View the original article on Last Word On Hockey: Win Streak Has Florida Panthers Clawing into New Year
Through three months of the 2017-18 season, the Florida Panthers looked like the same sluggish team they were the year before. With just 12 wins through 33 games, the average hockey fan would probably tell you that they are a bad team. Defensively, they have been porous since management dismantled the roster after winning the Atlantic Division in 2015-16 (a major thorn in the side of Panthers fans). Their goaltenders haven’t been able to bail the team out often enough to stay competitive on most nights. Even their most die-hard fans have been losing faith in the vision set out by the organization’s front office.
In all fairness, there have been plenty of bright spots too. There has been the continued emergence of Florida’s prominent young scorers in Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, and Vincent Trocheck. Nick Bjugstad, who was likely on his last chance to impress, has been playing his best hockey in years. Every team in the league has its bright spots, though. At the end of the day, this team was well out of a wildcard position. For almost every win, they had lost twice (including OT and shootout losses). Only five games remained in 2017, and starting goaltender Roberto Luongo was set to be out for an extended absence to recover from injury. Basically, all indications were that this was a team closer to the lottery race than the playoff race. Then, the stars aligned…
Recent 5 game win streak has Panthers fans believing again
The Florida Panthers won five straight games to ring in 2018 with a bang. For the first time since the third game of the year, the Panthers had a winning record at 17-16-5. Only a handful of points separated them from the second wildcard playoff spot. They even had some games in-hand on important division opponents. After impeding the team in many earlier losses, goaltender James Reimer started every game in the win streak. He owned the net too, posting two shutouts and 173 saves on 179 shots. Although the Panthers still weren’t lighting the lamp the same way they did at the very beginning of the season, they played their best defensive hockey since two seasons ago.
Huberdeau had similar sentiments after the 3-2 win against the Philadelphia Flyers, stating via NHL.com, “It’s just going in right now. Our line, we’re playing better. It’s much more fun when we’re in the offensive zone than we’re defending. That’s good.”
Captain Derek MacKenzie acknowledged that they started finding ways to win games and “can start putting teams behind us,” indicating that they set their sights on the playoff race.
Those aren’t things we would’ve heard in their locker room five games earlier. Those probably aren’t even things we would be talking about if they had only won four out of the five. But five consecutive victories warrants some attention, and 17-16-5 looks a hell of a lot better than 12-16-5.
Too good to be true?
Even with all those positives, and claiming 10 out of 10 possible points in the standings, there’s reason to be skeptical. Take, for instance, who the Panthers beat over that stretch. The Arizona Coyotes are dead last, the Ottawa Senators, Canadiens and Flyers are all equal to or beneath Florida in the standings, and even the Minnesota Wild sit a point out of a playoff spot in the west. Furthermore, that same Wild team just crushed the Panthers last night to cap their streak at five. Is this really a team on the rise, or just a bad team beating worse teams?
The Panthers are now 17-17-5, down five points from a wild-card spot and nine from third place in their division. Playing catch-up is extremely difficult in the NHL, especially thanks to the third “loser point” awarded in overtime and shootout games. It is going to take more win streaks to truly have a shot at the playoffs. Unfortunately, the lack of consistency shown through the first three months might still trump the last two weeks.
Keys to Success
If this team is actually going to make a run, it will require more from nearly everyone on the team. Some fans want management to make a trade, but first, the roster must prove worthy of being spent on. The last thing general manager Dale Tallon wants is to move a pick or prospect for a rental player, and then realize the Panthers are more than one piece from a playoff berth. Essentially, this team has to win with the roster “as-is” if they want a shot at the playoffs season.
Maintaining Strength in Net
Definitely, the most necessary factor to keeping the Panthers afloat will be Reimer’s play. He was a completely different goalie in December, and when he is on the team has won. In his 11 wins, he holds a 2.09 GAA coupled with a stellar .942 save percentage. In losses, he’s been a hindrance to the team, posting a bloated 4.29 GAA and poor .869 save percentage. He’s either stealing wins for the Cats or handing them to the opposition; there’s been no middle ground.
It does look as though having the crease all to himself has helped Reimer’s confidence. His “best” losses have definitely been in games since Luongo went down with an injury. Maybe Reimer is worried about being out-duelled by Luongo and being relegated to backup. It puts fans in an odd position because Luongo has been very consistent himself. However, if his presence worsens Reimer’s ability, it may be best if Reimer carries a majority of the workload. Luongo is only becoming more injury-prone as it is, and could be retiring sooner than later. If that is the case, maybe Reimer will be assuming more of the responsibility now.
Finding Depth Scoring
There’s no doubt that Florida has some of the most dynamic, young players in the league. Huberdeau, Barkov and Trocheck are no longer the NHL’s best-kept secret. They have 37, 34 and 37 points each, respectively. All three are on pace to post career highs in all major scoring categories. The rest of the team, though, is far behind.
Huberdeau and Trocheck are in the NHL’s top 25 for scoring currently. Despite this, the Panthers rank 22nd in goals league-wide, primarily because production isn’t coming from anyone else on their roster. Six-time 20-goal scorer Radim Vrbata has only scored four this year, three of which came in one game leaving him with goals in just two games this season. Aside from their top line, most of the team’s forwards have had depth roles throughout their careers (Jamie McGinn, Colton Sceviour, Derek MacKenzie, Michael Haley) or are youngsters yet to make enough of an impression to warrant full-time NHL status (Connor Brickley, Jared McCann, Denis Malgin). How much can truly be expected of a roster depending on that many depth players?
Young Players with Room to Grow
Although they haven’t negatively stood out, a few of the Panthers’ forwards can and should be better. Evgenii Dadonov has been pretty good, with 21 points in 31 games, but has lost a step since missing time with a shoulder injury. As previously mentioned, Bjugstad has been impressive but might fall just short of 20 goals at his current pace. Malgin heated up at the start of December with six points in eight games. He has only recorded one assist through the other 13 he’s played this year.
Streak is over, Panthers still a step back
The five-game win streak was great. Reimer showed his potential, the young defensive corps really stepped up, and the offence was just enough to win games. The team has been able to win high- and low-scoring contests and is definitely becoming a better team. The biggest thing holding the team back, though, is their lack of depth. They’re a one-trick pony on offence right now. You have to be extremely optimistic to expect depth forwards and rookies to be enough to transform the second and third lines into offensive weapons. The defence is steadily improving. However, one or two injuries would really expose the lack of depth at this position too.
Unless they were to acquire a roster player or two before the deadline, it doesn’t appear that the Panthers are ready this season. Part of rebuilding is learning to win, and hopefully, they continue getting more winning experience the rest of the way. It may not lead them to a playoff spot, but it will pay off down the road. At the end of the day, their extremely disappointing start will be the biggest factor contributing to why this team falls short.
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