The 2017-18 National Hockey League season has begun, and we were treated to a tremendously entertaining season-opening home-and-home between the Florida Panthers and the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Panthers badly outplayed the Lightning for most of their two-game set, outshooting them 36-25 and 48-30 (84-55 altogether) in the process. However, the Bolts, being the enormously talented – and enormously experienced – team they are, capitalised on Florida’s defensive lapses and poor goaltending, winning 5-3 in Tampa Bay and making the Panthers’ 5-4 win in Sunrise uncomfortably close.
Nevertheless, there were some encouraging signs from a Panthers team that has endured a tumultuous 18 months, not to mention an unfathomable amount of player and staff turnover. This season’s iteration of the Florida Panthers is not only new, but also seems to be improved.
Florida Panthers’ Aggressive Attack
The most noticeable thing was the Panthers’ all-out aggression, on both the offensive and defensive sides of the puck. New head coach Bob Boughner has brought the fast, hard, fun-to-watch style of play he perfected in Windsor to South Florida, to great early success.
Not only was the BB&T Center rocking in the Sunrise leg of the back-to-back, but both games saw the Panthers pressure the veteran Lightning, undoubtedly in the Stanley Cup conversation, into rushed decision-making. Even if a turnover did not result, the lack of time and space the Panthers afforded the Lightning neutered the latter’s attack for long stretches.
On offense, the Cats used their speed and physicality to hem the Lightning in their own zone, employing a shot-focussed strategy in combination with a perpetually swirling mass of red, gold, blue and white to eagerly snap up loose pucks and rebounds. The defensemen acted in unison with the forwards, frequently jumping up in the play, leading to two Florida goals in the season opener.
Florida Panthers Playing as Five-Man Units
First, Alex Petrovic jumped on a Lightning turnover and carried the puck deep before setting up Connor Brickley in front for a tap-in. A few minutes later, Mark Pysyk pinched up the right side to recover a wayward shot, eventually ending up with the puck in tight and dangling a besieged Andrei Vasilevskiy.
On both occasions, the adventurous rearguards were properly supported by a forward, making their gamble more reward than risk. Then, in the Panthers’ home opener, it was centre Jared McCann, covering on defense, who stripped an onrushing Braydon Coburn of the puck, allowing Evgenii Dadonov – also back to help – to feed Nick Bjugstad for the game-tying goal early in the third period. It appears the Panthers are committed not only to high levels of puck pressure, but also to playing more as five-man units, rather than having the forwards and defensemen operate independently of each other.
Florida Panthers Bringing the Energy
Florida brought loads of energy, every single shift. When on the power play, at even strength and even a man down, the Cats were never stationary, always moving and deploying the closest body to intercept the puck carrier, forcing the opposition to do things they didn’t want to.
And when they had the puck? Everything, from shots to players, went to the net hard and with authority (four of Florida’s eight goals over the weekend were scored right on the doorstep).
Florida Panthers’ Double-Edged Claws
However, this aggression came at a price: eight goals allowed (plus an empty-netter) in two games. More to the point, four of these goals (three in Tampa and one in Sunrise) were a direct result of over-aggressiveness towards the puck carrier.
Now, Boughner is a new coach with a new system, so it’s only fair to expect some growing pains in a Panthers team that has had three different coaches in a calendar year. And it’s also fair to say this style of play was the main reason the Panthers were able to take the play to the Lightning for the majority of the two games.
That all said, Florida finds themselves in a division of talented teams with quick-strike offenses. They can’t run and gun with the likes of the Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs, and expect to experience consistent success. But again, we’re two games in; let’s give them some time.
Florida Panthers Attempt Redemption
Nick Bjugstad’s Early Brilliance
Nick Bjugstad’s gotta be a happy guy this week, eh? The 2010 first-round pick of the Panthers (19th overall) has struggled to establish himself as an offensive centre in the NHL. Now, under Boughner, the Cats are playing the six-foot-six, 218-pound behemoth on the wing, something I’ve advocated in the past.
The big man has responded, converting on a partial breakaway and adding an assist in Florida’s home-opening win, and picking up a couple of other scoring opportunities during the weekend set. He’s put seven shots on net through two games, putting him on pace for 287 – 80 more than his career-high.
With silky-smooth hands that belie his massive body and a rocket of a shot, Bjugstad is simply more effective when he can protect the puck and set up on the wall, rather than having to push play, and race up and down the ice. His powerful stride and offensive vision make him a legitimate offensive threat coming off the wing; a Jaromir Jagr Lite, if you will. Plus, with his experience at centre, he can still take draws, if need be. Here’s hoping Bjugstad’s early flash is a sign of things to come.
