The Florida Panthers are in a position for a strong second half of the NHL season.
As the calendar moves into the new year, the Panthers for once are not looking up from the bottom.
After a 4-1 loss at Columbus to open a four game trip, the Panthers bounced right back against Ottawa Thursday.
With a new system in place under Joel Quenneville, the Cats are playing exciting and fundamental hockey.
Florida has three shootout wins so far, tied for third most in the NHL.
The power play (23%) is once again a top-10 unit, while Florida is 5th in the NHL with 3.49 goals scored per game.
Those offensive numbers rank amongst the elite teams in the league, while the Panthers are finally getting some help on defense and in goal.
Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky (14-11-4, 3.29GAA, .897SV%) has steadied after a rough start and has improved every month.
Bobrovsky’s save-percentage in December is .917, well better than his .897 for the entire season.
He has been especially effective at home with a 11-5-2 record, to go with a 2.95 GAA and .913 SV%.
Balancing the Scales
In recent seasons the Panthers have relied heavily on their offense, while being bludgeoned on the blue line and in net.
Jonathan Huberdeau is the superstar you didn’t even realize was right here all along.
Huby is fifth in the NHL with 37 assists through games played Jan. 1st, while his 53 points are eighth league wide.
The league is on notice as Huberdeau was finally selected to his first NHL All-Star game.
His partner in crime Sasha Barkov is once again having an All-Star caliber season after a slow start in terms of scoring.
Along with Evgenii Davodov and Mike Hoffman, the Panthers front lines are wrecking NHL goaltenders.
Florida has won six of eight entering Friday, and in five of those wins they have scored at least five goals.
The defense is a work in progress but Aaron Ekblad is having a career year on the blue line.
Ekblad already has 18 assists in 38 games, his career high was 27 in his rookie season. If he stays at his current pace he will certainly set a new career mark.
Quenneville a Stabilizing Presence
One encouraging trend for the Panthers is their ability to get out of extended losing streaks, while being able to stack short winning runs together.
The Panthers have only lost multiple games in a row on four occasions this year, while winning at least two consecutive games seven times.
Florida’s coaching staff led by Quenneville has given the team an identity and focus that was lacking in recent years.
It will be something to keep an eye on whether Coach Q can keep the team focused during an important stretch to close out January.
A coach that has won it all on multiple occasions is an important advantage for an unproven team, one that could help them get over the playoff hump.
Rest of January Sets Up Well
The Panthers have nine games remaining starting with Buffalo January 4th in the third game of this four game road trip.
Florida closes out the trek against Pittsburgh, both the Penguins and Sabres are right in the playoff race with the Panthers.
During the middle of the month the Panthers return to Sunrise for a four game home stand which will be a tough battle.
The Panthers will need to step up against high flying Western Conference opponents Arizona (50 points) and Vancouver (48 points).
Both sit near the top of the Pacific Division, Arizona is one of the top defensive teams (108 goals allowed, 5th) while Vancouver is eighth in the NHL with 136 goals scored.
After that to close out the home stand the lowly Los Angeles Kings (38 points) make their way East. The Kings are the fourth lowest scoring teams in the NHL at just 2.6 goals per game, a welcome respite for a Panthers defense allowing the fourth most goals per game (3.35).
To end the month the Cats embark on a six-game road trip which will run into February. Florida will kick off the trip against one of the worst teams in the NHL, the Detroit Red Wings.
Detroit has just 23 points this season and a league-worst -68 goal differential. The Cats close out January with winnable games at Minnesota and Chicago. Despite both teams being at least .500, they are also both allowing more goals than they score. Minnesota is -11 while Chicago is -16, both teams are also rank near the bottom of the league in goals allowed per game.
If the Panthers can improve their uneven play on home ice, particularly against the East, the rest of January sets up favorably.