Last night’s overtime loss to St. Louis leaves the Panthers tied for #1 in the standings while still having 2 games in hand on Toronto.
So far this season, the Cats have played 25 games and amassed a record of 17-4-4 for 38 points. The boys have been by far the best team in the NHL and proven that they could win in almost any fashion.
I wanted to take a moment and post a quarter-season review and give my thoughts and takeaways in what we have seen thus far.
- The Panthers are absolutely unreal at home. It is funny because when you think of the Panthers you do not think home ice advantage would come in to play. While attendance is up in comparison to other years, the Cats still do not draw the attendance teams like Boston, Toronto, Montreal, etc. bring in. Yet this season the Panthers are 14-1 with their only loss coming to the Kraken the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
Yes, the building can get loud and the fans are definitely cheering their hearts out; however, it is not like a game in other places where the fan noise drowns out just about everything.
The FLA Live Arena is usually ranked in the middle when it comes to players opinion on the facility, so it is not like it is a state-of-the-art building or highest quality of ice like you see in others.
Maybe the other teams like coming down from NY, Boston, Toronto, etc. and get throttled by the beach? Kind of like the “Vegas flu” which affected teams the first season the Golden Knights were in the NHL?
Maybe the Cats hired T-Bone from the Danbury Trashers to mess with the other team’s equipment and put rotten fish in to their HVAC units?
Whatever is happening in Sunrise is working so keep it up boys!
- The Panthers can win in any fashion. 3 times in their last 4 games, the Cats have comeback from a late deficit to tie and win the games. Even last night they tied the game late and eventually lost in overtime.
On top of that, they have been dominant in several key games including against a Stanley Cup favorite in Colorado and another emerging superpower in Minnesota.
The Panthers have even been killing it with two of their superstars, Barkov and Duclair, injured. In the 8 games Barkov was out, the Cats put together a 6-2 record. On top of that, Huby elevated his game and was last week’s NHL Player of the week netting 9 points in 3 games.
- The Cats have had drastic improvement between the pipes.
This season Sergei Bobrovsky has played in 16 games going 11-1-2 while posting a 2.41 GAA and a .920 SV%. This is up considerably from last year where he posted a 19-8-2 record in 30 starts with a 2.91 GAA and .906 SV%. While the numbers may not seem drastically different from Bob, you can see an overall improvement in his game, he is making the timely saves and he battles night in and night out to give the Cats a chance to win. Even on his statistically weaker nights, he is still making the critical saves and giving the Panthers every opportunity to get the W. This is something that only the eyeball test and not analytics can tell you.
On top of that, Spencer Knight is proving himself to be a competent backup and has shown some real brilliance in his starting opportunities. Knight has posted a 6-3-1 record with a 2.88 GAA and .908 SV%. While these numbers might not be setting the world on fire, a lot of fans need to remember the kid is 20 years old and in his first full NHL season. It is a huge jump going from college to NHL. Especially behind a team that does not play great team defense. While he might make some rookie mistakes, can you honestly tell me that you were not making mistakes in your career at the age of 20?
- The youngsters are shining for the Cats.
We will get to the year that guys like Barkov, Huberdeau, and Duclair are having; however, I wanted to take a moment to appreciate what some of these young guns have been doing.
I will start with the hero of the last two games, Maxim Mamim. This kid has put up 4 points in his last 2 games. He had two apples last night against the Blue and also netted 2 goals against the Blues at home on Saturday. The big bodied forward seems to be finding his game and is not afraid to play physical to get the results.
Anton Lundell has been another standout youngster for the Cats. Lundell has put up 11 points (5 G & 6A) in 21 games so far. He has found a real connection with Lomberg and has been used up and down the lineup. Even getting trusted with critical PK time as well.
Owen Tippett is coming in to his own and showing why he was a solid 1st round pick in 2017. Tippett might not have the same flash and finesse as some of the other guys; however, he has been a powerhouse and offensively efficient. The 22-year-old has 4 goals and 6 apples this season, but has also shown that he is not afraid to drop the mitts with some of the notorious pests, like Corey Perry. At 6’1” and 207 lbs, he may not be the heavyweight the Panthers need, but he is not afraid to mix it up and play a physical style of hockey.
Eetu Loustarinen has been a terrific player for the Cats at just 20-years-old. His 7 goals and 1 assist this season put him in the middle of the roster points-wise; however, the kid seems to be in the right places and doing the right things.
