Second half of season looks bright for Panthers as win streak ends

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

Well, it happened. It seems the well-known saying “all good things must come to an end” is true as the Panthers’ franchise-record 12-game win streak and 6-game road win streak, which began nearly a month ago in New York, were both brought to a screeching halt on Monday night in Vancouver. Here’s why you shouldn’t let it get you down. 

The Panthers may have lost in Vancouver last night after scoring the first goal for the third straight game, but who says their streak is over? Sure, they may not be reaching the NHL record of 17 straight wins set by the Penguins in 1992, but they’re still on a remarkable run during which they’ve piled up 25 out of a possible 26 points giving them a 13-game point streak. They’ve also won 18 of the past 22 games and only trailed their opponents for 14 minutes of play during the 12-game winning streak which is really impressive.

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

It’s certainly tough to take a loss when you’ve just rattled off 12 wins in a row, but as much as we wanted the streak to go on forever, it had to end at some point. As weird as it may sound, the Panthers’ loss last night occurred in the best way possible. First, they earned one point against a Western Conference team, meaning they didn’t surrender the 2nd point to a team from the Atlantic Division (or one from the rest of the Eastern Conference, for that matter) fighting for a playoff spot. Second, they actually increased their cushion of 1st place in the Atlantic Division since they earned a point while Detroit and Boston both lost in regulation. Finally, they turned a pretty good effort after an emotional and physical game against the Oilers which had ended less than 24 hours prior.

So in summary, while the Panthers did lose, they did so without taking any damage aside from not earning the 2nd point, and that has to feel pretty good considering Panthers teams of the past may not have gotten the same outcome. Last night’s game against the Canucks was probably the first time over the past 13 games that the bounces didn’t go the Panthers’ way.

When you look at the two goals scored by the Canucks, the first one wasn’t too lucky considering Daniel Sedin was left wide open, and you could see both Barkov and Kampfer both pointing in an effort to get someone to cover him just before he received the puck. On the second goal however, the puck wouldn’t stop bouncing. The Panthers had been over 60% in the faceoff circle the entire game, but on this one, the Canucks jumped the circle and forced the puck to a player up high. Jagr deflected the puck away from its recipient, and the puck proceeded to bounce over and around the sticks of Jonathan Huberdeau and Brian Campbell who were both positioned well for the most part. Jake Virtanen’s shot barely snuck between Luongo and the left post. That was the first goal allowed by the Panthers’ top line during the winning streak which also makes the tying goal a tough pill to swallow.

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

Unfortunately, the Panthers were probably due for a goal against like that and it came at a tough time. On the positive side of things, they scored 4 goals over their past 2 games while having just one power play (none vs. Canucks). The Panthers have really gotten the short end of the stick the past couple of games and that was another contributing factor to them leaving Vancouver with only one point.

Since we’re a couple of games past the halfway mark of the season, how can the Panthers continue their winning ways in a slightly more sustainable manner? Well first, they need to find a way to get more shots towards the opposing goaltender. They’ve been outshot in each of the past 6 games and the last time they outshot the opponent was when they got one more than the Canadiens on 12/27.

The Panthers have relied on early, timely goals over the past several games, considering they’ve scored first in each of their past 3 games, and that’s tough to do on a nightly basis. We know that the Panthers are 17-0-1 when scoring 3 goals or more this season and that they’ve allowed 2 goals or less in 11 of their last 13 games, so peppering the goaltender as a means of getting to that mark is important. Also, they’ve scored first in 11 of the past 13 games, so continuing to have a good start each night will be huge for the Panthers. The defense has done a pretty good job of limiting the second opportunities of the opponent, and that’s something they’ll need to continue to do.

Image courtesy of @turbuL3NT2 / COTP Photography

The Panthers’ top forward line of Huberdeau, Barkov, and Jagr was downright impressive during the winning streak as they combined for 40 points in 13 games, and each player on that line averaged over a point per game. The second line of Jokinen, Trocheck, and Smith has been equally as impressive, and fortunately for the Panthers, they have two lines that can produce offesnively.

However, they’ll want to get some more scoring from their 3rd line as well, especially considering Nick Bjugstad is there with Brandon Pirri. Bjugstad has looked good over the past few games since returning from a month-long absence due to migraines, so his continued improvement is a good sign. However, he’s in a tough spot since Logan Shaw and Brandon Pirri are probably not the best winger options for him considering Bjugstad is primarily a shooter who needs a playmaker. We all know that Bjugstad has a lethal shot and can score, so pairing him with the right players will be an important yet tough task considering Jokinen, Trocheck, and Smith are doing so well together.

Scoring with the man-advantage will be another second-half key to success for the Panthers. While the penalty kill has been really good over the past 15 or so games, the power play has left most of us wanting more. They’ve scored just 5 power play goals since the beginning of the 12-game winning streak started on December 15th, making this a point of concern for the Panthers. While they were winning without scoring on the power play, being successful with a man-advantage is something every team needs to win games consistently. The Panthers have been losing momentum once they go on a power play, and that makes things even worse. Fortunately, with Bjugstad back in the lineup, they have another trigger man for one of the power play units, although they haven’t gotten many opportunities lately.

Another key for the second half (in addition to the future of the franchise) could end up being the hiring of two of the best analytics gurus in the business. The Panthers recently hired Josh Weissbock and an individual widely known as “Money Puck.”

Both have done extensive NHL analytics work including the evaluation of prospects as well as overall team performance and production. It was also noted in a recent Sportsnet article that head coach Gerard Gallant is learning analytics and using it to make lineup changes such as those made with regards to the defensive pairings. Throw in the Panthers’ assistant GM Eric Joyce who is very pro-analytics and you have a team that has a brand new way of looking at itself in the mirror. The thought is that some analytics decisions helped propel the Panthers onto a 12-game winning streak and into 1st place in the division, but then there’s talk of a lucky tie worn by Peter Luukko and the whole “Spacey In Space” story which we still don’t know the meaning behind.

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

When you look at the big picture, you certainly cannot be upset with the results. The math says that at the very least, the Panthers must have a .500 record the rest of the way, but that doesn’t mean they should be complacent because there’s no reason to be. The winning streak should serve as a mere building block for finishing the season strong and getting into the playoffs, something the Panthers as a franchise have done only twice since the turn of the century. We already know that each player loves playing for their coach and more importantly one another, and there’s definitely a new aura surrounding this team that should give them the confidence they need to go further.

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