The Florida Panthers are second in the NHL.
That hockey team that you (and everyone else) might’ve forgotten existed has 12 wins with just three losses and two overtime losses as of Feb. 23. Just two seasons ago, the Panthers missed the playoffs, finishing with a 36-32-14 record and were only fifth in the Atlantic Division. Now they’re in their best start to a season in franchise history.
So how did Florida get here?
COVID-19 is a huge factor for their early success. For the 2020-21 season only, the NHL’s four divisions realigned to reflect travel restrictions brought on by COVID-19. Each team only plays games with other teams in their division. There are no inter-divisional or inter-conference games this season, meaning that teams will get quite familiar with their divisional rival’s playing styles as the year progresses.
The Panthers are in the Central Division this season, alongside teams such as the Tampa Bay Lightning, Dallas Stars, Chicago Blackhawks and Carolina Hurricanes. It’s a mixed bag of difficulty, but also means that the Panthers won’t be as fatigued by travel or adjusting to the playstyles of the other 30 teams. Familiarity builds confidence, which is something the Cats need desperately when you play in an area that barely knows what hockey is.
They also boast some excellent coaching. The man behind their bench — Joel Quenneville — is widely regarded as one of the greatest NHL coaches of all time. He led the Blackhawks to three Stanley Cup wins during his 11 years in the Windy City. He joined Florida in 2019 and brought them to fourth in the Atlantic Division, just one spot out of the playoffs.
Having a coach that actually knows how to win and has experience doing so does wonders for a franchise. Look at the great Scotty Bowman or Ken Hitchcock, for example. With a late season surge in March, the Panthers could have landed a coveted playoff berth under Quenneville’s rule, but COVID put a stop to that.
In the end, it all comes down to the players. The team has a mixed bag of guys in their prime years of peak performance and a cast of young stars with a lot to prove. Seasoned Panthers veteran Johnathan Huberdeau leads the team in points, with seven goals and 15 assists, followed not far behind by team captain Alexsander Barkov with 18 points. These guys are like the South Florida edition of the Oilers’ Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl; they always come in clutch and are likely to score at least one point per game.
A godlike trade that landed right winger Patric Hornqvist from the Penguins in exchange for cringeworthy defenseman Mike Matheson bolstered the Panthers offense with some more veteran presence with ample playoff experience.
Young guns such as Anthony Duclair, Carter Verhaeghe and Eetu Luostarienen tenaciously prowl the ice, looking to add zesty plays such as wrap-around goals or cheeky dekes to make the Panthers’ game more fun to watch.
Although defense has never been one of the Panthers’ strong suits, their top pairing of Aaron Ekblad and the polarizing Keith Yandle are somewhat sturdy. Both of them feed loads of high-powered shots to the net and sacrifice their bodies against the inevitable barrage of shots from offensive-oriented teams like the Lightning or the Stars. Lightning veteran Anton Stralman bolsters the blue line with more reliable backchecking.
Goaltending is both the team’s Achilles heel and saving grace. Starting goalie Sergei Bobrovsky was signed to a lucrative contract for seven years at $70 million, which sounds like a deal suited for one of the best goalies in the world.
Except he isn’t. Backup rookie goalie Chris Driedger has outperformed Bobrovsky in virtually every key metric this season; goals against average (2.35 to 3.18), save percentage (0.926 to 0.889) and goals allowed (19 to 26). Driedger is also paid less than a tenth of Bob’s yearly salary. Ouch.
Every sports team has their weaknesses, and the Florida Panthers are no different. Their playoff appearances are few and far between. Since joining the league in 1993, the Cats have made the playoffs just five times, with their last appearance coming in 2016, losing in the first round to the New York Islanders in six games, topped off by controversial missed penalty calls in overtime of Game Six. Since then, they’ve come tantalizingly close to the postseason multiple times, but barely miss it.
The ingredients are here and the pots and pans are all laid out, Florida. It’s time to start cooking.