Win streak over, Panthers must start working on glaring weaknesses
It was a memorable run for the Florida Panthers. Twelve games, 12 victories, and a rocket ride to the top of the Atlantic Division standings.
It finally came to an end, as it had to, eventually, with a 3–2 overtime loss in Vancouver on Monday night. But over the course of that five-week run, the Panthers gained a measure of respect that’s eluded them for years.
The question now: What do they do for an encore?
As nice as this run was, it won’t amount to much if they go back to being the wishy-washy team they were for the first 29 games of the season. And that’s a real concern, at least if you’re a believer in the fancy stats ... which coach Gerard Gallant apparently is not.
“As long as we’re winning, that’s the main thing for me,” the coach told sun-sentinel.com on Sunday. “I know we haven’t played well the last couple of games. We’ve given up too many shots, too many chances. But we find a way to win, and that’s the bottom line right now.
“So if somebody says our analytics aren’t good, and we’re still in first place, I’m pretty happy.”
They’re still in first all right, with a comfortable six-point cushion. But even Gallant has to be harboring some private worries.
The Panthers have been a lousy possession team all season, and that didn’t change during their streak. They held the edge in shot attempts just five times during that span. On four other occasions, they basically chased the puck while they were held below 40%.
As the streak wound down they were outshot by wide margins in five straight before closing the gap to two against the Canucks.
That’s not exactly a recipe for sustainable success.
So far, the Panthers have gotten by. They were saved, time and again, by excellent goaltending. Roberto Luongo vaulted into the Vezina Trophy discussion with his play, posting two shutouts and a .954 save percentage while leading the Cats to nine wins. Backup Al Montoya was equally reliable, holding the opposition to a single goal in each of his three starts.
The defense has been effective as well, at least in terms of limiting high-danger scoring chances (per War-on-Ice.com). Even in games during which they were widely outplayed, they succeeded at keeping the opposition to the outside by bunching up in the middle and forcing them to settle for less dangerous shots. That’s been the key to their league-best 2.12 team goal-against average.
And while much (deserved) praise is being heaped on the top line of Jaromir Jagr, Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov, Florida has received contributions from all four lines. With Reilly Smith and Vincent Trocheck chipping in consistently, it’s conceivable they could have six 20-goal scorers this season. That would equal their total from the last three full seasons, combined.
Getting that secondary scoring, along with something from second-line center Nick Bjugstad (pointless in five games since returning from a lengthy stretch on IR with an upper body injury) will be critical over the next stretch, which features two more games on the road before returning home to what should be a packed BB&T Center for four straight. So will a step-up effort from the blueline while top defender Aaron Ekblad recovers from the effects of the hit he took from Edmonton’s Matt Hendricks on Sunday night.
But the real pressure is on Gallant to prove that he’s worthy of the Jack Adams buzz by tightening up the team’s structure. The Panthers found a way to win during their streak, but they’ll have to be smarter and more disciplined if they want to remain on top.
The numbers game
• The Kings have now bagged the most wins (27) through the first 42 games of a season in the franchise’s 49-year history.
• The Sharks’ 14 road wins and 30 road points rank second in the NHL behind the Capitals (16-4-2, 34 points), and San Jose’s Brent Burns is now the first defenseman to score 18 or more goals in his team’s first 40 games of a season since 1990-91, when Hall of Famer Al MacInnis posted an equal number for Calgary.
• Florida’s timeless curmudgeon Jaromir Jagr needs three assists to become only the sixth player in NHL history to dish out 1,000 during a career.
• A fun activity for a winter’s day: ranking every uniform the (Mighty) Ducks have ever worn.
• Plenty of people head to Florida to retire. It’s just that Roberto Luongo isn’t one of them.
• Lessons learned from Jaromir Jagr are helping another aging veteran get into a mid-season groove.
• The Sweet Spot Squad, hockey’s answer to Dude Perfect, is back with another trick shots video.