The Cats are coming.
At the All-Star break, the Florida Panthers were on the outside looking in. Since their superstar Aleksander Barkov returned from representing the team in Tampa, the team has gone 15-3-1 and are now just two points out of a wild-card spot with three games in hand on both Columbus and New Jersey.
The club has looked like a brand new set of players in the last few months and is in a position to take one of the last two spots in the postseason. Here are a few things that have put the Cats in a position to claw up the standings.
From The Back To The Front
Goaltending is important to any team, and it seems now after seeing Vegas using five goalies to start the season, teams must now look past having a good starter and backup. Enter Harri Sateri, a goalie with no NHL experience coming over from the KHL. After starter Roberto Luongo and backup James Reimer both went down, Sateri stepped in after the break and won four games in a row.
Luongo has since been back and has gone 8-1-1. He has given up a 2.4 goals against average with a .933 save percentage, while facing just under 36 shots per game. He has been electric since his return from injury, proving he isn’t finished at age 38. He provides a backstop while the team continues to thrive offensively.
A Rise In Production
Swapping wingers Nick Bjugstad and Jonathan Huberdeau has provided a boost in offense. In the 19 games since the All-Star break, Bjugstad has accounted for 17 of his 39 points. Evgeni Dadonov and Barkov are ninth and tenth (respectively) in goals since the break, with Barkov tied for fourth in points in the same span. Vinny Trocheck has also continued to play well and put up points.
The team has scored 3.63 goals per game down this stretch and only have five guys logging a negative plus/minus. The Panthers have beaten playoff teams such as Toronto, Washington, and Pittsburgh during this streak and will need the confidence going into the postseason, where they will have to play a current division leader.
The Shot(s) In The Arm
Coach Bob Boughner and the rest of the coaching staff made some executive decisions to get this team to this point. The first order of business: swapping Bjugstad and Huberdeau, sending them to the first and second lines, respectively. This has provided a boost in offense for the top line and balanced out the top four goal scorers between two lines.
Another is simply committing to top players more. On the power play alone, their first unit of Dadonov, Barkov, Huberdeau, and Keith Yandle has accounted for about 63% of the time on the man advantage in the last ten games. Committing hard to the first unit has resulted in 18 goals and a 29.5% conversion rate on the man advantage since the break, both good for first in the league in that span.
Barkov himself logs more time on the ice than any other forward in the league. He is 11th in faceoff percentage as well and is starting almost 60% of his shifts at even strength in his own zone. By playing more aggressively, Barkov is no longer only known for his shootout goals. Already logging more shots on goal than all of last season, he is poised to hit career highs in almost every category.
Here is just one example of how the Finnish center has decided to be selfish with the puck in recent weeks. Barkov is one of the best players in the league and is finally starting to use his size, skill, and speed to his advantage. If Barkov continues to put his head down and play up to his skill level, the team will go as far as he can take them.
Overall, the team has also started to instill a more aggressive mentality. Since the break, they’ve drawn the most penalty minutes and have had the fifth most power play opportunities. They also have about twice as many fighting majors as any other team (credit to enforcer Michael Haley). With their shots staying about the same as before the break, the increase in power play opportunities has been a main catalyst for their offensive turnaround.
They say a team is only as good as its weakest link, but Florida has been carried by their best players as of late. While depth is important in the playoffs, having two top lines that can score is never a bad thing. With good goaltending and rising stars, the Panthers will be a fun team to watch the rest of this season and into the post season.
Edited by Jazmyn Brown.
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