With the young season only 12 games old, the Florida Panthers have come out of the gate in the same fashion that they’ve started most of their games……flat. With one game remaining on their current six game homestand, the Panthers currently sit 7th out of 8 teams in the Atlantic Division, and 13th overall in the Eastern Conference. Their record of 3-7-2, which to me reads 3-9, is a record that could easily be anywhere from 7-4-1 to 5-5-2. Though many didn’t pick the Panthers to be in the post season at year end, the slow start raises many questions as the team looks for answers to their losing record and inconsistent play.
As one tries to find out why the team is so inconsistent, the situation becomes more puzzling since the Panthers are doing so with a healthy roster. Sans Ed Jovanovski who is still not ready to comeback from injury, and the recent groin injury to goaltender Tim Thomas, the Panthers are a very healthy bunch. They were told to show up to training camp in shape, as opposed to out of it, which many were in last year’s lockout shortened season. Last season’s team was battered with injuries from start to finish, and as many as eight (or was it nine) different players made their NHL debut so that the team could play with a full roster. On many nights it was blatantly obvious as to why the team was struggling much as it did.
This year the only thing that’s been constant is the teams’ ability to be perfectly inconsistent.
The poor starts, which have occurred in 3 of 5 games on this home stand are the main reason that Florida owns the record they have. Playing a full 60 minutes has been a problem for this team that dates back to the days of Jacques Martin, then to Peter DeBoer, and now unfortunately to Kevin Dineen. The difference is that with the prior two coaches the games ended poorly, rather than started poorly. Then the Panthers were giving up goals late, now they’re giving up goals early. As I said earlier, the first two weeks aren’t a real gauge for the performance of a team. Four weeks in, we now are seeing things becoming habit forming, and playing from behind every night is a sure fire way to miss the post season.
It’s not just the poor starts that are concerning, because once they get their “legs”, they do play a relatively competitive game. But when you’re only recording 2.166 goals per game, and missing the net more times than not, those poor starts will come back to haunt you. Buffalo’s Jhonas Enroth made 44 saves Friday night but 17 additional shots were blocked, and 17 more weren’t even close. Add to that there have been many point blank chances that haven’t been converted, and many opportunities that were foiled because of a pass first mentality. There’s also the cuteness factor that creeps in at the most inopportune time. Fancy plays and backdoor passes have caused more than a handful of odd man rushes against.
Scottie Upshall and Tomas Kopecky are still looking for their first marker, and Shawn Matthias finally found the back of the net for the first time of the season Sunday.
The team defence seems to be very porous most of the time, and is giving up an average of 3.5 goals per game, while offensively they are only scoring 2.166 per game. In two of their 12 games the Panthers gave up seven goals, and during Friday night’s loss to Buffalo, a team they clearly outplayed, they surrendered a 1-0 lead in the 1st period and lost 3-1, while taking 45 shots. Another issue with the defence is that they have only scored twice. Matt Gilroy and Dmitry Kulikov have one goal a piece, while Brian Campbell, Tom Gilbert, Erik Gudbranson and Mike Weaver (who isn’t expected to score) are all scoreless.
The team seems to be lacking an identity. Most nights it’s a dump and chase game, but if you aren’t winning the battles to the puck, it’s more like dump and go for a line change. Coach Kevin Dineen has been doing his best to find the right formula for his lines. It’s been a difficult task as he looks for the right mix. 12 games in, one would have thought that there would be at least one trio that had some chemistry. In fact, Fleischmann, Barkov, and Boyes were the 4th highest scoring line in hockey up until Brad Boyes was sent to the 3rd/4th line for a few games. Even though Brad Boyes has emerged as the top goal scorer with five, his defensive lapses (we knew this would happen) almost landed him in the press box Sunday. Boyes was spared that embarrassment as Tomas Fleischmann sat out with the flu, and Boyes scored his team leading 5th goal, and the lone shootout goal in the loss to Tampa.
Both special teams units are in the bottom third of the league with the power play sitting 29th and the penalty kill at 21st. The lack of net presence on the power play has been a long time problem for this team that just won’t go away. No one has been able to take the place of Gary Roberts, (and that was five years ago) and stand in front of the net and act as a screen to the goaltender, or be available for a deflection or scoop up a rebound. As for the Penalty Kill, Mike Weaver and Jesse Winchester have been bright spots on the PK, but unfortunately that’s the only positive thing you can really say.
The problems are small in nature, but when you add them all up, the Panthers are digging a hole the size of the Grand Canyon. While the team seems to play better in front of Tim Thomas, Jacob Markstrom has been inconsistent in the games he has played, and at some point he needs to steal a game… or three. To this point, and realizing that he’s played less than 100 NHL games, he hasn’t lived up to the hype. Yet is he a victim of poor defence, or do his mechanics still need refining? The fat rebounds that he gives up suggest yes to both, however when he comes out to challenge shooters, you find yourself saying, “that’s more like it”. It’s very concerning.
Finally, does the lack of motivation and or intensity at the beginning of games fall to the coaching staff or to the players? A quick start and the ability to play with a lead changes your mentality and your energy level. It can set the pace for a game, and allow a team to play to their strengths instead of having their weaknesses exposed. Veteran goaltender Tim Thomas said it perfectly a couple weeks ago before the game against Pittsburgh. “I’m tired of losing”. The team responded with a win, but it hasn’t carried forward. Losing creates frustration, bad habits, and an atmosphere that doesn’t bode well for young players. The Panthers were off Monday, spent Tuesday as a “team building day”, and are back at practice today. With their next game Friday night against the St. Louis Blues, they have time to regroup and find some answers to these concerns.
It’s all well and fine to appreciate the resiliency and late comebacks, but the points you lose now are too hard to make up later. In order for the Panthers to get themselves back on track, they’ll need to “get back to basics”. A cliche that is just one of about 50 that we’re all growing weary of hearing.
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