart trophy candidate in Barkov. Although, because this team was so mediocre for so long, it almost feels a little like fools gold, in a way. Luongo has a 6-1 record since returning from injury, and in every game of them but one, the Panthers have been second best in terms of even strength puck possession.
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Some of those games can be chalked away with score effects, i.e. why the Flyers dominated those numbers on Sunday but were thoroughly beaten, which hasn’t just been that the Panthers are giving up puck possession, they seemingly are giving up good chances. Luongo has earned his keep with many of the saves he’s made to keep the Panthers rolling along.
Some of the Panthers’ goal scoring successes have come against backups (Tristan Jarry), goalies who are coming back from long term injury (Cory Schneider) or a starter on the back end of a back-to-back (Petr Mrazek). It’s fortuitous, but the Panthers have taken advantage of the opportunities by scoring on their best chances, and generating more high-danger scoring chances than ever before.
The Cats aren’t exactly winning by dominating puck possession and overwhelming teams with that, more that they’ve been lethal at counter-attacking and getting the goaltending they need to win games like this. It’s a formula that can be successful in the NHL when executed right, and with the Panthers executing the system well, its lead to wins and an abundance of them.
They now are in control of their own destiny, with a very favorable schedule loaded up with teams outside of playoff contention, with the only hiccups being four games against Boston and huge games against fellow playoff contenders in Columbus and Carolina. There is also the natural concern that this style of play doesn’t work forever, and at a point some of the injuries and depth issues Florida has will catch up with them.
But for this team to be where they are right now is remarkable in of itself. For a team that looked destined for the Rasmus Dahlin sweepstakes, and now to be favorites for a playoff spot is as remarkable an achievement for any Panthers team in recent history, which obfuscates sometimes how its being done. Whatever the case may be, Florida is now comfortable with who it is as a team and what they’re being coached to do, which has led to the runaway successes since the All Star Break.
Now, the trick will be finishing the job and getting to the postseason. That may end up being harder than just getting to this point. But if this team has proven anything this year, it’s that they have a few tricks up their sleeve and maybe, their best play is still to come.