Panthers Check-in: Strong All-Around Start Has Florida in Driver’s Seat

As we enter the heart of the holiday season, it’s a good time to take the temperature of NHL teams. The hockey season is just past the quarter mark, so there’s enough of a sample size to at least gauge what teams are doing well and what they need to work on.

Through the quarter mark of the season, things on the ice couldn’t be going much better for the Florida Panthers. They sit atop the NHL standings with a record of 15-4-3 through 22 games. Florida’s 33 points are tied for the most in the league with the Toronto Maple Leafs, who have played one more game.

The Panthers have weathered the resignation of a coach and the injury of a star player to remain one of the best teams in the NHL so far. Let’s take a look at the factors that have propelled them into the driver’s seat early.

A Prolific and Multifaceted Offense

Through 22 games, the Panthers have 82 total goals, tied for the most in the NHL with the Washington Capitals (who have played one more game). They scored at least four goals in each of their first seven games, and they’ve scored at least that many goals in 13 of their 22 games. The team has not been shut out through 22 games, and they’ve scored multiple goals in all but one game.

Nine different skaters have at least five goals for the Panthers, led by Aleksander Barkov and Anthony Duclair. Both have nine goals and are followed by Sam Bennett (eight), Jonathan Huberdeau, Carter Verhaeghe, and Eetu Luostarinen (seven), Aaron Ekblad and Frank Vatrano (six), and Sam Reinhart (five).

Huberdeau leads the team in points (23), averaging more than one per game. Offensive defenseman Ekblad comes in second on the team with 20 points. He is once again among the top defensemen in the league in goals and assists. In 18 games played, Bennett leads the team in power-play goals (three) and game-winning goals (three, tied with Luostarinen).

A Potential Vezina Candidate

It’s not just the offense that has been strong thus far for the Panthers. Veteran goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, who had a disappointing first two seasons in Florida, has looked like his old self through the first quarter of this season. In 14 starts, he’s 10-1 with a 2.18 goals-against average (GAA) and a .930 save percentage (SV%).

Sergei Bobrovsky Florida Panthers
Sergei Bobrovsky, Florida Panthers (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Among NHL goalies with double-digit starts, Bobrovsky ranks sixth in wins, sixth in SV%, and seventh in GAA. His backup, Spencer Knight, has also been solid, registering a 3.03 GAA and .901 SV% in 10 games (eight starts). Although neither netminder has a shutout yet, they’ve held the opposition to one goal seven times.

Depth and Resilience

The Oct. 28 resignation of head coach Joel Quenneville could’ve sunk the team. But aside from a four-game skid in early November, interim coach Andrew Brunette has done a fine job keeping the team among the league’s elite teams. The Panthers have gone 8-6-1 with Brunette at the helm.

The Nov. 16 injury to Barkov also could’ve sunk the team, but other players have stepped up in his absence. The fact that I’m just now mentioning impressive rookie Anton Lundell, ageless wonder Joe Thornton, and the recently-extended Ryan Lomberg speaks to the team’s depth. Twenty-two skaters have appeared in games for the Panthers so far this season, and 21 of them have registered at least a point. Barkov has returned to practice, so they may not have to weather the storm much longer.

Florida’s 5-4 comeback win over the Washington Capitals on Tuesday night (Nov. 30) exemplifies their depth and resilience. The Panthers were down 4-1 to one of the NHL’s elite teams after two periods. They went on to score four goals in the third period. All five of their goals were scored by different players (Thornton, Lomberg, Luostarinen, Bennett, and Reinhart), and nine different skaters registered points.

Eetu Luostarinen Florida Panthers
Eetu Luostarinen, Florida Panthers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Through 22 games, the Panthers have shown that they are a potential Stanley Cup contender. The resignation of a coach and the loss of a star to injury hasn’t tripped them up. There is still a lot of season to be played, and there are still a lot of things the Panthers could work on, but the play on the ice has been bright thus far in Sunrise.

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