Panthers finish 2015 on a high note, sit atop the Atlantic Division

Image courtesy of @turbuL3NT2 / COTP Photography
Image courtesy of @turbuL3NT2 / COTP Photography

The beginning of the season was somewhat of a roller coaster ride for the Panthers, but ever since they returned from the Thanksgiving break at the end of November, that roller coaster has gone nowhere but up.

Before the Panthers’ impressive run of 13 wins in 16 games began, the Panthers had won just 3 games out of the past 12 and they allowed 3 or more goals in regulation in 7 of the 9 losses. However, something changed on November 27th when the Panthers played the Islanders in their first game following the 3-day break for Thanksgiving. They held a record of 8-9-4, sat 6th in the Atlantic Division, and 16 points out of 1st place which was held by the Montreal Canadiens, so a win was crucial to get back to .500 before a long road-trip.

The Panthers led the Islanders 2-0 following two solid periods of hockey, but Ryan Strome and Josh Bailey scored two quick goals to tie the game, forcing overtime. After a scoreless overtime session, yet another record-setting shootout was in the cards for the Panthers as the first 9 shooters scored with no end in sight. Aleksander Barkov scored that 9th goal, setting up the one and only save of the shootout by Roberto Luongo giving the Panthers their first win of the season beyond overtime. The 9 straight goals were the first to start a shootout since the format was added to the game in 2005.

The win would also be the first of 4 consecutive shootout wins over the next month with Aleksander Barkov scoring the deciding goal in all of them. The most impressive of the 4 came on December 20th against the Canucks when he faced former Panther Jacob Markstrom after Ryan Miller was injured while attempting to stop Brandon Pirri’s shootout try.

Speaking of Barkov, he’s been downright impressive during the Panthers’ 16-game span, especially as of late. He has 13 points, including two 2-goal games and two 3-point games to go along with the 4 consecutive shootout-deciding goals. One of the standout moments for Barkov came in overtime on December 20th when he skated half the length of the rink to steal the puck from Jannik Hansen who was on a breakaway.

He also recorded a 2-goal game on December 27th against Columbus and again in the next game against the Canadiens, and his 11 goals is tied for the team lead despite playing in 10 less games than most of the team. Barkov has 5 goals and 5 assists over the past 7 games, and the top line of himself, Huberdeau, and Jagr appears to have rekindled the magic they had when the Panthers first acquired the 43-year-old last season. Especially over the past few games, they’ve been controlling possession in the offensive zone and creating tons of chances. Huberdeau has 3 two-assist efforts in his past 4 games, is tied for 8th in the league with both 12 primary assists and 21 total assists.

The lone blip in the Panthers’ December run came around the time when their 5-game winning streak came to a disheartening end at the hands of the New Jersey Devils. Florida got off to a slow start in the 1st period, but thoroughly dominated the Devils in the 2nd and 3rd period, however there was no puck luck to be had.

“We just need to start games on time,” said Erik Gudbranson of the Panthers’ slow start against New Jersey. “We didn’t do ourselves any favors by coming out that flat and not giving ourselves an opportunity.”

“Now we’ve got 8 games before the Christmas break, let’s keep playing well, playing hard, and picking up more points,” said Gallant.

The Panthers then headed home where they held the lead over the Ottawa Senators, but faltered on special teams the entire night and allowed 3 straight goals for a disappointing divisional loss. After a dominating win against the Eastern Conference-leading Washington Capitals in their next game, the Panthers had a difficult time generating quality scoring chances against an always tough Boston Bruins team.

Things changed again for the Panthers after the ownership group of Doug Cifu and Vincent Viola treated the entire team to an Italian dinner at Bamonte’s in Brooklyn on December 14th.

It seemed to be well-received by the entire team, because they went on to beat the Islanders 5-1 the next night and they then avenged their earlier loss to Devils with another 5-1 win. Vincent Trocheck and Jussi Jokinen both had consecutive 2-point nights thanks to those two dominating wins by the Panthers, while Reilly Smith had 5 goals in 6 games from December 8th to December 18th including a 4-game goal streak that was snapped on December 20th.

