The Florida Panthers had their shakiest month of the season. It was the first time the squad went on any sort of losing streak with one that lasted three games. In addition, their late March struggles made them drop to third in the central division for a short period of time. However, they would proceed to turn it around during the last week of the month and enter April tied for first with the Tampa Bay Lightning for the top seed in the Central Division.
The Injury Bug Strikes
During the second half of the month of March, the Cats got hit by a bad wave of injuries. Unfortunately, injuries are part of the game, but the hockey gods just seemed to make it even crueler for Florida as injuries ended up taking out four of their top players in a span of five nights.
The captain, forward Aleksander Barkov, got taken down after being a surprise injury scratch on Mar. 23 against the Chicago Blackhawks. He suffered a lower-body injury during a morning skate and has missed six games so far.
Although they’re supposed to get him back in their upcoming homestand, losing your star forward for any amount of time can become a major blow to any franchise. Because of his great performance, his 16 points (five goals, 11 assists) through the month of March was recognized by the NHL as the Central Division’s Star of the Month. Barkov is currently second on the team in points with 37 (13 goals, 24 assists) and tied for ninth in the NHL in points per game with 1.19.
On Mar. 25, After getting hit by Blackhawks defenseman Nikita Zadorov, forward Patric Hornqvist left the game with a lower-body injury. According to Joel Quenneville, he is expected to miss about a week.
While he has a timetable to come back, Hornqvist has brought something to this team that has needed in the form of both toughness and leadership. He’s also been excellent on the man-advantage as he leads the team in power-play goals. Missing him has absolutely hurt this team in more ways than one.
This one was hard to watch. On Mar. 28 against the Dallas Stars, defenseman Aaron Ekblad fell awkwardly in the corner and ended up fracturing his leg. He had to be carried off of the ice on a stretcher as his teammates watched in agony. He is expected to miss about 12 weeks. On the bright side, the injury was not as severe as it was originally perceived to be.
What really hits home about this injury is that Ekblad was having a Norris-caliber season. He is second among all defensemen in goals with 11 and first among defensemen in power-play goals with six. His regular season is finished, but he will return stronger than ever before.
On the last game of the month for Florida on Mar. 31 against the Detroit Red Wings, forward Anthony Duclair was tripped up during a rush and crashed his shoulder into the boards. He would not return to the game and his timetable to return is seven to 10 days.
The “Duke” has been a great acquisition so far for the Panthers with his great skill set and speed that he brings every single night as he is a key piece on the top line. He hasn’t found the back of the net too much this season as he only notched four goals. But he’s shown he can set up a great play as he tallied up 12 assists, bringing him to 16 points on the season.
Verhaeghe Steps Up
In the absence of Barkov and Duclair, forward Carter Verhaeghe has stepped into the spotlight and stepped up when the team needed him most. Through the games Barkov missed, he scored five goals and assisted on one, giving him six points through the five games. This includes a hat trick on Mar. 27 against the Dallas Stars that featured an even-strength goal, a short-handed goal, and a power-play goal. This was the third time in franchise history this type of hat trick was completed.
Since his signing this past offseason, he’s been an absolute machine for this offense. He currently leads the team in goals with 17 and he’s third on the team in points with 32. In addition, he has the same amount of goals as former Panther players Mike Hoffman and Evgenii Dadonov combined. The best part? He’s only cost the team $1 million this season and next season. He was arguably the best under-the-radar free-agent signing in the league this offseason.
Huberdeau Is Hustling
Forward Jonathan Huberdeau continues to show why he is also a superstar in today’s NHL. Throughout last month, he tallied 18 points (six goals, 12 points) through 15 games. This included five multi-point nights. Due to his success, he leads the team with 42 points and is tied for seventh in the NHL in that department.
Much like his teammate in Verhaeghe, he stepped up in a hurry in a time where drastic lineup changes occurred. When the playoffs start in May, he’s going to need to tap into that magic he’s had all season.
Weegar Makes History
Defenseman MacKenzie Weegar made Panthers’ history in the month of March. He tied teammate Keith Yandle for the longest point streak in franchise history with seven straight games. He had a total of nine points (one goal, eight assists) during that time span.
Even in the absence of his defensive partner in Ekblad, Weegar has slowly developed into a top-pairing defenseman. He’s currently fifth in the league in even-strength points among defensemen with 18 (two goals, 16 assists at even strength) and second on the team in rating with a plus-14. For someone who was a seventh-round pick, he was a diamond in the rough.
Knight Signs His ELC
Florida’s goaltending prospect in Spencer Knight finally signed his entry-level deal on Mar. 31. Shortly after, he joined the team on their taxi squad. He may not be seeing any action this season, but to get the deal done on the prospect was a necessity.
The 13th overall pick in the 2019 NHL Draft has been an absolute rock in net during his time with Boston College in the NCAA. In the 2019-20 season, he went 23-8-2 through 33 games played, honing a .931 save percentage (SV%), a 1.97 goals-against average (GAA), and five shutouts. In this past year, the 2020-21 season, he went 16-4-1 through 21 games played, bringing in a 2.18 GAA, a .932 SV% and three shutouts.
Additionally, it didn’t stop at the collegiate level. During the World Junior U-20 Championships, he played in seven games and brought in Hall of Fame numbers. He had a .940 SV% and a 1.67 GAA and brought home the Gold medal with Team USA. Florida has Vezina potential in the pipeline and it’s clear he’s eager to become a household name in the NHL.
Will April Bring Even More Success?
With only eight weeks left in the regular season for Florida, they need to make every game count and try to bring home points. Their schedule for the month of April features tough sets of games between Tampa, the Carolina Hurricanes and the Nashville Predators. Although it is not official by the league, the playoffs seem more than likely for this team. But to convince the rest of the NHL that they are contenders, they must hurdle this obstacle and come out on top.
My name is Joey. I’ve been writing about the NHL for about 3 years with my experience spread out between TSJ 101 Sports and Panther Parkway. I look forward to you reading my articles!