Some may find my writing or commentary here and on Twitter insensitive, negative or arrogant. While that’s not who I am, I do take solace in being fair and truthful as I see and perceive things. If you’re looking for an apologist or a “homer” that’s not me. If you want fair opinion, then you’re in the right place. This article is in response to many of the discussions that were had after Saturday’s loss to Tampa.
The Florida Panthers will complete their four game homestand tonight against the much improved Toronto Maple Leafs hoping to get at least one win out of the four games played here in Sunrise. A rather disappointing week finds the Panthers with an 0-0-3 record on home ice in which they’ve squandered a two goal lead late in the game, not once, but twice. Only to see both games lost shortly into overtime. Those games saw the Panthers erupt for five goals in each tilt, but sandwiched between them was a 1-0 overtime shutout by Carey Price and the Montreal Canadiens. It seems as though the Florida Panthers score five goals, or no goals on their way to a consistently inconsistent season.
After this weeks overtime losses to division foes Washington and Tampa Bay, many of the same mistakes that Panther fans have been accustomed to over the years began to raise their ugly heads again causing many probing questions, as well as some harsh remarks from the fan base. Many are calling for the Panthers to get Jacob Markstrom here as fast as possible with confidence in Jose Theodore fading, and trust in Scott Clemmensen almost non existent. The losing is certainly frustrating, and the fragility and lack of confidence in the team is clearly present. Especially late in games.
While many are quick to judge and ready to pull the plug on the current goaltending tandem, to be fair, one must take a long hard look at what else is happening on the ice before making such a statement. While this isn’t an apology for either Theodore, or Clemmensen, who both must be sharper and more consistent, there are a glut of other issues that contribute to this seasons erratic and frustrating play. It was after a home game earlier in the year when Captain Ed Jovanovski commented in the dressing room that play in all three zones has to be better. It was an issue more than 2 weeks ago, and it’s still an issue now. Which brings us to the point of this article.
My eyes were trained at an early age to watch the game a certain way, and that has given me a perspective that someone else may not consider. Having sat mostly in the second balcony in the old Chicago Stadium for virtually every game that I went to, the vantage point that I had is considerably different in my opinion than someone who sits at ice level, or as we now say “the lower bowl”. You actually see more of the ice, and more of what’s about to happen almost before it actually does. While television can give you a wider view, it still doesn’t capture everything that’s going on, which can truly affect the result on the ice.
That being said, when we talk about the problems that the Panthers are having, there are many, some of which you’re unable to detect unless you’re sitting upstairs. Whether it’s in the press box, or in the 400′s of the arena, that vantage point is clearly different than downstairs, or on the TV. When Ed Jovanovski said he’s concerned about play in all three zones, I can clearly see what he’s talking about.
First from an offensive standpoint there is way too much chipping of the puck out of the defensive zone, which gives the puck back to the opposition most of the time. Rather than slow the game down, regroup and look for an open man, we see quite often the defencemen, or forward along the boards panicking, or just reacting too quickly, thereby turning the puck over and creating a scoring opportunity. Or clearing the zone just to get a breather, and maybe a line change. At this point we have effectively given the puck to the opponent and are on the defensive. Speaking of line changes, this is an area of frustration for me as I have watched countless times this season poor line changes that resulted in an offensive chance that never materialized. Case in point was on Saturday against Tampa when Stephen Weiss fed Tomas Fleischmann who proceeded to carry the puck into the Lightning zone, only to find himself surrounded by white sweaters as Weiss lazily went off for a line change, with the rest of the team. Fleischmann was stuck along the boards with no one to pass to, allowing Tampa to eventually gain possession of the puck and start their own offensive rush. This coupled with the number of times that the puck is dumped into the other teams end with only one player chasing, or everyone heading to the bench for a line change. Realizing that players need to get off the ice every 40 to 45 seconds or so, this is happening way too often. It appears as though we are playing “safe”.
We’ve also gotten away from what made us successful last year offensively, by being more of a puck possession team. Last season the passes were more north and south, rather than east and west, or blindly off the glass or boards. We held onto the puck more last season, created scoring chances by doing so, and occasionally were able to do some cycling down low. This season it’s almost non existent. From an offensive standpoint if we are going to dump and chase, a style that has it’s merits on occasion, then we need to chase, as opposed to going off for fresh legs. There’s also very little traffic in the slot, except for when the Kid Line is on the ice, as Drew Shore, Jonathan Huberdeau and Peter Mueller have learned to create their opportunities. Shawn Matthias has also begun to excel in this area, as does Tomas Kopecky, yet as a group it’s not happening enough. On the power play I have seen three players at the top (near the blueline), rather than three players down low (near the net). I have been screaming for someone to stand near the blue paint since Gary Roberts left in 2007, yet no one hears me. We need more net presence (Eddie Olczyk would like that), and we need to be more aggressive in taking the puck to the net.