After being called up as a result of an injury to Derek MacKenzie earlier in the month, Corban Knight scored his first goal as a Panther on December 22nd, and he’s been impressive in the faceoff circle as shown by his 55.9% win rate. Since the Panthers’ 16 game run began on November 27th, they have the 6th best penalty kill percentage in the league at 85.1%, and since the 7-game winning streak began on December 15th, they have the 4th best shot attempts percentage in the league (53.59%).

Equally as impressive is the Panthers’ 5-on-5 save percentage (.953) which is the best in the league since December 15th. What these numbers essentially mean is that the Panthers are directing more shots towards the net which is resulting in more scoring chances and they’re playing solid defensively at even strength. The Panthers were not the best possession team early in the season, and it’s no coincidence that they’ve started winning as their possession stats have improved.

The Panthers’ 22 points (11-3-0) record in December not only lead the entire NHL, but is also sets a franchise record for the most points in any month. Backup goaltender Al Montoya was perfect in his 3 starts this month going 3-0-0 with a goals-against-average of 0.98 and a save percentage of .950. The Washington Capitals, who lead the Eastern Conference with 58 points, lost just one time in regulation this month and it came at the hands of the Panthers on December 10th by a score of 4-1.

Oh yeah, and the Panthers did all of this without Nick Bjugstad, the guy who has arguably one of the best shots on the team and led the way in scoring last season with 24 goals. He could return as soon as this weekend after missing all of December with migraines.

“It’s no fluke that we’re doing really well,” said Aaron Ekblad. “It’s not like we’ve been doing well for a week, we’ve been on a couple 5-, 6-game win streaks. We’re really learning to carry that momentum and play good, defensive hockey that leads to great offensive chances.”

On the fan side of things, attendance of home games has been way up at the BB&T Center. The Panthers had their second sell-out crowd of the year on Tuesday against the Canadiens, and it came on the heels of a crowd of 16,902 on Sunday night against the Blue Jackets. We could see another sell-out on Saturday when the Panthers face the Rangers on Saturday.

“It’s a lot of fun playing in a facility like that,” said Gerard Gallant. “Our guys fed off of it, and the whole game [there] was lots of noise in the building, and it’s really fun.”

Connor Brickley and Jonathan Huberdeau sharing a hug and a laugh during morning skate on 12/29.
Connor Brickley and Jonathan Huberdeau sharing a hug and a laugh during morning skate on 12/29.

The other good part of it is that the Panthers are having fun during their run of success, and that’s important. They’re smiling and laughing during morning skates and pre-game warmups, and you can tell they’re amped up and can’t wait to get on the ice rather than just going through the motions. They’ve even started giving out a blue hoodie featuring actor Kevin Spacey’s head on a space background to the hero of the game. Apparently there’s some sort of story behind it, but none of the players are telling.

The Panthers’ locker room victory song is “Trap Queen” by Fetty Wap, but again, the players are revealing the story behind that one. Team chemistry is just as critical off the ice as it is once they lace up their skates for a game, and things like this speak volumes about how confident and poised the Panthers truly are. It makes fans even more excited and proud to support the team when each player is clearly having a blast.

We’ll leave you with this: The Panthers have allowed 1 goal or less in 10 of their last 13 win and are 14-0-1 when scoring 3 goals or more in regulation. If they can continue their solid defensive play, there should be no reason why they can’t play over .500 the rest of the way at the very least. It’s all about making the teams around you in the standings pay, and the Panthers have done exactly that by winning when teams like the Canadiens and Rangers have faltered of late.

Of course, there’s still over half a season left to be played, so we can’t get too high right now. However, the Panthers are undoubtedly playing the best and most meaningful hockey they’ve played in awhile, and we have every reason to be excited about what’s to come.

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