Through roughly one-fourth of the NHL season, the Florida Panthers are 11-6-3, leading the Southeastern Division, and only 2 points behind the Pittsburgh Penguins for first place in the Eastern Conference.
No, those are not typos. The Cats are off to their best start in years behind a massive offseason overhaul, which brought in eight forwards, two defensemen, one goalie, and a coaching staff. That doesn’t even count rookie defenseman Erik Gudbranson or the early season trade with Vancouver that shipped David Booth and Steve Reinprecht to the Canucks for Mikael Samuelsson and Marco Sturm. You get the picture. Florida literally overhauled their entire team. How is it working, especially this early in the process?
The Panthers have been a team, historically, that has made the Tampa Bay Lightning and the rest of the Southeastern Division pull their hair out. The standings will say this is a team that hasn’t sniffed the playoffs since the lockout, but for a ninth place finish in 2008-09. But it has also taken points in 100 of 168 games against Southeastern Division opponents in the same time period.
Florida is now playing the same game with the rest of the NHL. From the outside looking in, the Panthers should be struggling to learn everyone’s name in the locker room, let alone finding their identity as a team. But new head coach Kevin Dineen has done a stellar job of quickly turning them into a blue-collar, cohesive unit.
“The nature of our makeup is that we don’t have that quality to our lineup, but a lot of guys will have to play physical,” Coach Dineen says. “Everyone in our lineup is important and has to play quality minutes and be an important piece of the puzzle. We can’t afford a one-trick pony.”
Florida won’t win with star power or overwhelming skill. Instead, the Panthers outwork the opponent, limit mistakes, and agitate teams into making their own. Then, the Cats pounce and capitalize on the power play. Florida is currently seventh in the league with the man advantage, and when they aren’t scoring, they usually look dangerous.
“When you look at the games that we’ve won, we’ve had a quality power play goal in the majority of those games, so it is an important factor,” Dineen says.
Wait, this sounds oddly familiar: a team that defies the logic of little star power equals little winning percentage. Last year when the Pittsburgh Penguins lost Sydney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for the year, most thought them to be dead in the water. But the Pens kept winning and eventually only lost the division on a tiebreaker. They were able to sustain, because they turned themselves into a tough, gritty team that acted as if every single point was the most important one of the season.
In the same manner, the Panthers are playing hungry. They look tired of being the league’s supposed pushover. They look tired of being counted out. Most of all, they look tired of missing the playoffs. The rest of the league should take notice now, because the Panthers are not going away. They may not win this division, but Florida is done with the Eastern Conference cellar. They will compete night in and night out; Dineen will make sure of that.
Sources: South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Goerie.com