Florida’s playoff hopes were all but dashed in late November, when they went on a long losing streak crisscrossing the Eastern time zone, and then continuing the losing in the long home stand that followed.
Many of the games that followed have felt academic in the sense that they don’t matter for the playoff race the Florida Panthers should’ve been in this season, and this recent western road swing shouldn’t have been any different.
Instead, the 1-0-2 trip showed just how far the Panthers have to go to be in a playoff race, let alone the playoff team they should’ve been.
Take the game in Vegas, for example. The Golden Knights aren’t exactly the dominating team they were last year, but are still incredibly talented with good coaching, structure, and the addition of Mark Stone to the mix.
Game planning the Golden Knights should include a way to counter-attack the way they put wave after wave of pressure on you in the offensive zone, which the Panthers didn’t and couldn’t do.
Even though they responded well after going down early, the second period sans the Barkov goal was wholly indicative of the structural and deep-seeded problems facing this team.
They knew Vegas would have a push back playing the way they normally do, and the Panthers did nothing to stop it.
According to Natural Stat Trick, Florida’s CF% in that period was 35.42%, and was 38.24% for the game.
Both of those games also featured Florida trying to defend two-goal leads, which they cannot do with any sort of success.
Far too often, it feels like the Panthers are successful in spite of themselves. As of this writing, only two other teams in the league are top 10 in both on the power play and penalty kill besides Florida: San Jose and Tampa.
Historically, if you can be in the top 10 in both special teams categories, your team isn’t eight points out of a playoff spot in March.
In one-goal games this season, Florida is 3-9. When they lead after one period, they are 10-6-7. Compare that to the team in the second wild-card spot as of this writing, Carolina, who is 20-1-2 when leading after one period.
In numerical high danger chances, only the LA Kings have fewer, and they’re the worst team in the West.
Stats like this show a concerning problem for the Panthers that were clearly elucidated on the previous road trip: they are structurally deficient 5-on-5 to the point where without their specialty teams, they’d be one of the worst teams in the league.
Too often it feels the Panthers have fluked their way to points and success rather than earning it. In every game on the road trip, the Panthers were not the better team overall, but found a way to scratch points out because of their few strengths.
They’ve been just as adept at blowing leads at coming back from deficits. They get plenty of shots, but not nearly enough in high-danger areas to be successful.
They are asking too much of their goalies who have both had rough seasons, and they’re over-reliant on specialty teams to the point where an off night on the power play almost guarantees a loss, but even when they succeed, as they did against Vegas, it guarantees nothing.
And all of this is wasting prime years of the most talented players in franchise history. Barkov and Huberdeau are both averaging over a point a game.
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Henrik Borgstrom, a player nicknamed the “Artist,” continues to show good flashes consistently but plays fourth line minutes with too often used veterans and is being wasted in that role.
Player deployment is constantly an issue, defensemen are encouraged to take point shots over passing, and forwards are not encouraged to cycle the puck to create openings, rather they’re encouraged to slide the puck back to defensemen for said bad point shots.
All of this combines to create a team that is mediocre, underutilizing its talent, and only rarely putting them in positions to use their strengths at the best moments.
The recent road trip is not so much indicative of the Panthers struggles as it is an example of just how far they have to go to be relevant in a playoff race in March without playing at a historic, unsustainable pace.
And when the house of cards falls down, no one is willing to take the blame, instead passing the buck to the referees, a bad call, or the tried-and-true “we at least got a point.”
Nothing on this recent road trip was anything new for the Panthers under Bob Boughner.
But if anyone wants to see, in great detail, why the Florida Panthers are stuck in mediocrity rather than thinking of hockey past the second weekend in April, it would be hard to find a better example of why than this road trip, and also why it seems like nothing will change any time soon.