When the Florida Panthers entered the All-Star break on a six-game winning streak, it looked as if they had put many of their playoff questions behind them, at least at that time.
But since they’ve returned, they’re 1-3-1 and now back to where they were before the streak. They have runway left to make up the ground they’ve ceded, but how bad is the rot from this losing streak and how easy will it be to fix these issues?
Since the All-Star break, the Panthers are 28th in CF%, 30th in xGF%, 27th in PDO with a shooting percentage of 5.88% and a save percentage of 91.30%. On their winning streak, the Panthers were playing pretty well and were lucky. During this skid, the Panthers are playing some of their worst puck possession hockey of the year and are also unlucky. Some of that is influenced by small sample sizes and regression, but was some of this due to come?
For most of the season, the Panthers have been an average puck possession team and a slightly below-average team in expected goals percentage, belied by the Panthers shooting percentage and team style. They’ve never been able to establish exactly Joel Quenneville’s preferred style of play because of roster construction, but they have been able to succeed in maximizing what they have and making it work.
One of the major questions the Panthers had to ask when Aleksander Barkov was injured was whether they could play a defensive style of hockey where they ceded possession and focused on being tight in the defensive zone. They did a passable job of it against Toronto and Columbus; certainly better than they’ve defended for large stretches of the season. But passable is not going to cut it when they play against playoff-caliber opposition, defending or attacking, and they haven’t ever put the two together.
Joel Quenneville has asked for consistency all season from the Panthers and has only found it largely during the six-game winning streak. That is a problem that predates Quenneville’s arrival, but he has not found a way to help the Panthers shake those bad habits off. If they want to regain a playoff spot, they’ll need that consistency back, especially offensively. They have a lineup of streaky scorers, but they need to find a way to get consistent scoring from somewhere, especially now that Barkov has returned.
They also must regain their confidence on the penalty kill, which is now 25th in the league and has become a major liability. Since December, it’s been one of the worst PK units in the league and it has contributed to them losing the special teams battle in every game during the slump. They are also not good playing from behind, and in their last seven wins, they’ve scored first. It’s harder to play from the front when a major element of their game is an active problem.
Are these problems fixable? With MacKenzie Weegar back in the lineup, they are a little bit better defensively. With Aleksander Barkov back in the lineup, they also look far more like themselves in terms of puck possession, and he’s said that he can play better too. If each player rises up to the challenge and accepts the task that what they’ve been through the first 54 games isn’t going to be enough to get them into the postseason, then they have a chance to right the ship. But their runway doesn’t last forever, especially considering who they have next on their schedule.
Their overall play against Pittsburgh was a positive sign, but they still were too easily clamped down by the Penguins defensively. They must find a way to go not just from mediocre to good, which has happened in many areas this season, but from good to great. That is a much harder step to take, and they haven’t proven yet they can take it.
Only then will we know if the Florida Panthers can get out of this funk before it’s too late.