After compiling a 3-3-0 preseason record, the Florida Panthers began their 2015-16 regular season campaign with a bang, routing the Philadelphia Flyers 7-1 at the BB&T Center. With 81 games still to be played, Saturday’s performance raises a number of questions about the team’s direction.
Is the Panthers’ Powerplay Continuing to Improve?
When Florida’s powerplay improved from 30th in the league during the 2013-14 season to 24th in 2014-15, it appeared the team was on the upswing. Indeed, Gerard Gallant’s realignment of the PP with four forwards appeared to pay dividends in the season’s second half. According to a report published by the SunSentinel, this can be attributed, at least in part, to the arrival of RW Jaromir Jagr.
“They went from 16.3 percent efficiency before Jagr and 20.7 percent after,” the report states. “Throw in a healthy Nick Bjugstad and improving sniper Brandon Pirri . . . as well as a still evolving defenseman Aaron Ekblad . . . at the point, the power play should be a force.”
The powerplay was a force on Saturday night, capitalizing on three of seven opportunities. Bjugstad ripped a wrister past Flyers’ Goaltender Steve Mason after a slick passing play by Ekblad early in the first period. A little less than a minute later, Pirri and Vincent Trochek set up Reilly Smith’s first goal as a Panther. The dynamic duo set up Smith again in the third for the Panthers’ seventh, and final, goal of the game.
“The boys came out hard and buried their chances,” Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo told the team’s official website, “It was a good start and we didn’t stop there. We kept pushing.”
While the performance of key offensive players on the PP feeds nicely into a narrative of an upward trend, it’s worth noting that the Flyers managed to create a number of shorthanded chances following Panthers’ miscues. For instance, a failed cross-ice pass from Jagr to Ekblad late in the 2nd led to a flurry of Flyers shots that were only narrowly shut down by the incredible play of the veteran netminder Luongo. In short, there’s still room for improvement.
Will the Lineup Provide the Needed Secondary Scoring?
According to ESPN, the Panthers ranked 25th in the league in scoring last season with an average of 2.41 goals per game. These numbers have led some, such as SunSentinel columnist Dave Hyde, to suggest these stats are directly related to the team’s missed playoff berth. “You want the shortcut to how they just missed the playoffs again?,” he said. “There it is. That’s where the young players must change.”
To their credit, the Panthers performance in the preseason appeared to address concerns about their secondary scoring. For example, in their tilt against the Dallas Stars on September 27th, the game was decided by the team’s secondary scoring, with Smith, Jokinen, Connor Brickley and Derek MacKenzie each recording one goal in a 4-2 win.
The Panthers’ depth certainly assisted in lighting the lamp in Saturday’s tilt as well. With 16:44 of ice time Trocheck set a new career-high with four points (a goal and three assists). Smith connected twice, each time assisted by Pirri. Jokinen also contributed two points toward the victory. The results of this offensive outburst were not only impressive, they were record-breaking.
#FlaPanthers four goals in 6:46 marks a franchise record for the fastest four goals scored in a season-opener.
— Florida Panthers PR (@FlaPanthersPR) October 11, 2015
Of course, expectations must be tempered. “I don’t want to talk much about this game. We won, but it’s over,” Jagr told the teams official website Saturday. “It’s great for our fans, they come to the game, we score seven goals. I’m happy for our owner, who was here. He [saw] us win and he saw the full house. But, you know, forget about it. Let’s move on and let’s make sure that we [continue] to play the same way.”
Can we Expect Attendance Numbers to be Better This Season?
While the team will depend on young and depth talent to secure a playoff berth, ownership will count on it to help drive ticket sales. Last year, Harvey Fialkov of the Sun Sentinel reported that owners Vinnie Viola and Doug Cifu were doing away with many ticket discounts and giveaways, hoping instead to earn fans by building a team that Southern Florida could be proud of. Although they ranked last in average attendance during 2014-15, by March USA Today reported that “the Panthers have begun to make progress on the ice and also in their marketing.”
Over the summer, Craig Davis of the South Florida SunSentinel noted that the Panthers were expanding their Spanish language broadcasts with 1210 ESPN Deportes. Davis also detailed how a continued partnership with WQAM 560-AM and new agreements with WMEN 640-AM and 97.7 “The Wave” would “extend [the Panthers’] broadcast reach from the Palm Beaches through the Florida Keys.” According to WRTH.com, the Panthers have also, more recently, announced a “new multi-year partnership with Skyview Networks to serve as official radio network provider.” The combined improvement in play late last season and the recent business transactions may help move attendance figures in the right direction.
An increased attendance may, in turn, serve to further fuel the team’s performance at home. “That crowd was great today,” Trocheck told the Panthers’ official website. “I mean to have that many fans, a sold out arena, and to see how loud they were. It’s a change of pace and we feed off that.”
It remains to be seen whether or not the Panthers can maintain the pace set in their season opener. However, Saturday’s impressive showing was, at the very least, an indicator that the team is trending in a positive direction on a variety of fronts.
A graduate student at the University of Victoria and Editor in Chief of The Graduate History Review, Noah E. Miller has covered the Florida Panthers as a Contributor for The Hockey Writers since 2015.