Most importantly, this young core on top of some seasoned veteran leadership, has a real chance to make a splash in the postseason this year.
- The stars continue to shine in Sunrise.
Each week I could write a piece on the individual work that Ekblad, Barkov, Duclair, and Huberdeau do; however, you all would quit reading after the 10th time pumping their tires.
Let’s kick it off with Ekblad who is off to a career year. He is sitting at 8 goals, 15 apples and +21 in just 24 games. While he does show some defensive lapses and might be a little too offensive minded, you cannot argue with the production he is putting up this season. Especially as a #1 defenseman who is logging heavy minutes against the opposition’s top lines.
Barky signed his big ticket this offseason and he is making damn sure to live up to it! He is well over a point per game with 9 goals and 8 helpers in just 15 games. Last year, winning the Selke, proved he is one of the best two-way players in the game and can be put in any situation.
Furthermore, he is no longer considered underrated or unknown as he is being put in the likes of Matthews, MacKinnon, and McDavid conversations by media personnel like Ryan Whitney.
Before his injury, Duclair was on an absolute tear. He was using his size and his speed to get around the defense and cause havoc in the offensive zone. The Duke has the same stats as Barky, 9G & 8A in 19 games; however, he is at a very favorable team deal at 3-years with a $3million AAV.
Last, but not least, another stud who has risen to the occasion this year, is Jonathan Huberdeau. Huby leads the team with 29 points, 8 goals and 21 apples; however, his most impressive play has come with the absence of Barky and Duke. Two big time goal scorers went down and Huby elevated his game play to keep the Panthers winning ways alive. On top of skating for his teammates, this is also a contract year and it will be interesting to see what he signs for after Barkov’s $10 AAV deal signed last summer.
- Not everything is rainbows and unicorns for the Cats as there have been some weaknesses exposed this season inclusive their ability to win on the road.
The Panthers’ record this season when away from the FLA Live Arena is 3-3-4 which is not terrible; however, they need to be better than a few points above .500 should they want to make a deep run for the Cup.
Fortunately, they have managed to get points in 7 of their 10 road games thus far so it is not like they are getting spanked every time they play in an opponents barn. Plus, their first real road trip inclusive NYR and NJD, came just days after the whole Coach Q debacle broke down.
- Coach Q’s immediate departure from the club definitely stung. While I think Brunette is doing a good job, it is hard to replace someone with the hockey pedigree that Coach Q brought to the table. I will not debate what happened in Chicago that surround the Kyle Beach situation; however, my only point is losing a legendary leader who the players all look up to and respect will hurt any locker room. So far Brunette is proving competent in a “baptism by fire” situation. Will he be the long-term answer or will Zito start shopping around once the coaching carousel starts up in the next few months? Only time will tell.
- The Cats are lacking someone who can step up and reign in the opponents’ goons. Physical play and accountability are still very much alive and well in this league. If you have read any of my analysis from the games after the Cats play the Caps, it always boils down to 1 key factor, toughness. While the Cats have a certain level of toughness, they do not have the one guy who can hold a player like Tom Wilson accountable.
In all of the games against the Capitals this season, I have watched Wilson run around like the Neanderthal he is and not have to answer the bell. He has taken runs at the star players like Huberdeau, the youngsters like Lundell, and even the goalies when he ran Bob. While guys may crosscheck and slash him, no one has grabbed a guy like Wilson and pumped his face in.
I know I bitch all the time about the league and game being soft; however, there is still a place for fighting and the role of a guy to hold the other team accountable. Wilson runs around on teams who do not have that guy. Look at what he did to Panarin last season. How did the Rags answer? They got Reaves!
The Panthers missing piece would be a player like Reaves, Wilson, Lucic, Fat Pat, etc. who can hold the other team accountable for their shenanigans. Once the Panthers can establish a little fear and intimidation on the ice, I think that will give plenty of extra space to the studs like Duke, Barky, and Huby!
Plus it will keep their team from getting run over or taken advantage of when Wilson’s caveman ass comes back to town.
I think the Panthers are having themselves a season and in only his second season, Zito is making the right moves to give the Cats a chance at the Cup. Let’s see how the boys hold up for the remaining 57 games we have left.
As always Panthers fans, in Zito we trust!