(photo: Dinur Blum)
The team that the Florida Panthers has been icing this season shows an increased confidence and cohesion when on the ice. In the 21 games they have played so far, they are 9-6-6 and are just one position outside of a wildcard spot in the playoffs. However, they have games in hand on every team ahead of them.
Watching them play, there is an improved precision to their passing that allows them to move the puck up the ice and get into the offensive zone more frequently than in the past. This precision also speaks to the limited number of goals that they generally allow, keeping them usually in range of a win and forcing many of their games to go to overtime or a shootout. Eight of their 21 games have done so and they have won two and forced their opponent to give them a point in the other six.
For a team that spent the last two years in 15th position in the Eastern Conference, they currently sit in ninth in the Conference and sixth in their Division. Unlike their Atlantic Division rival Buffalo Sabres, who also spent a lot of money in the offseason, the Panthers signed some valuable players both in their skills on the ice, but also valuable for their intangibles in the locker room.
Hockey teams work best when they are a family, when they have a connection to each other. And watching this season’s team it is clear that this summer’s acquisitions are paying off, especially when you see the lines where some of these veterans have been paired with the younger players.
In many games, Willie Mitchell, a two-time Stanley Cup winner, is often paired on the backend with the Panthers’ first round (first overall) pick from the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, Aaron Ekblad. The 18-year-old’s maturity on the ice belies his youth and rookie status in most games. However, he likely keeps his ears and eyes open taking in everything he can from his veteran blue line partner so that he continues to improve.
Though many believed that the 15-game suspension of Shawn Thornton after what he did to Brooks Orpik, then of the Pittsburgh Penguins, in December of 2013 signaled the end to his career, especially as more individuals push to have fighting removed from the game, his two-year contract with the Florida Panthers is more about his experience in general. This is shown in the lack of times that Thornton has had to drop the gloves this season—only twice in the 19 games he has played. Like Mitchell, Thornton has won the Stanley Cup twice.
The return of Roberto Luongo, who arrived during the 2013-14 trade period, and as such was there toward the tail end of the previous season when the Panthers finished in 15th place in the Eastern Conference, was clearly the first step in what has shown to be a rebuild that is working.
They are not the same Panthers team to play the last few seasons and it will be interesting to continue watching them as the season moves forward.