Desperate Panthers Clawing Into Contention


It’s been a tough year for the Florida Panthers. 37 games into the 2017-18 National Hockey League season and the team has exactly 37 points, not nearly a good enough pace to hit the mid-90s, the general threshold for making the playoffs in the wild card era.

That said, the team has won four in a row, and is 6-3-1 in their last 10. Challenge accepted?

Early-Season Panthers Entertaining but Ineffective

First-year head coach Bob Boughner brought his crowd-pleasing style, honed in the Ontario Hockey League, with him to South Florida. The opening home-and-home against the Tampa Bay Lightning debuted this system at the NHL level to rave reviews – even from me. The Cats were playing a highly aggressive game which stressed speed and shot attempts on offense, and tight-checking, man-to-man defense.

Florida Panthers center Jonathan Huberdeau
The Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning opened their 2017-18 seasons with two wildly entertaining games against each other. (Reinhold Matay / USA TODAY Sports)

Though it certainly made for an impressive spectacle in that opening set against their cross-state rivals, the novelty and appeal of the team’s new playing style quickly wore off. The Panthers were firing on all cylinders on offense, but couldn’t, for the life of them, keep the puck out of their own net.

Opposing teams quickly adjusted to Florida’s hyper-aggression, picking apart a system not only ill-suited to the more technical NHL game, but that was also being implemented by a team brand-new to the concepts. Once the Cats’ secondary scoring dried up and the team began to tumble down the standings, it was clear a change needed to be made.

What’s Changed for the Panthers?

Boughner and the Panthers have had to shake things up on the fly this season, and the changes finally seem to be paying dividends.

Panthers Penalty Kill, Defensive Style More Relaxed

Florida’s penalty kill ranks in the middle of the pack. Not terribly impressive, until one considers the fact that, since playing the Toronto Maple Leafs on Nov. 22, the Cats have killed 47 of 51 penalties, an astounding 92-percent success rate. A healthy lineup is a definite contributor, but the main difference seems to be the style of play.

The high level of aggression characteristic of the Cats in the early going was unreliable at five-on-five, but downright shambolic on the penalty kill, drawing penalty killers far out of position in their own zone and quickly sapping their energy.

Aleksander Barkov Florida Panthers
Aleksander Barkov has four shorthanded goals this season, and it’s not even January. However, will the lethality of the Panthers’ penalty kill decrease with it’s newfound conservatism? (Rick Osentoski / USA TODAY Sports)

Now though, if Florida’s penalty kill units are unable to disrupt zone entries, the players fall into a calmer, more positionally sound style, seeming quite content to watch opposing power plays pass the puck around the outside while they patiently wait for an opportunity to clear the zone.

Similar changes have been made to the team’s defensive-zone play at even strength, greatly reducing cardiac events amongst Panthers fans and observers alike, as compared with earlier in the season.

In turn, this has made things much easier on the goaltenders, namely James Reimer.

James Reimer Flourishing in Starter’s Role

Reimer, who has started the last 10 games filling in for the injured Roberto Luongo, holds a rather poor .909 save percentage on the season. That said, in these 10 starts (which have led to 13 Panther points), Reimer’s posted a .929 SV%.

Even more impressive is the fact this improved play has come despite Reimer facing 34 shots per game, something which should, ordinarily, make Panthers fans cringe. After all, 34 shots is a lot to give up; is it really fair to put that on your goalie, every single night? Is this really sustainable?

James Reimer Florida Panthers
James Reimer has never really seemed to mind a heavy workload. So long as he’s given a chance to stop the shots – as the Panthers have been giving him lately, he should do just fine. (Jasen Vinlove / USA TODAY Sports)

But this is James Reimer we’re talking about here. As we saw last season when Luongo missed time due to injury, and as we saw during the six seasons he played in Toronto, Reimer thrives with a consistent workload (rather than spot starts), and his abilities seem to be further enhanced the more rubber is flung his way.

Thus, it seems Reimer and the Panthers are a match made in heaven.

Panthers Playing With Passion

At the core of the Florida’s turnaround seems to be what’s going on between the ears of Panthers’ players. I don’t think it’s any coincidence their current four-game winning streak started after being utterly dismantled by the Vegas Golden Knights, a hodgepodge of NHL rejects, including several former Panthers.

Whether Boughner was referring to the Panthers having been embarrassed by the Golden Knights, or the Panthers’ state of affairs in general, the introspection sure seems to have paid off.

Panthers’ Desperation Paying Off

Boughner has also mentioned the word “desperate” on a number of occasions. Certainly, that’s what the team is; they simply cannot afford to lose any more ground in the standings if they have any hope of being in playoff contention.

Perhaps most strikingly, Boughner has expressed a willingness to shorten his bench, should players not be playing up to his expectations.

Whether it’s a case of Boughner and the players having acclimated to each other, a reaction to their position in the standings, or something else altogether, the Panthers have been playing with more purpose and passion of late. Routes are straighter, passes are crisper and no liberties taken with teammates go unpunished.

They’re a desperate team, but they’re in control of their destiny.

Can the Panthers Make the Playoffs?

Technically, yes.

I mean, there’s a hell of a lot of work to do and a hell of a lot of things have to go right, but it’s definitely possible, especially if they keep up this improved play.

To start with, I think both Eastern Conference wild card slots are going to be filled by teams from the Metropolitan Division. Even if one of the current occupants – the New York Islanders or New York Rangers – falter (and that’s a big “if”; Ondrej Pavelec’s somehow a .924 goalie now, for goodness’ sake), the Panthers would still have to climb over the Carolina Hurricanes, Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins (you know, the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions) to get to the dance. That’s a tall order.

Nikita Kucherov Steve Stamkos Anton Stralman Tampa Bay Lightning
The Tampa Bay Lightning are an incredible team and look like the juggernaut of the Eastern Conference, let alone the Atlantic Division. That said, the Panthers have played them well thus far in 2017-18. (Dan Hamilton / USA TODAY Sports)

The more likely route would be through the Atlantic Division.

Panthers’ Playoff Chances Depend on Atlantic Division

The Tampa Bay Lightning are winning the Atlantic, full stop. Assuming the Buffalo Sabres, Detroit Red Wings and Ottawa Senators can be safely counted out, that leaves the Panthers (and the Montreal Canadiens) chasing the Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins.

I think the Maple Leafs’ current slump will abate and the team will regain a secure hold on the Atlantic’s second spot. The Bruins are a different animal entirely; not many people, myself included, expected them to be this good. And yet, here they are, nine points clear of the Cats, having played one fewer game.

Fortunately for the Panthers, their fate is in their own hands. They play the Leafs three times, and the Bruins and Canadiens four times apiece, giving Florida ample opportunity to make up ground in the Atlantic. They also have a combined eight games remaining against Buffalo, Detroit and Ottawa, all teams they should be familiar with – and able to beat.

Panthers Can’t Waste Time

The Panthers have taken a step in the right direction these past few games. Now it’s time to build on it.