The Florida Panthers are the best story in the NHL right now. With a mix of talent both young and old, the Panthers have rattled off 12 consecutive wins — just under one-seventh of the campaign — and have built a five-point lead atop the Atlantic Division. There’s still half a season to go, but Florida seems bound for its fifth post-season appearance in franchise history.
The thing is, though, the Panthers could be bound for a short stay in the playoffs if adjustments aren’t made.
Even though coach Gerard Gallant’s team continues to piece together wins, more than a few of their past several victories have come in games where they’re been incredibly outplayed. Take Sunday’s game. Against the Edmonton Oilers — the third-worst team in the standings — Florida mustered seven shots through two periods. Thankfully, the Panthers scored twice in their first five shots to pick up the win, but by game’s end they had been outshot 25-14 and escaped with a one-goal victory. For obvious reasons, netminder Al Montoya was the first star.
“They took it to us,” Gallant said post-game. “They outplayed us in the game. I thought the last 10 minutes we took over the game and played real well, but we weren’t good enough again tonight, but good enough to win.”
If nights like Sunday were an uncommon occurrence, there wouldn’t be much for the Panthers to worry about, but it’s become a habit of this Florida team even during this franchise-record winning streak. And if the Panthers don’t learn how to control games before the post-season rolls around, a first-round exit could be on tap.
In a lot of ways, the Panthers right now are much like the 2015 Calgary Flames, 2014 Colorado Avalanche or 2013 Toronto Maple Leafs — they’re a poor possession team that has managed to cash in on timely opportunities to shock those who thought this Florida roster wouldn’t be post-season bound.
On the season, the Panthers rank 26th in the NHL with a 5-on-5 shot attempts for percentage of 47.3 percent. That’s an unsightly mark and is already concerning enough for the Panthers, but it’s even worse considering the “puck luck” Florida has had. Unsurprisingly, the Panthers have been able to stay well above .500 thanks to a combined 5-on-5 shooting and save percentage — known as PDO — of 102.6. While not every team will regress to an even 100 throughout the season, even the best teams generally don’t finish with a PDO as high as 102.6. Especially not those with poor possession numbers.
Comparing the Panthers’ numbers this season to those Flames, Avalanche and Maple Leafs teams paints a not-so-flattering picture of the post-season outlook for Florida. The 2015 Flames finished the season with a shot attempts for percentage of 44.4 percent and 101 PDO, the 2014 Avalanche posted marks of 46.9 percent and 101.8 and the 2013 Maple Leafs entered the playoffs at 44.1 percent and 103. Making the connection between the two squads isn’t all that difficult.
The winning streak has been a microcosm of the Panthers’ season, really. Over their current winning streak, one would have expected Florida to have found a way to out-possess opponents on their way to picking up victories. Instead, the Panthers have had a 5-on-5 shot attempts for percentage of 47.3 percent and an exorbitant PDO of 107.5.
This doesn’t mean Florida’s doomed, though, but rather that GM Dale Tallon desperately needs to acquire one or two possession or play-controlling forwards before the post-season starts if his team has any chance to go deep into the playoffs. That’s not to say Tallon needs to sell the farm to bring a superstar aboard or that one player can change a team’s fate in the post-season alone, but getting a skillful player at the trade deadline could pay big dividends for the Cats if he can keep the puck on Florida sticks while he’s on the ice. The playoffs are a war of attrition, and it’s much easier to survive if you’re the team controlling and driving the play.
All of this without mentioning that the 43-year-old Jaromir Jagr is the team’s leading scorer and starting netminder Roberto Luongo is 36. There’s reason to believe a drop-off in play for both should be coming even if both have bucked that trend in incredible fashion thus far.
None of this is to rain on the Panthers’ parade, though. There’s no good reason to cheer against the lovable Panthers. Tallon has built a young team with some veteran parts that is incredibly fun to watch. Jagr has become the league’s darling all over again this season and the continued growth of players such as Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Aaron Ekblad and Vincent Trocheck gives hope for an even brighter future for Florida fans.
If the Panthers make the post-season and keep chugging through to the Stanley Cup final, it would undoubtedly be the season’s greatest story. But if we want to be talking about that story come June, Gallant, Tallon and Co. have to find a way to turn the tide and get the Panthers controlling play. If that doesn’t happen, we could very well be left talking about what could have been in Florida.
(All advanced statistics via War-On-Ice)