Florida Panthers Purrview: Week Six in Review

Yes, the Florida Panthers went 1-2 this past week. And yes, they’re still the second-worst team in the National Hockey League. And yes, the eight points they sit away from the playoffs looks more and more insurmountable every day.

But hey, we’re only through 16 games – about one-fifth of the season. Let’s take it down a notch here; it’s not time to panic. The Cats played two really good games this week, and things certainly look better today than they did a week ago.

This coming week, they face a real challenge: the high-powered Dallas Stars (surely a test for their shaky defense), followed by the always-tough California road trip (three games in four days). If they can come out of it relatively unscathed, it would say a lot about their chances moving forward.

Florida Panthers’ Week That Was

Hurricane Season in Raleigh

The Tuesday night matchup between the Panthers and Carolina Hurricanes was a must-watch. A team that can’t score versus a team that can’t defend? Something had to give.

And it did, with the Hurricanes taking the play to the Panthers all night, right from the opening faceoff. At one point early in the second, the ‘Canes were outshooting the Cats 25-10, and ended the game with a 48-31 shot advantage (86-60 in shot attempts).

Robert Luongo Panthers
Roberto Luongo was under siege in the Florida net Tuesday night, but turned in a vintage performance to keep the Panthers in the game. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Some of that had to do with the Florida taking five penalties to the Hurricanes’ two, but Carolina was all over the visitors in all situations. Simply put, it was another abysmal defensive effort from the South Floridians. Too much pre-game barbeque, perhaps.

Only a spectacular display of goaltending from Roberto Luongo kept the game remotely close (3-1 Carolina, including an empty-netter), with the 38-year-old turning in a vintage performance in the Florida net. Luongo was left all alone on both goals against, and saved the Cats the countless other times he was left to fend for himself.

Panthers Rattle Buffalo’s Sabres

The Panthers must have had their Wheaties on the plane to Buffalo. The Cats followed up a lethargic performance in Carolina with a high-energy effort against the beleaguered Sabres Friday night. Florida outshot the Sabres 31-25, besting them in shot attempts 59-43. After heading into the first intermission down 1-0, the Cats scored four unanswered goals (two of which were empty-netters) to triumph 4-1.

The game was a tightly contested affair for the most part, though the Panthers were able to establish themselves a number of times in the Buffalo end. The top line of Aleksander Barkov, Evgenii Dadonov and Jonathan Huberdeau were especially good, taking advantage of a depleted Buffalo defense corps.

Panthers Bedevilled in New Jersey

In another tight-checking game, the Panthers fell to the New Jersey Devils by a score of 2-1 on Saturday. Which was a real shame, considering how well the Cats played; Florida won 67 percent of the faceoffs and outshot the Devils 33-21 (shot attempts were an even more impressive 58-33 for the Panthers).

Outside of a couple of egregious giveaways in their own zone, the Panthers were structurally sound, neutralising the Devils’ speed by keeping them to the outside. Of the two goals New Jersey scored, one went in off a Panthers player and the other came on a five-on-three power play. A very good effort on the part of the Panthers, who were beaten only by the spectacular goaltending of New Jersey’s Cory Schneider.

Weekly Takeaways

On the whole, I think the Panthers have to be pretty happy with their week. Really, outside of allowing Derek Ryan’s goal against the Hurricanes, it’s tough to point to any truly abysmal defensive breakdowns. Yes, the very solid goaltending the Cats got from Luongo and James Reimer undoubtedly helped matters, but the structural confusion that’s plagued their game since the start of the season seems to be on the wane.

The Cats showed energy and jump throughout the week, though less so in the Carolina game. They kept the play in the opposition’s end and simplified things defensively. All that remains is for the secondary scoring they had to start the year to reappear, and the Panthers should begin to trend in the right direction.

They aren’t the deepest team in the NHL, not even close. But there’s simply no reason they can’t compete.

Panthers Three Stars of the Week

Roberto Luongo

Boy, has Roberto Luongo ever returned to form. He played two outstanding games this week, the 972nd and 973rd of his career, putting him third in NHL history, and picked up his 455th win, passing Curtis Joseph for fourth all-time. Luongo will be a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame at some point, but it’s readily apparent he’s got plenty of hockey left in him.

Mike Matheson

Matheson missed Tuesday’s game with an illness, but came back energetic on Friday night, looking like he’d just downed three Red Bulls. Matheson skated well in both games of the back-to-back, skating well with the puck and picking opportune times to jump up in the play. Best of all, he wasn’t noticeable on defense, meaning he was actually, you know, playing defense.

Michael Matheson Panthers
Mike Matheson is at his best when he gets involved offensively. (Brace Hemmelgarn / USA TODAY Sports)

Snark aside, perhaps this is Matheson figuring out how to best utilise his strengths. After all, it’s a heck of a lot easier to defend if you don’t spend time in your own zone. Matheson has the offensive acumen to ensure the Panthers control the play when he’s on the ice, and it appears he’s gaining the confidence to use it.