Defensively, and this will cover a great deal of the issues that we have, it all starts first with goaltending. Our goalies are paid to stop pucks and they need to do a better job of it. Our goals against stands at 3.62 per game, compared to last season’s 2.63 per game. The inconsistency of both our netminders is frustrating at times, and we all keep waiting for one of them to “steal” a game. Yet, one must realize that the five other skaters on the ice are shirking their responsibilities which just magnifies the problem. Neither goalie has looked as confident or as comfortable as they did last season, and that’s certainly a bad sign. One of the positive attributes from last year about Jose Theodore was his inability to be rattled at any one point. I am unfortunately seeing some frustration now as a result of other teams success against him. The same can also be said for Scott Clemmensen, as both goalies are not making the saves this year that they were making last year. But, it’s not all their fault as too many times they’ve been left hung out to dry, and herein lies the real issue.
The forwards must do a better job of backchecking and help out the defencemen. If there’s a stat on odd man rushes against, I’d like to see it since I think we would be leading the league in that department. It’s one thing for a defenceman to be caught out of position and rely on his partner to bail him out. However this is happening game after game after game. From above, I can see this developing with regularity. When you couple the lack of backchecking with a turnover by a defenceman, the scoring chances we give up are the result of those two items. Case in point was the Washington game in overtime. Dmitry Kulikov tries to make a pass in the Washington zone just inside the blueline. It was intercepted and an odd man rush developed with a forward of the Panthers lagging behind as the Caps scored the game winner. Unfortunately that game was one of Kulikov’s best this season, but in the “what have you done lately for me” department, that was all forgotten.
The defencemen often look slow, out of position and intimidated. Mike Weaver looks frustrated, and at times Filip Kuba looks to be two steps behind everything. The lack of physicality is mindboggling as well, but this is widespread throughout the team. Only recently with the return of Erik Gudbranson have we shown some snarl, but all too often we appear to be very easy to play against. We aren’t looking to be the Broad Street Bullies, but we are looking to finish checks which ultimately slow the opposition down. An even bigger issue is that too often players are left alone in the slot with enough time to have a carved ham sandwich just prior to blasting a one timer for a goal. Just like the Benoit Pouliot game winner on Saturday. We need to clear the crease, move players from in front, and remember to not leave players like Steven Stamkos alone in their usual office space. Remembering who is on the ice against you is a very important part of this game.
The middle of the ice, or neutral zone seems to be another area we struggle with, as defensively we’re often backing up and allowing teams to cross center ice with very little resistance. While I’m not in favor of “trapping”, we need to do a better job of clogging that area up. We have to be reacting faster when the puck changes hands, and we need to be skating harder back to fulfill our defensive responsibilities. This is a team sport, and when we give the appearance that we’re playing like a group if individuals, we get in trouble.
All of these issues are resulting in a breakdown, or a collapse when we can least afford it. The Panthers have truly broken away from the things that made them successful last season, and they need to clean this up quickly or run the risk of being a one hit wonder. Fortunately they sit five points off the division lead, which is two wins and an overtime or shootout loss. However you can’t look at it that way, as this homestand has seen them pick up at least one point in every game, yet we’re also giving points to division opponents. Kevin Dineen put things in perspective in his post game presser Saturday:
“We’re not finishing. Not finishing the game, not finishing scoring.”
“You’re not going to get in the playoffs with 48 points. If you get one point a game, it’s just not going to work. We have to find a way to get a more complete effort.”
The point I’ve tried to make here is that for as much as people want to blame just the goaltending, that’s only part of the problem. You really need to see the entire picture of what’s happening before passing judgement on just one player. The performance in the three zones, the now apparent lack of confidence, and fragility of the players have all come into play during the last three home games. This team is better than they have shown recently, but they need all cylinders firing together to be victorious and right now that isn’t happening.
The season is 14 games old, and Florida has only 12 out of a possible 28 points. Things need to get cleaned up and fast, and we haven’t even begun to discuss the effect of injuries.
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