From The Top: I’d Like To Make A Point.

(Image property of Frank Rekas)

I was thinking that eating popcorn during Friday night’s win against Buffalo could be the catalyst, or good luck charm needed to help the Florida Panthers win against Tampa Saturday night.  Apparently no.

It was the 5th game of an 8 game homestand, and the third of the young season against cross state rival Tampa Bay.  It was also the 5th game in 8 nights.  The Tampa Bay Lightning came in with a 18-7-1 record, good enough for 37 points, and tied for the Eastern Conference lead.  They’re also tied with Buffalo for the top spot in the Atlantic Division.  The Florida Panthers meanwhile are fighting for a playoff spot of any kind, and were 2-1-1 on the homestand before things began Saturday.

After a very pedestrian start for the initial 10 minutes which saw each team being somewhat cautious, all of a sudden the Florida Panthers struck twice within 21 seconds, on goals by Frank Vatrano and Aleksander Barkov.  However shortly after the Barkov goal, the Lightning answered back with one of their own from Alex Killorn, and the game took another angle. The contest just seemed to open up at that point with each teams’ speed and offence showing off their skills. Despite being outshot in the opening period 13-3, the Panthers were able convert two very opportunistic chances.  One other nice thing to see early on in the game, as well as Friday night was the physicality of defenceman Alexander Petrovic who seemed to be hitting everything within reach.  The Panthers need to add some physicality to their game, which has been sorely missing, especially on the blue line for some time now (couple years I think), and when Petrovic plays this way, he’s extremely effective.

Early in the second period, Jonathan Huberdeau had a clear cut breakaway, and by clear cut, I mean he was all by himself, and he made no mistake with his chance.  With a couple nifty moves, Huberdeau put the puck past a sprawling Louis Domingue, making it 3-1 Florida.  It was Johnny’s 6th goal of the season, and his 9th all time against Tampa.  A team that he loves playing against as this was his 25th point in 26 games.  Evgenii Dadonov would pick up his 12th goal of the season on the power play giving Florida a 4-1 lead.  With a 3 goal lead in your building, in the second period you have to be able to continue the pressure, keep the momentum on your side, and take advantage of a goaltender who’s numbers aren’t that impressive, except for his wins and losses.

But Tampa, a very skilled team up and down their lineup had other ideas. The Lightning wouldn’t just sit back and kept pushing hard.  It wasn’t that the Panthers were playing “hold the lead”, as much as Tampa was forcing the play.  You can’t let up against a team like Tampa, as they began pushing the pace, spending a lot of time in the offensive zone.  The Panthers became victim of their own sloppy play, nervousness maybe, and had difficulty containing Tampa’s skilled players.  Before the second period ended the lead was cut to 4-3, and you could feel the change in flow going to the visitors.  Goals by Mathieu Joseph and Nikita Kucherov, both wicked wrist shots, brought Tampa within two.  The equalizer was scored by Cedric Paquette in the third period and you just saw it coming.  The fans were treated to extra hockey, although those rooting for the Panthers wouldn’t call what ultimately happened a treat.

After a very questionable penalty call on Frank Vatrano in the extra period, Tampa’s Brayden Point scored the game winner on James Reimer who went post to post to try and follow the puck.  When he does this, he goes down to the ice with his body, leaving lots of net available to a shooter.  Any sniper sees all that room, and boom.  The pucks going in.  The Lightning exposed this part of Reimer’s game at least twice.  Other teams have as well, so it’s something that the Panther netminder needs to work on.  Here’s a replay of the goal to see what I mean:

Some can say after this loss that if you knew ahead of time that the Panthers would grab 3 of 4 points against the top two teams in the conference on back to back nights you’d be happy.  And maybe that’s true.  HOWEVER!  It’s not enough.  Especially when you’re leading by 3 goals in your building.  A similar situation occurred last Saturday night against the Blackhawks.  Leading 4-2 going into the final period, the Panthers ended up losing that one in overtime 5-4.  These are two points that may be needed down the road that the Panthers had in their pocket.  Yet for some reason, they weren’t able to grab.  I for one will not blame the interference call on Vatrano for last night’s outcome.  The realization is that it never should have got to that point.  (there’s that word again).

Here’s coach Bob Boughner after last night’s game:

Now for some analysis on a particular area of their game that I’ve been seeing all too often. I feel necessary to bring up this point. Let me preface this by saying I am not a hockey coach.  I’m not at all adept to the exactness of certain things when it comes to this part of the game, yet there are several other people who’ve mentioned this to me, therefore proving that I’m not alone in seeing what I’m seeing. It has to do with the Panthers ability to exit their defensive zone. It appears to be a lot of chipping the puck out, using the glass to clear the puck out, and there isn’t a lot of organization to it.  Most of the time, the forwards are on the wall, and by the time the puck is sent to them, they are covered by a pressuring forward from the opposition.  They make quick decisions to try and clear the puck out, rather than make a solid pass to a forward who can then get the puck up ice. This style doesn’t allow for any extended offensive possession time, and can result in keeping them contained in their zone for longer than they should since they aren’t giving themselves a chance to use a more controlled breakout.  With a strong forechecking team, this gets exposed even more.  Again, I’m certainly no hockey coach, but if this is a taught scheme, then it needs to be rethought a little bit.  Granted there are times when you need to play this way, but it seems to be more of the norm than the odd situation.  Something isn’t right with this type of breakout.  Ask me about defensive coverage in baseball, and bunt defence, and I’ll help you.  Here?  I’m admittedly in the dark.  Well not totally, but you get the point.

By playing this type of scheme it also can force a team to play dump and chase offensively.  Which at certain times in a game is needed.  I get that.  But too much isn’t good.  And if you’re going to dump, then you better go chase.

All this aside, the point is that the Panthers were coming off a very emotional win the night before and should have used that game as a spark for Saturday.  Initially it appeared that they did, but against a talented team like Tampa you can’t let up, can’t look over your shoulder, and have to keep the foot on the gas.  25 games in with only 25 points means there’s a lot of hard work to do.  We know it, they know it.  You get the point.

Thanks for reading.

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