Nick Bjugstad

The rangy forward had a great week, although it only resulted in a single point (a goal against New Jersey). Bjugstad played like he didn’t notice he was being moved up and down the lineup, as well as between centre and the wing, despite having to constantly adapt to new linemates. He used his big body to shield the puck when he had it, and to separate the opposition from the puck when he didn’t.

Perhaps most importantly, he seems to be learning how to find the necessary space on the ice to haul himself up to top speed. At six-foot-six and 218 pounds, there aren’t many defensemen that relish defending Bjugstad in full flight, particularly coming off the wing.

Florida Panthers Causes for Concern

Florida Panthers Penalty Killing

The Florida Panthers’ penalty kill is trash. This is a recording.

Despite the defensive improvements at even strength, the Panthers are still using a diamond (-ish) strategy on the penalty kill, deploying only a single player to cover the top half of the zone.

Yes, for whatever reason, the Cats are still content to allow unfettered point shots while they’re killing penalties. As evidenced by their 30th-ranked penalty killing proficiency (71.7 percent), it’s not working.

Never mind the fact it’s burned them time and time again this year, and also the fact they had the second-ranked penalty kill last season (85.3 percent) that didn’t play like this. Nah, that’s all nonsense. Let’s leave one guy to chase around the ice trying to cover two or three players at the same time.

Derek MacKenzie Panthers
Derek MacKenzie, a staple of the Florida penalty kill. As the captain, perhaps he can advocate for a return to the penalty killing system of last season, which ranked second in the NHL. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Side note: Micheal Haley on the penalty kill? Yeah, that’s probably never going to happen again. Haley laid a crisp, tape-to-tape pass to Miles Wood of the Devils, before tripping Nico Hischier to put New Jersey on a two-man advantage. Kyle Palmieri proceeded to capitalise, potting what turned out to be the winning goal.

Breaking out Is (Not) Hard to Do…

…but the Panthers sure make it look like it is. As much as the Panthers simplified their defensive game this week, the breakouts are still a bit of a sore spot.

During the Carolina game, a Hurricanes defenseman would retrieve the puck and send it up the boards to a waiting winger on the half-wall, who would either skate it out or hit a supporting player already in flight. Crisp, clean, simple and something used extensively, even in minor hockey. Because it works.

In contrast, Florida really seems to like going for the home run pass, or else leaving the puck for a defenseman to rush up the ice. I watched Keith Yandle give the puck away twice in a row against Carolina, despite having Montana levels of open space. Additionally, Yandle, MacKenzie Weegar and Nick Bjugstad were all guilty of chucking pizzas straight up the middle coming out of their own zone.

Keith Yandle Florida Panthers
Keith Yandle, pizza-chucker extraordinaire. (Sergei Belski / USA TODAY Sports)

I get it; everyone wants to help the team score, a notion particularly applicable when the squad is struggling. But another big part of winning is getting scored on the least. The Panthers should not risk handing scoring chances to the opposition. Make them earn their opportunities.

Does James Reimer Have a Groin Injury?

Reimer seemed to come up lame after towards the end of Saturday’s game, after attempting to push off from left to right. Reimer has a history of groin issues, and injuries in that region – particularly amongst goalies, as Montreal Canadiens fans know all too well – are highly unpredictable with regards to recovery.

Luongo has been great since his return, but he hasn’t exactly been the picture of health recently, either. And the Panthers should certainly be wary of putting too much strain on the ageing netminder.

That said, they just put Antti Niemi on waivers, so maybe everything’s fine. Still, I would have thought keeping Niemi up with the team would have been the wiser option.

Weekly Wonderings

Carolina Hurricanes Jerseys

Boy, do those new Carolina home uniforms look great or what?! Though the striping is a bit disjointed, the colour balance is phenomenal, really making the most of a classic palette. If their performance Tuesday night was any indication, the ‘Canes are a team that could contend. They’ll look good doing it, too.

Should Scott Darling be Allowed to Play Goalie?

Scott Darling is listed as six-foot-six and 232 pounds, and I believe it. The guy’s a monster between the pipes; the net looks so small behind him, it’s like he’s playing mini-sticks. His pushes and rebound control were a little off against Florida, but he was still plenty sharp enough to get the W. If he tidies up his game a little, I just don’t see how anyone will ever be able to get a puck by him.

Scott Darling, Chicago Blackhawks, NHL
Scott Darling, seen here last season with the Chicago Blackhawks, is an absolutely monstrous goaltender, even by today’s standards. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Barkov a Faceoff Delinquent

Is it just me, or does Aleksander Barkov get thrown out of the faceoff circle more than any other player? He still leads the team in draws taken (converting at a brilliant 57.1 percent), but seems to get booted half the time. I wonder if this is tracked somewhere…

Florida Panthers’ Week Ahead

Tuesday: Dallas Stars – Home (9-8-0)
Thursday: San Jose Sharks – Away (10-6-0)
Saturday: Los Angeles Kings – Away (11-4-2)
Sunday: Anaheim Ducks – Away (7-7-3)

(All advanced stats are thanks to Corsica. All metrics are adjusted and at five-on-five, unless otherwise specified.)