It wasn’t the start the Florida Panthers were expecting. It wasn’t the start anyone would have projected, either.
Through the first four games of the campaign, the Panthers, a team that had closed out the 2017-18 campaign with 17 wins in their final 25 games, had added more scoring punch in the off-season and was seemingly primed to make a playoff push this season, were winless. And when the losing streak was finally snapped with a shootout victory over the Washington Capitals, the celebrations ended the next night against the Detroit Red Wings as the Panthers began another stretch of four losses in five games.
What was puzzling about Florida’s lack of success, though, was that among those who preach process, it was hard to find many faults in what the Panthers had been doing. From Oct. 6 through to Nov. 1, over which Florida had played 10 games, the Panthers ranked fourth in the NHL in Corsi percentage (54.7), fourth in shots percentage (54.8), eighth in scoring chances percentage (52.5) and 13th in high-danger chances percentage (52.7). The results weren’t there, of that there was no doubt, but Florida had controlled play, pressured their opponents and the offense, despite only guiding the team to two victories, had produced three or more goals in half of the team’s 10 games.
The biggest issue, to be sure, was goaltending. Midway through the Panthers’ season opener, Roberto Luongo suffered a knee injury, thrusting backup James Reimer into the starting role. And while Reimer acquitted himself well through the remainder of the opening-night game — he made 15 stops on 16 shots in a shootout loss — his play was suspect at best through to early November. In his seven outings following opening night, Reimer posted an ugly .880 save percentage, surrendering 20 goals against on 167 shots and allowing fewer than three goals against in just one of six starts. And Reimer’s backup was no better, as Michael Hutchinson, called up from the AHL’s Springfield Thunderbirds, was picked apart to the tune of 14 goals against on 87 shots, good for a mere .839 SP in four appearances.
A healthy Luongo, however, seems to have cured all ills, and the Panthers are starting to roll as we approach the quarter-mark of the campaign.
Returning to the Cats’ lineup during Florida’s back-to-back set with the Winnipeg Jets as part of the NHL’s Global Series games in Finland, Luongo’s return staunched the defensive bleeding for the Panthers his first game back. Facing 34 shots against a powerful Winnipeg offense, Luongo allowed just two goals against as Florida skated away with a 4-2 victory. And that has been the start of what has now become a five-game run for the Panthers, with convincing victories over the Edmonton Oilers, New York Islanders, Ottawa Senators and Philadelphia Flyers putting Florida right back in the thick of things in the Eastern Conference.
It really can’t be said enough what a difference Luongo’s play has seemingly made. In not a single game has Luongo allowed more than two goals against, and though it’s an admittedly small sample, Luongo is the league leader in SP (.956) and goals-against average (1.33) among netminders with at least five appearances in the crease this season. Luongo has bailed out his team defensively in his return to the crease, too, allowing the offense to do what it does best. Whereas Reimer and Hutchinson were serviceable on low- and mid-danger attempts, where they struggled most was bailing out the defense when lapses occurred. Luongo, however, has been fantastic in that regard.
Consider that in his 217 minutes at 5-on-5 this season, Luongo has faced a shots-against rate similar to that of Reimer, but there’s a chasm between Luongo’s .955 SP and Reimer’s .918 SP at five-a-side. (That’s not to mention Hutchinson’s .881 SP in 148 minutes.) Better yet, though, Luongo’s actual SP at 5-on-5 is nearly 3.5 points better than his expected SP given the quality of shot he’s faced, and his high-danger SP isn’t even in the same stratosphere as that of Reimer or Hutchinson. At a .842 SP against high-danger shots, Luongo is a full seven points better than either of his goaltending counterparts.
As Luongo has brought some consistency back to the crease, too, the offense has started to find another gear. While it was clipping along at a decent rate prior to the recent winning streak — 2.9 goals per game across the first 10 games — the Panthers have provided more than enough run support to put wins on the board over the past five games. Aside from Tuesday’s win against the Flyers, in which the Cats scored twice, Florida has managed at least four goals per game across the winning streak, and what looked as though it could be a top-10 offense in the league is showing signs of its potential. The off-season addition of Mike Hoffman, in particular, has paid dividends.
Dating back to the third game of the season, a loss against to the Canucks, Hoffman has registered at least a single point in each outing, with a pair of two-assist performances in his past four games. Altogether, his seven goals and 15 points rank second, respectively, on the Panthers, and he’s arguably been among the best off-season additions through the early campaign. If he were to continue to score at this rate, Hoffman would shatter his previous career bests of 29 goals and 61 points. His current pace would see him end the campaign with 38 goals and 82 points across 82 games.
Remarkably, Hoffman’s 13-game streak is only one better than the streak held by Florida’s respective goals and points leader, Evgenii Dadonov. His eight goals and 17 points pace the Panthers, and after a surprisingly effective 28-goal, 65-point re-debut in the NHL last season — the 2017-18 campaign was his first in North America since he departed for the KHL in 2012-13 — Dadonov could realistically be in line for a 35-goal, 80-point season.
The best news for the Panthers, however, isn’t the pair of long-running point streaks, it’s not an above-average attack and it’s not even that the team has won five games in a row. Runs like this come and go over the course of the season. Rather, most promising for Florida is that their current play appears sustainable, particularly if they continue to get at least league-average goaltending. The Panthers’ 5-on-5 Corsi percentage (51.6), shots percentage (52.3) and scoring chances percentage (51.1) are among the league’s top 15 teams. And whereas process was a reason for hope things would turn around in the early season, it now brings promise of continued success for a Florida team that is eying a return to the post-season for the first time in three seasons.