The Florida Panthers have gotten off to a hot start.
With most games in the first month of the season coming against teams at the bottom of the top-heavy Discover Central Division, I questioned whether or not the Florida Panthers were as good as the record suggested. I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, and a week later I am more prepared than ever to double down on the idea that this team could be playoff bound.
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A 10-2-2 start to the season puts the Panthers in a tie for first place in the Central with the Chicago Blackhawks, although Florida has played four fewer games than Chicago. The Panthers also own the NHL’s highest point percentage entering Thursday (.786), a stat that they share with the Boston Bruins.
Both of those numbers are great, but they are reasons to be optimistic rather than confident. What I have seen in the last week is what makes me confident. I think we should seriously consider Florida as a threat, because the team just showed that it can compete with the Central’s elite. The Panthers went 3-1-0 this week, winning two out of three contests against the defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning and defeating the Carolina Hurricanes in overtime in the clubs’ lone meeting.
Yes, there was an ugly 6-1 loss to Tampa, but the Panthers secured victories by the scores of 5-2 and 6-4, proving to me that this team is for real. Prior to this stretch of games, I was uninspired by wins over the Chicago Blackhawks and the Columbus Blue Jackets and close contests with the struggling Nashville Predators and lowly Detroit Red Wings. With that said, beating the best makes any lingering doubt vanish.
The Florida Panthers are proving to be a formidable team.
It’s not just a few wins, though, that have me feeling good about the Panthers. The individual performances that caught my eye in the opening weeks of the campaign have yet to fade. Jonathan Huberdeau is eighth in the NHL in points with 20 (7 G, 13 A) and put on a show against the Canes on Wednesday to power Florida to a win. Captain Aleksander Barkov is also at a point per game pace with 15 points (5 G, 10 A) in 14 games. That total ranks inside the NHL’s top 25 scorers.
The offseason additions by the Panthers have also been phenomenal. I know how effective Patric Hornqvist can be, and Carter Verhaeghe is coming off of a Stanley Cup championship with the Lightning, but I never would have imagined that they could help fill the offensive void left by the departures of Evgenii Dadonov and Mike Hoffman, but they have. Hornqvist has tallied 13 points (6 G, 7 A) on the year, while Verhaeghe has notched 12 (7 G, 5 A), which is one point shy of the total from his rookie season last year (13 points in 52 games). Hornqvist and Verhaeghe are third and fourth on the team in scoring respectively.
Contributions have also come from the defense. Defensemen Aaron Ekblad and Keith Yandle are tied for fifth in points with nine each. Newcomer Radko Gudas, a player that I felt would do more harm than good for the Panthers, is proving me wrong by leading the team with a plus-7 rating from the blueline. In goal, it has been a tough start for Sergei Bobrovsky, but Chris Driedger has been solid for Florida, posting a 5-1-1 record with a 2.39 Goals Against Average and a .924 Save Percentage. He is top 20 in the league in both of those categories.
This team just keeps playing well, and in a division where I believed that the fourth Playoff spot would be up for grabs after Tampa Bay, Carolina, and the Dallas Stars claimed their places, this great start makes the Panthers an easy favorite to get in. Florida has a one point lead over the Bolts and Canes, all of which have played 14 games entering Thursday, and a significant advantage in games played over the Blackhawks and Blue Jackets. Even if the Stars, who have only played 12 games, win both games in hand, the Panthers will still own a four point lead over Dallas.
There is not much to dislike about this team. The penalty kill could improve (22nd in the NHL at 76.2%), but special teams overall are not a concern, as the Panthers have the sixth most efficient power play at 29.3%. The +5 goal differential, which is tied for tenth best, could also be improved, but at this point, Florida is winning games that I did not think they would win, and that is a good enough reason for me to be on board with this team.
The Panthers’ next two games are against Detroit, a team that they should be able to handle with some ease. After that, Florida has three games with Dallas and a pair with Carolina. I’ll be watching closely to see if the Panthers can continue to prove that this start is no fluke. For now, though, I am firmly planted on the Florida Panthers bandwagon.