My last article centered around the fact that the Panthers were somehow finding ways to win despite an extraordinarily anemic offense. Tomas Vokoun was coming off of a 3-shutout-in-8-game streak. Fast forward 4 more games, and the story remains the same. No offense to speak of, add one shutout to Vokoun’s NHL leading tally.
There has been something that Panther fans can rally around, however. David Booth returned to the ice Sunday after missing 45 games due to a concussion. He registered 1 assist in his first game back, and looked like he hadn’t missed a day. Booth led the team in shots on goal in his second night back, and was inserted back on the top line before game’s end. With Nathan Horton still missing and probably out another 3-5 weeks, Booth’s return could not have been more perfectly scheduled.
Regardless of the good news, the problem hasn’t gone away. The count is now 9 goals in the Panthers last 8 games. One of those came on a penalty shot. Two of the 9 goals have come from defensemen. Clearly, something is not working up front for the Cats. What might be even more astounding is that despite the horrible production, the Panthers managed to post a 4-3-1 record during this 8 game stretch. It’s safe to say that a run like this in late January would put any thoughts of the postseason out of most team’s collective minds. And yet the Panthers sit in the 8th and final playoff spot. The eastern conference has its elite teams at the top, and then a plethora of mediocre teams who have been moving between 6th and 13th in the standings all year, and will most likely do so up through the final day. Unless someone else puts together a run like Ottawa’s 9-1-0 in their last 10, or a funk like Boston’s 2-7-1, things will remain extremely claustrophobic.
The feeling around Pantherland is that if this team can lean on Vokoun through the final 5 games before the Olympic break and grab a handful of points, say 6 of a possible 10, then there is a good chance when Horton returns and everyone is finally healthy and gelling, the Cats can make a solid run. 4 of their next 5 are against teams that are in the same boat that Florida is. Calgary and the return of Jay Bouwmeester is up next, and the Flames have made their headlines over the weekend, and who knows where they will be come Friday. Atlanta, Carolina, and Boston have all been struggling lately. It’s not absurd to think the Panthers can enter the break on a good feeling, despite the offensive woes. It’s post-break that worries me.
Tomas Vokoun will be the starting netminder for the Czech Republic. He’s already started 16 straight games, as he should have. T-Vo was named the 3rd star for the month of January, posting a 8-4-2 record, 1.49 GAA, .956 SP, and 4 shutouts. It’s hard to bench a guy, even for rest, when he’s playing at that kind of level. But assuming he continues to play up to and through the Olympics, that’s a lot of hockey for anyone. If this team is going to make the playoffs, it will be on the very weary shoulders of its goaltender.
So what about the offense? Does Randy Sexton have any moves in store? This team is heavy on prospects and AHL talent. Is there a seller out there who has a top level scorer on the blocks? There are some veteran scoring names out there rumored to be up for discussion. Someone like former Panther Ray Whitney makes a lot of sense, as Carolina is in search of picks and prospects. Or do the returns of David Booth and (eventually) Nathan Horton act as a “trade” and the Panthers hold still, banking on the fact that a fully healthy roster can qualify.
Personally, my feeling is that this team is still missing pieces. When healthy, the top line of Stephen Weiss, Nathan Horton, and David Booth is as formidable as any (OK, maybe not any, but certainly most). The problem doesn’t lie there, it’s in the other 3 lines. Secondary scoring is non-existent. Players that the team was counting on to chip in the 15-20 goals have disappeared. Steven Reinprecht had 9 goals in the first month of the season. He has 4 since. Dominic Moore has just 8 goals this season. Greg Campbell chipped in with 13 last season. He currently sits at 2. There is no second line. There’s the top line, and then three good 3rd lines. There are a bunch of hard workers, grinders, checkers, muckers, good character guys on this team. It’s been a long time since you felt like this team forgot to show up. They work the boards, forecheck, and do the little things. It’s the big things, like scoring, that the Panthers have trouble with. And I think when they figure out how to score more goals than the other team, they’ll have a much better chance of winning.