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The streaking Florida Panthers are straddling the line between contender and pretender

The Panthers' attack is among the league's best, but the defensive play leaves something to be desired. That sets Florida up for a trip to the dance. How far the Cats can go is the big question, though.

A six-game winning streak isn’t exactly a distant memory for the Florida Panthers, but it sure has been a while since the team has had a run this successful. Not once during the 2018-19 campaign, a season in which hopes were high but results were middling, did the Cats manage to win six straight. Five? Sure, they did that through the early part of November 2018. But six? That’s not a mark the Panthers had celebrated in quite some time, not in nearly 700 days.

That changed Tuesday evening in Chicago, however, on a night coach Joel Quenneville returned to his old stomping grounds. On the strength of Frank Vatrano’s second-period hat trick and some timely stops by netminder Sergei Bobrovsky, the Panthers skated away from their tilt with the Blackhawks and into their 10-day break with a 4-3 win and a run of six consecutive victories – all in regulation – in their back pocket.

The result of the winning streak, too, is that a Florida club that underwent an off-season renovation with the hiring of Quenneville, monster free agent signing of Bobrovsky and complementary additions of Noel Acciari, Brett Connolly and Anton Stralman now finds itself right in the thick of the Eastern Conference post-season picture. Before the streak, which kicked off with a defeat of the Vancouver Canucks one week into the new year, the Panthers were one point out of the final wild-card spot, four points back of third place in the Atlantic Division and trailing the state rival Tampa Bay Lightning by five points. Less than two weeks later, the Panthers possess the third divisional spot, have a four-point advantage on the fourth-place Toronto Maple Leafs and are breathing down the Lightning’s collective necks. One point separates the two Floridian franchises.

On the surface, that suggests one thing about the Panthers: the off-season additions have worked, and an organization that finished a dozen points out of the final wild-card spot last season seems set to punch its ticket to the dance this time around. A number of the numbers seem to say the same, too. Not only is Florida keeping pace with Tampa Bay, ahead of Toronto and in line with the Carolina Hurricanes, Columbus Blue Jackets and Philadelphia Flyers, all three of whom are fighting for the wild-card spots, the Panthers also boast the best record of any club over the past 10 games. As well, the Panthers have a plus-20 goal differential, better than all but seven NHL clubs, and a points percentage that trails only seven teams, the majority of which would have been in most pre-season Stanley Cup conversations.

With the home stretch on the horizon, that says contender. But is that really the truth about these Panthers?

To be sure, the offensive firepower of the group can’t be questioned. Though Florida doesn’t get nearly the love it deserves as one of the most lethal sides in the league – at 3.67 goals per game, no team has matched their output – the Panthers boast one of the NHL's deepest attacks. All told, Florida enters the break with four 40-point players and another, 39-point rearguard Keith Yandle, on the cusp. That matches the highest total in the league, alongside the Lightning and defending champion St. Louis Blues. In addition, the Panthers have a league-high six players with 15 or more goals, an offense that generates the seventh-most shots per game and a power play bested by only four teams. Offensively, Florida is almost unassailable.

Defensively, however, it’s another story. By the base numbers, the Panthers have allowed 3.27 goals against per game, tied with the New York Rangers for the seventh-worst mark in the league. Florida’s penalty kill is worse than that of all but eight clubs. Meanwhile, there are only eight teams who allow a greater number of shots against per game. That hardly makes the Panthers a shining example of defensive strength. And the underlying numbers say much the same.

When it comes to five-a-side rates, Florida is no better than a middle-of-the-road club in a number of advanced metrics. Shot attempt suppression? The Panthers’ 55.6 attempts against per 60 minutes ranks 16th in the NHL. Shot suppression? The Panthers move down one spot to 17th at 30.7 against per 60 minutes. Florida also sits in similar standing to the rest of the league when measuring scoring chances against (26.4) and are among the league’s worst clubs when it comes to surrendering high-danger chances. The Panthers’ 11.3 against per 60 minutes is the sixth-worst mark in the NHL. As far as that last number is concerned, too, Florida isn’t generating near enough to balance the scales. Owning a meager 46.5 percent of the 5-on-5 high-danger scoring chances, the only teams worse than the Panthers in that metric are the Blackhawks and Winnipeg Jets.

It’s the own-zone play that is the biggest concern facing a Cats team that seems to otherwise have what’s necessary to hang with the league’s big dogs, and it’s a concern that has become greater due to the play of Bobrovsky. Among the 35 goaltenders with at least 1,000 minutes played at five-a-side, the Panthers $10-million masked man has the fourth-lowest SP (.906) and a goals saved above average (minus-0.39) per 60 minutes that ranks equally as low. Granted, that he’s faced an average of 30.7 shots against, 9.0 high-danger shots against and has an expected goals against of 2.47 per 60 minutes, marks that are the 13th-, sixth- and eighth-highest among the 35 keepers with 1,000 5-on-5 minutes played, speaks to how poorly he has been insulated at times.

So, are the Panthers a contender or pretender? The reality is that Florida falls somewhere in the middle. Florida has a top-tier team offense and a mediocre team defense that has at times looked that much worse due to the inconsistent play of their No. 1 netminder. But in a building-block season, a campaign in which the franchise is attempting to make the transition from fringe wild-card team to consistent post-season participant, that we’re even asking the question is a positive for the Panthers.

(All advanced statistics via NaturalStatTrick)

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