At the All-Star break things were looking very bleak for the Florida Panthers. The team was 12 points back of a playoff spot and they were hovering around the bottom of the standings. Starting goalies Roberto Luongo and James Reimer were injured and when they were healthy, they were inconsistent. There was talk of Dale Tallon selling young stars and top prospects to try and fix the mess. There was lack of scoring and forward depth and to top it off, the special teams did not look good at all. There was not much going right, until it all turned around.
The Last Month:
The month of February provided a massive turn around for this team and may have even saved this franchise from another losing year or even another rebuild. There were high expectations for this team, and if they did not turn it around in February who knows what could have happened at the trade deadline. Here are the key points of the turnaround.
A. Stabilizing the Goaltending Situation
Who would have thought 28 year-old rookie goaltender Harri Sateri, who had never won and NHL game, be the one to solidify the net? After Luongo went down with an injury, Sateri was called up but purely as an emergency goalie. Reimer would go to start 19 straight games. On the 19th game Reimer went down with an injury that would keep him out for about a month.
In comes Sateri. He struggled out of the gate losing his first four decisions, but after that, he caught fire. Sateri won four straight games and finished his NHL stint with a save percentage of a .911 and a goals against average of a 2.92. To top it all off, he was awarded the NHL’s 2nd star of the week during his hot streak. Since Luongo and Reimer have come back from injury, the Panthers have gone 8-2-0 with each goalie only losing one game each.
B. Creating Scoring Depth
For the first four months of the season rookie head coach Bob Boughner was scratching his head on how to create scoring depth. The first line was solid, consisting of Alexander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Nick Bjugstad. The lower lines seldom posed a threat to the opposition due to lack of skill and stability.
Through the first half the season, second line center Vincent Trocheck rarely played consecutive games with the same wingers. To stabilize the scoring Boughner moved Huberdeau to the second line and Yevgeni Dadonov to the first line. In the 15 games since this change has been made, the two lines have combined for 30 goals.
C. Powerful Power Play
The power play during the first half of the season was tough to watch. This team bumbled around the bottom three for most of the season. However, since the All-Star break the power play has converted on 28% of their opportunities which is good for second in the league only behind the Vegas Golden Knights.
D. A Little Bit of Luck
Let’s be honest, a big part of hockey is luck. Puck luck to be exact. The Panthers have gotten hot at the right time. The four games Sateri won, were all games against non-playoff teams. As soon as the starting goalies got healthy, the Panthers had to play the next eight of eleven against playoff teams. In these games they went 6-2-0, including four straight one goal wins against Washington, Pittsburgh, Toronto, and New Jersey.
It also helps that the NHL loves to have teams play Tampa Bay and Florida on back to back nights and the Panthers often get the backup goalie and a tired opponent. They were also lucky to have no one injured during a make or break road trip where they played five Canadian teams in eight nights.
E. Something to Play For
South Florida witnessed a tragedy on Valentine’s Day when Marjorie Douglas High School was the victim of a mass shooting. Since this tragedy it has seemed like this team has dug deeper to help the community heal and give the community a team to rally behind as they dedicate the rest of the season to the victims.
The Next Month:
The Panthers have clawed their way to within one point of the second wild card and to six points of the first wild card with three games in hand over every other team in the running for these wild card spots. Here’s what they need to do to grab one of these final spots and perhaps make some noise in the playoffs.
A. Hold Home Ice
The Panthers are amid a stretch of games where they will not play outside the state of Florida for a month. This includes five and six game homestands with one game in Tampa Bay.
Playing on home ice allows for players to be better rested and not have to deal with opposing crowds, now if only South Florida can come through give a home ice advantage.
B. Take Care of Business
Obviously, you are not going to win every game, but if the Panthers want to solidify their playoff position they need to put away lower level teams, and they’ll have plenty of opportunities to do just that. In the final 20 games remaining, only eight are against teams in a playoff position.
This past month has been a roller coaster of emotion. After a rough start to the season, this club finally looks like it has turned the corner. The Panthers are firing on all cylinders and are becoming a very fun team to watch. The future looks bright for this team and to put the cherry on top for this season: playoffs. Watch out, these ice cats are hot.