Wednesday January 6th, 2016

And now for something completely different: the Florida Panthers are the hottest team in the NHL, and it’s not even close.

On the strength of two-point games by forwards Jonathan Huberdeau, Corban Knight and Derek Mackenzie and yet another convincing performance from All-Star and Vezina Trophy contending goaltender Roberto Luongo, the Panthers beat up on the Buffalo Sabres 5–1 on Tuesday night for their 10th win in a row. Not only is this winning streak the longest in Florida’s franchise history, it’s also the longest in the NHL this season.

When the Montreal Canadiens jumped out to nine straight wins to open the season and the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers also put together nine-game streaks this season, few people were surprised. Each of those teams was expected to contend for a playoff berth if not the Stanley Cup this season. But the Panthers? With one of the oldest rosters in the league, no bona-fide scoring threat and an aging goaltender who many believe is past his prime, the Panthers weren’t expected to do much. But at the season’s halfway mark, here we are: Florida is five points clear of the Detroit Red Wings for the lead in the difficult Atlantic Division.

But two questions emerge about the Panthers’ miraculous streak: How did they do it and can they keep it up through the latter half of a grinding, 82-game schedule?

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Since their winning streak began on December 15, the Panthers have been scoring. A lot. They have an even strength goal differential of +15, (All stats via War-on-Ice.com), the best in the league since that date. Few will argue with the old adage that you can’t win if you don’t score, but there were more than a few games that could’ve gone either way for Florida. Four of their wins were by one goal, including two in shootouts. It certainly helps that ageless wonder Jaromir Jagr has found his scoring touch again. At 43, Jagr is enjoying his best season in years: His even strength goals per 60 minutes currently sit at 2.38 for the season, far and away his best total in the past five seasons. When a player like Jagr, respected and adored throughout the hockey world, is leading the offensive charge for your team, it’s easy for the rest of the roster to follow suit.

The Panthers have also been getting some lights-out goaltending during their win streak. They’ve allowed more than one goal per game only twice in their last 10 games while still facing an average of 27 even strength shots per game. In the eight games Luongo has played during this streak, he’s been especially impressive: He’s posted an adjusted even strength save percentage of .958 and a high danger save percentage of .969. Those stats rank second and first respectively in the NHL since December 15 among goalies with 300 minutes played.

Its been a lot of fun watching these Panthers improbably jump to first place in a division that was thought to be the Montreal Canadiens’ for the taking. What’s more, after the Broward County Commission voted on Dec. 8 to give the Panthers $86 million in public funds to improve their financial situation, the team has turned a corner. It would be foolish to assume one event is connected to the other, but the Panthers have benefited from an increase in attendance during their winning streak.

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“Our business heading forward is very, very strong,” Panthers executive chairman Peter Luukko said recently. “We're selling a lot of tickets every day, not just for the next game but for all the games. We're pretty excited about that. We just look forward to the continued good play. Not everything is roses. We're on a run right now, and there'll be bumps in the road. But when you take three steps forward as opposed to one backwards, it's pretty cool."

The Panthers also rewarded coach Gerard Gallant and general manager Dale Tallon with contract extensions during the streak.

Now, if all this excitement about the Cats has you thinking of a Stanley Cup run in Miami, you might be wise to pump the breaks.

Scorers and goaltenders are streaky, and with Luongo and Jagr 36 and 43 respectively it would be fair to question how durable each can be and how well they can perform during the remaining half of the season. Five of the Panthers’ recent 10 wins have come against teams that are currently out of the playoff field, which is a cause for doubt about how serious a contender Florida can be.

Finally, luck has certainly played a large role in the Panthers’ success in their last 10 games. During that stretch, they have the highest even strength PDO (107.3; the sum of their even strength shooting and save percentages) in the NHL by a large measure, an indication that their good fortune may very well run out soon enough. Scoring and good goaltending will attract fans to the seats of the BB&T Center, hopefully ensuring a brighter financial future for the team in the near future, but for how long can they be depended upon?

Over their 10-game win streak the Panthers have a Corsi For % of 49.5, which ranks 17th in the league. That speaks to a team that will eventually come back to earth.

Banking the points that they have during this streak will certainly help them in their playoff push. They’re a fun team to watch and they have turned a lot of heads this season, but the Panthers still have a ways to go to prove they have what it takes to win consistently during the course of a long, hard regular season.

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