With three straight wins against playoff-caliber teams going into the All-Star break, confidence has returned to the Florida Panthers.
While Vincent Trocheck’s return is getting a lot of the credit for this run, another Panther has started grabbing headlines as of late.
After a letdown defeat against the Vancouver Canucks, Bob Boughner could tell some changes needed to be made. The game went horribly, in which the offense was stifled by former Panthers goalie Jacob Markstrom in a 5-1 loss.
The top line was gasping for help, with Evgeni Dadonov and Aleksander Barkov in serious goal slumps. Somebody needed to replace Nick Bjugstad and allow the two to show off their playmaking abilities, while that someone else would have a higher effect on line one. That man would be Frank Vatrano.
In a bit of a surprise twist, Vatrano has played on the first line in the last four games. Overall, the move has worked.
While Mike Hoffman had played first line minutes before, his performances on the third line have been solid, giving the Panthers more in scoring depth, as well as giving himself less minutes to preserve some of his energy for the power play opportunities.
With the return of Vincent Trocheck, the Cats coach opted to keep Jonathan Huberdeau on line two. The two have worked well together a lot under Boughner, and keeping things similar would be a good philosophy moving forward.
The Panthers struggled in the opening game of the Vatrano-Barkov-Dadonov line, losing 5-1 to Montreal after leading. Mike Hoffman scored the only goal, a good testament to how he’d been on the third line.
Vatrano has scored in all three of these games, including a four-point night (1 goal, 3 assists) against the Sharks. He’s brought speed and urgency back to the first line. To go along with that, he’s brought Barkov and Dadonov back to form.
If the Panthers can execute like this after the All-Star break, it’ll be rough going against them. This is exactly how this line needs to play: all three members doing what they do best.
Barkov does the dirty work in behind the goal, scrapping the puck away from Joe Pavelski against the boards, then releasing an excellent breakout pass to Evgeni Dadonov.
Dadonov transitions the play to an attack, pushing past Brent Burns and through the neutral zone. While Burns and Joakim Ryan are focused on Dadonov, Vatrano moves in from the left flank unmarked, giving Dadonov the support he needs to make a play.
Vatrano beelines for the goal, toe dragging around goalie Martin Jones, and placing it into the net with a backhanded shot.
This has been the player Vatrano has been for the Panthers since his arrival, always shooting and always pressing the net.
His first goal as a Panther was against the New York Rangers last season. He kept moving towards the goal, separating himself before scoring a tap-in.
The Italian Stallion has scored 21 goals across 63 games for Florida, surpassing his 20 goals across 108 games for his former team, the Boston Bruins.
His goal against Nashville was a very high IQ hockey play by Vatrano. Frank had played well on defense on a Predator odd-man rush, so when the Panthers regained possession, he was behind the play.
The Predators are awkwardly set up defensively, despite having an extra man back, they’re all shifted to the near side of the ice, where Dadonov has the puck.
This allows Aaron Ekblad to spread wide, but also allows Vatrano to break into the slot. Dadonov makes an east-west pass to set up Ekblad, who tees up Vatrano for a beautiful finish off the bar and in.
Not only has Vatrano’s play improved, but so have the players around him. Both Barkov and Dadonov have 3 assists in their last three games, and each have a lot less pressure to handle.
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To show, Barkov in the six games before the line change, had taken 12 shots on goal and scored twice. With Vatrano on his line during this three-game win streak, he’s taken just 3 shots on goal.
While this appears to be worse, it allows Barkov to play more defense and focus more on positioning than goal scoring.
Remember the goal earlier? Barkov pushed all the way back behind the crease to help the Cats win possession, and it led to a goal!
For Dadonov, he’s desperately needed a player who could keep up with him on the first line. Hoffman and Bjugstad never really got it going with Dadonov, but with Vatrano, he’s able to really use his speed and playmaking ability like he did last season.
Frank Vatrano now has a career-high 16 goals this season, and is on pace to finish with around 28 goals, which would surpass his goal tally from his first three NHL seasons combined.
Despite that, he could be on pace for even more if this new first line keeps this form up after the All-Star break.