As the sun rises and sets on another Thanksgiving, the upstart Florida Panthers can offer plenty of thanks after they finish their pumpkin pie. In second place in the Atlantic Division, the Panthers are in the midst of their best start to a campaign in quite some time, and I mean quite some time.
While their recent three-game skid might put fear in the hearts and minds of those who hope the team will make a run back to relevancy, the optimism should, at this point, be steadfast. Here are four reasons why the Panthers should be tremendously thankful in 2019-20.
Place in the Standings
In second in the Atlantic Division, behind the Boston Bruins and a point ahead of the Toronto Maple Leafs, shows the marked improvement of the team. In the two seasons prior, the Panthers had the same sense of optimism and hopefulness that they would be able to reach the playoffs and excel. However, each one was met with a poor start that, no matter how well they played in the back-half of the season, they missed the cutoff in the wild-card race.
While this season is supposed to be the one where the Panthers finally arrive, the growth from this still-young core should be season-long. When the important games roll around in March and April, it will be on the players to trudge along and secure not only a playoff berth, but home ice in the first round as they try to stave off the reignited Maple Leafs and keep pace with the Bruins.
Huberdeau and Barkov Leading the Team
Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau breaking out as a formidable 1-2 forward punch in the NHL continues this season. After a career-best 92 points last season, Huberdeau is on pace for more than 100 points for the first time in his career, with 31 through 25 games, and Barkov is not far off with 30 points in the same number of games.
Behind the Edmonton Oilers’ Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, this Panthers duo is establishing itself as the next formidable duo to arise. The supporting cast has been a strength too, which is more than the Oilers can say. “Barky” and “Huby” don’t have to shoulder the team’s success, but the fact that they are able to contribute as significantly as they do speaks volumes to the star power at the top of the Panthers lineup.
Sergei Bobrovsky Will Bounce Back
He has to, right? At this point in the season, the Panthers are winning in spite of “Bob” rather than because of him. His teammates have bailed him out more times than he probably would like to admit. His 3.48 goals-against average and his .844 save percentage show how insufficient his play has been without having to delve deeper into the analytics behind them. He has not been good enough, plain and simple, and he needs to step it up.
Last season’s atrocious start with the Columbus Blue Jackets was followed by a solid run to the playoffs and the infamous upset sweep of the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round; that is what the Panthers need from Bobrovsky. It is also the reason they gave him a seven-year, $70-million contract. His resume speaks to the type of goaltender and competitor he is, and it is on him to rebound.
Quenneville Finally Bringing Accountability
The defense has been porous, and even though Bobrovsky’s struggles are real, it’s time for the defense corps to step up. Head coach Joel Quenneville has brought a sense of accountability, preaching that wins start from protecting their own end and progress through the neutral zone with puck protection, then letting the offense roll from there.
However, bad starts have plagued them this season, and they will not continue to win by rallying from three-plus goal deficits the entire season. Allowing the soft goals have to end, and that is both on Bobrovsky and the defense. Maybe an outside acquisition, along the lines of Calgary Flames defenseman Travis Hamonic or maybe the newly-scratched Floridian Shayne Gostisbehere of the Philadelphia Flyers, could help shore up the back end. But Coach Q has his team on the right track on both sides of the puck, so it is on them to step up now.
The Panthers are in a great position to move forward through the rest of the holiday season and it would be wise of them to continue chugging along into and past the All-Star Break. Bobrovsky’s flat stats and the d-corps will bounce back; coupled with the dynamic duo of Barkov and Huberdeau and their tremendous forward depth, Quenneville’s team is in prime position to take the step forward that many hoped they finally would this season.