For fans of the Florida Panthers, November has always been known as a month full of woes. Often, the second month of the season starts to bring reality to the forefront. The team will likely not turn things around after a terrible start in October, injuries start to pile up, and the reality that the Panthers are yet again a non-contender for even a playoff spot starts to become evident. This season however, November actually provided a positive outlook for fans of the NHL’s most geographically southern team. The Cats finished the Thanksgiving month with a record of 6-4-3, which at initial glance may not seem that impressive, but when you consider that most media outlets and hockey fans predicted the Panthers to compete alongside Buffalo and Edmonton for the Connor McDavid sweepstakes, anything above .500 is a blessing.
As of the start of December, the Panthers sit 9th in the NHL’s Eastern Conference in terms of standing. Their 24 points has them only 3 out of the final Wild Card spot with (at least) two games in hand on every single team in the conference. Their performance
this month has helped breed optimism throughout the team and its fans, where a start to the season like this one has only been seen once in the last decade (and then some). As I said earlier, a 6-4-3 doesn’t exactly scream “world beaters” in the highly-competitive NHL, but the on-ice performance speaks volumes for the progress this team has made.
Out of their six victories on the month, two came on a road trip to the west coast where they thumped the Ducks 6-2 thanks to Nick Bjugstad’s breakout game of the season where he tallied 2 goals and 2 assists. Following a loss to the reigning Cup champions in Los Angeles, the Cats squeaked by San Jose 3-2 in a shootout on the back of Roberto Luongo and his 28 saves. Other wins during the month included a nail-biter 2-1 victory against the Flyers, as well as back-to-back victories against Carolina and Ottawa on home ice to close out the month. Even during their losses, the team has looked more composed and seems to finally be forming an identity.
“Resilient” is a word often used to describe the Cats this season. Two of their three post-regulation losses this month came against teams on top of the league, including a comeback of epic proportions against the Predators in Music City. The Panthers were down 2-0 going into the final minute of the 3rd period against the offensively stifling Preds, but thanks to rookie Rocco Grimaldi and emerging star Nick Bjugstad, 12 seconds was all the Cats needed to tie the game up. Unfortunately, much like their 3rd period comeback against the Islanders a week before, they eventually fell in the shootout. Being down two goals in the final
stanza not once but twice to a couple of the best teams in the NHL, no one would bat an eye to the Panthers falling in regulation and moving on to the next game. But instead of folding like they would have in previous seasons, the Panthers showed their resilience and managed to snag two extra points this month. Shootout and overtime losses are never something to boast about, but if a team can manage to squeak out a couple extra points each month of the season, the result is 12-14 more points by the time game 82 rolls around. That is more than enough to be the difference between playing for the cup or shooting off the tee come spring time.
Vincent Trocheck, Nick Bjugstad and Jimmy Hayes have become key performers for the Panthers over the last 30 days. Since being scratched at times to start the season, former Toronto Maple Leafs draft pick Jimmy Hayes has been on quite a role. He finished the month with 10 points in 12 games and potted the game winner against Ottawa to end November on a high note. After an impressive debut stint last season with the big club, Vinny Trocheck has cemented himself as a go-to offensive spark plug in the Panthers lineup. With 8 points in his last 9 games, the former OHL Outstanding Player of the Year is becoming an integral part of the Cats offense, specifically with his chemistry alongside the aforementioned Hayes. He’s displayed vision on the ice far beyond his years and has created chances at even strength, on the powerplay and while playing shorthanded. Nick Bjugstad, easily the most recognizable name of the three, has been a man possessed in November. Specifically following that 4-
point performance in Anaheim mentioned earlier. Since then, “Juggernaut” has propelled himself to the top of the Panthers in scoring, currently shared with newly-signed free agent Jussi Jokinen at 12 points. Bjugstad has 6 goals in his last 7 games, including a couple game winners and the game-tying goal in Nashville during the Cats’ unlikely comeback. His play has helped get struggling youngster (and linemate) Jonathan Huberdeau going offensively as well, who himself has 6 points in his last 7 games.
I will be the first to tell you that calling the Florida Panthers “Cup Contenders” is a bit of a stretch. They still have some steps to take before they can consider themselves competitive with teams like the Kings, Blackhawks and Penguins, but November has helped the Panthers make strides towards greatness. The prospects that the Panthers have been patient with have finally begun showing their skill at the NHL level, special teams has improved from last year, and they seem to finally have figured out how to score more than one goal a game. With goaltender Roberto Luongo playing some of the best hockey of his career, there’s no reason to think the Panthers can’t continue to turn heads and squeak into the post-season come April.