Related: Florida Making Room for Bjugstad
Aaron Ekblad Struggling to Regain Form
On the more worrying side, after an annus horribilis in 2016-17, Aaron Ekblad has not yet shown the form that earned him the 2014-15 Calder Trophy and an eight-year, $60 million contract extension following his sophomore season.
Ekblad and defense partner Keith Yandle got crossed up on Ondrej Palat’s season-opening goal for the Lightning, and Ekblad took a poor route to intercept Palat as the latter set up Tampa’s second tally.
Over the course of the two games, Ekblad made couple of ill-advised flip plays that resulted in turnovers and was caught up ice on multiple occasions, creating odd-man rushes the other way. In the second period of the second game, he stepped up in the neutral zone to deliver a massive hit, but missed his target, again giving the ever-dangerous Lightning an odd-man rush.
To be fair, bad luck played a significant role in his sub-par performances; both the goals referenced in the first game were stoppable pucks, and his stick exploded when he was teed up a for a clear one-timer in the second. Plus, growing pains in a new system are always going to be most evident in the players that are on the ice the most often.
He also showed his offensive abilities in the second game of the back-to-back, directing a number of shots towards the net and picking up an assist on Evgenii Dadonov’s first goal back in South Florida.
However, until he fully regains his franchise defenseman form, the spectre of Ekblad’s injury history, which was hopefully not added to by Steven Stamkos’ high hit on Friday night, will still be lurking in the back of every Florida Panthers fan’s mind.
Florida Panthers’ Goaltending Gamble
As I wrote a couple weeks back, the Florida Panthers are taking a bit of a gamble going with a platoon system in net, both because of the inherent nature of such a system, and the two goalies they have to play in it.
Robert Luongo got the start on opening night and stunk up the joint early on, squandering a dominant first period by the Panthers by allowing bad goals to Ondrej Palat in the first and Brayden Point early in the second.
Luongo has always relied on his size and positioning, but this reliance is especially critical at his age, when reflexes begin to fade and chronic injuries begin to nag (the latter being of particular concern for Luongo). So, when Luongo let in two goals as a result of poor positioning, that should definitely be cause for concern.
Make no mistake, Luongo is an incredibly intelligent and efficient goaltender, and he still has the ability to perform at a high level (as we saw later on in the Panthers’ first game). It’s just that, given the dynamic performance the Panthers put on most of the night, to let in two highly deflating goals was very unfortunate indeed. That said, Luongo was hung out to dry by his team on goals three and four, so there’s plenty of blame to go around.
James Reimer got the start at home and, like Luongo, had to stand there doing nothing for long stretches, as his team ran roughshod in the Lightning end. Also like Luongo, he let in a bad goal at an inopportune time, allowing Brayden Point’s very stoppable shot to dribble past him, after the Panthers had battled back from a two-goal deficit to tie the game.
Like Luongo, Reimer was solid after his ill-timed bungle and, unlike Luongo, his team was able to bail him out. Regardless, as much as the rest of the team has work to do to polish their new system, the Panthers’ goaltending must also be better. Much, much better.
Related: Panthers a Good Home for Reimer
Florida Panthers’ Advertiser Aims
Serious question: how common is it for arenas to sell ad space on seatbacks? I mean, obviously, more ads equal more revenue and all that. But do you think advertisers approach the Panthers more readily than, say, the Leafs? As in, if people show up, great, that’s some good exposure.
But, given it’s the Panthers, I’m imagining advertisers are banking on seats being empty (they couldn’t even sell out their home opener against their cross-state rivals), thereby garnering themselves even more exposure via the television audience. If that is indeed the case, hats off to you, ad-people. That’s brilliant.
Florida Panthers Primed to Compete
I have to be honest: I had little confidence the Cats would be able to compete in the ultra-tight Atlantic Division. However, after seeing them, for the most part, get the better of the Lightning on back-to-back nights, I’ve been forced to reconsider.
It’s early days yet, but it’s readily apparent the personnel and system changes implemented over the summer have transformed the Panthers into a fast, relentless team whose main goal is to get to the net – in body and in puck.
Will it lead to a playoff berth? Time will tell. But the early returns are definitely promising.
Peter Ferrell covers the Florida Panthers and Toronto Maple Leafs, with a side of jersey and logo (over)analysis, for The Hockey Writers.