View the original article on Last Word On Hockey: Florida Panthers Climbing Back into Playoff Contention

SUNRISE, FL – FEBRUARY 09: Aleksander Barkov #16 of the Florida Panthers and Derek Forbort #24 of the Los Angeles Kings fight for the puck during a game at BB&T Center on February 9, 2017 in Sunrise, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Roughly a third of the way through the 2018-19 season, the playoff race has become quite crowded. This is to be expected to some degree with so many games left to play, but it appears more teams are sticking in the race this year than usual. In the two conferences combined, only two teams sit ten or more points outside the playoff picture. Both those teams are in the Western Conference, as the East appears to be heading for a dogfight all the way to the final games of the season. And like last year, the Florida Panthers will likely be in that footrace down to the wire.

Much like last season, the Panthers got out to an awful start. This had many people counting them out again, even after watching them fly up the standings in the last months of 2017-18 just to fall one point shy of a playoff berth. At their worst this season, the Cats were 2-5-3 through their first ten games, slightly worse than their 4-5-1 start a year earlier.

However, they appear to finally be getting things on track. The underlying numbers have been solid all year long, but the wins simply haven’t followed. For example, the team put up 30 goals in those first 10 games and still picked up just two victories. For the last couple weeks, though, the results have better matched their performance. This is largely thanks to a drastic improvement in their defensive play and goaltending, and it looks like the team may be finally realizing their potential.

Florida Consistently Outplaying Opponents

Today, Florida plays its 27th game of the year and enters that contest with an 11-10-5 record. While it may not look too impressive on paper, the team is playing great night in and night out. With games in hand on the teams above them, Florida is sixth in the NHL in shots for (meaning they’d likely be higher than 6th if they had an equal number of games played). They also have given up the eighth-fewest quantity of shots, with a whopping +133 shot differential.

And if we want to continue using last season as a measuring stick, Florida was 10-13-3 through 26 games. That’s a significant difference, especially when considering they didn’t get back to above the .500 mark until game 51. If they continue playing the way they have been, they’ll be well ahead of that pace over the next 25 games and much better situated to fight for a playoff berth.

Panthers Improved Greatly in Net and on Special Teams

After an abysmal special teams start to the year, Florida’s power play is clicking on all cylinders now. Their penalty kill still sits closer to the bottom of the league than the top but is still drastically improved. They’re succeeding at an impressive 27.18 percent rate on the powerplay good for sixth in the league.

In goal, Florida is once again benefiting from having a healthy Roberto Luongo. He had a minor set back again that put him out of the lineup for a few games, but came back with force. Luongo posted a 33 shot shutout in his return, the first shutout of the season for the Cats. Backup James Reimer is getting better, but still has plenty of room for improvement. His .893 save percentage has to get better to warrant giving him consistent playing time, especially when Luongo carries a solid .914.

Panthers Can Score at Will

The story hasn’t changed at all for their forwards, though. Which is actually exactly what the team wants, as they are and have been one of the most potent offences all year long thus far. Their power play accounts for more of their goals now than before, and they’re finding the net an average of 3.35 times per game.

Four of the team’s forwards are scoring at least a point-per-game: Jonathan HuberdeauEvgeni Dadonov, Mike Hoffman and Aleksander Barkov (in that order) all have at least 26 points already. Huberdeau carries a six-game multi-point streak into the game tonight. Hoffman set a new franchise record with his 17-game point streak earlier this season, and Dadonov’s 12-game point streak earned him the third-longest streak in franchise history.

Besides those four, Florida also has Frank Vatrano and Troy Brouwer on pace to reach the 20-goal plateau. Hoffman and Dadonov are on pace to break 40 goals, while Barkov is on pace to reach 30. If those paces keep up, its hard to imagine the team finishing outside the playoffs.

Putting it all Together Going Forward

The key for this team is to have everyone show up to play each night. Too often, they’ve had a few key mistakes that end up costing them the game. Whether its a brutal turnover leading to a shorthanded breakaway goal or a weak goal against one of their goalies, Florida has found ways to lose games they otherwise probably deserved to win.

Too often, Florida finishes games losing 5-4 or 6-5 despite outshooting opponents by double digits at times. That’s a clear indicator of the goaltending woes they’ve had, but also of the way they give up golden scoring opportunities.

Against the Boston Bruins a couple nights ago, Florida showed what they’re capable of. Luongo made clutch saves at key times. The team peppered Boston with 44 shots and gave up just 33. They limited their mistakes, giving up nothing easy to a very dangerous Bruins team. That sort of performance will result in wins more often than not, and the convincing 5-0 score proves it. Expect more games like that from this group going forward, as they quickly rise up the standings and into the playoff picture.

Main Photo: SUNRISE, FL – FEBRUARY 09: Aleksander Barkov #16 of the Florida Panthers and Derek Forbort #24 of the Los Angeles Kings fight for the puck during a game at BB&T Center on February 9, 2017, in Sunrise, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)