When the Florida Panthers take the ice tonight to face off against the Boston Bruins, they have the chance to control their fate. A victory coupled with a win in the second matchup between the two teams on April 9 and the Panthers could be post-season bound. Two losses, however, and it could be another hockeyless summer for Florida.
Surely, the Panthers will need help outside of their two games against the Bruins. It will likely take Florida getting points in each of their six remaining games and both Boston and Ottawa sliding to end the season. Unlike seasons prior, though, win or lose, playoffs or not, the Panthers can hold their heads high and know that 2014-15 was a sign of things to come from the current roster.
Some might think the Panthers’ season, coming a year after they landed the first overall pick and defensive phenom Aaron Ekblad, is little more than a team playing above their heads and making a push for the playoffs when they were expected to finish as bottom feeders once again. In reality, though, last season laid the foundation for Florida’s success this season.
In 2012-13, the Panthers finished below the 50 percent mark for puck possession. Looking strictly at underlying statistics, the 2013-14 squad showed improvement, finishing in the top half of the league, tied for 11th with the Tampa Bay Lightning at 51 percent of the shot attempts for at 5-on-5. This season, while they have slipped to 14th in the league, they have improved overall, currently sitting at 51.2 percent of the shot attempts for at 5-on-5.
While the improvement in puck possession may seem minimal, and while it alone isn’t enough to put them over the top, consider how far the Panthers have come in just one season thanks to the move by GM Dale Tallon to acquire goaltender Roberto Luongo. In 2013-14, Florida finished last in the NHL with a 5-on-5 save percentage of .909. Their final record was 29-45-8, only the Edmonton Oilers allowed more goals against and they had the second worst goal differential in the entire league at -72.
This season, however, Luongo’s play has catapulted the Panthers to the 17th best 5-on-5 SP with a mark of .923. At 5-on-5, Luongo has a SP of .931, the eighth best mark in the league. He ranks ahead of Jonathan Quick, Henrik Lundqvist, Marc-Andre Fleury and Braden Holtby. And while it’s not above even, their goal differential of -17 is incredible progress. After finishing an abysmal 16 games under .500 last year, the Panthers are nine games above this campaign.
And helping Luongo bolster the team’s defensive numbers is the continued improvement in shot suppression by the Cats. Last season, Florida allowed 52.1 shot attempts against per 60 minutes of 5-on-5, whereas this campaign they allow a shot less, which over the course of the season can add up to a win here or there. In each of the past two years, they’ve been eighth in the league at stopping puck from getting to their net, and this year they rank ahead of Chicago, Nashville, Minneosta, and the very same Boston team they’re chasing in the standings.
Where the Panthers have struggled lie, however, is on offense. With 190 goals, they’re the sixth lowest scoring team in the league. But even still, what’s promising is that they have a stable of young players who look primed to start scoring in the coming seasons.
In 2013-14, the Panthers highest scoring player, with 16 goals and 38 points, was Nick Bjugstad. Only Brad Boyes, with 21 goals, eclipsed the 20-goal plateau. But already the young talent is blossoming.
This season, Jonathan Huberdeau has 13 goals and 49 points. Bjugstad has registered 24 markers and 43 points. And one of the veterans of the group, Jussi Jokinen, a brilliant off-season acquisition, has collected 8 tallies and 41 points. While they aren’t gaudy totals, it shows marked improvement, something Florida needs desperately and is getting as their young crop of talent continues to grow into productive NHLers.
Florida has also seen growth in special teams. In 2013-14, their biggest threats on the power play were Sean Bergenheim, Aleksander Barkov and Jimmy Hayes, each notching three goals. This season, Bjugstad has seven tallies with the extra man, Brandon Pirri has contributed six and Ekblad has five in his rookie year and ten points altogether when the Panthers are playing 5-on-4.
And one season after having the worst penalty kill in the league, the Panthers have improved to 22nd in the league. Under coach Gerard Gallant, they’ve limited opposition power plays to nearly 6.5 shots fewer per 60 minutes of man advantage time. While it’s not where they want – or need – to be, it’s a huge leap for a team coming off a near last place finish in 2013-14. If this continues, year over year, there’s no telling how strong the Panthers could be.
Regardless of what happens – if the Panthers win out and get in or if they face the same growing pains that teams before them have – this season has been a dream for Florida. While attendance has struggled, the product on the ice has not, and if the Panthers can continue improving, it’s only a matter of time before there are two thriving playoff teams in the Sunshine State.