The injury bug has officially hit the Florida Panthers.
Despite losing five lineup regulars to injury, have maintained the best record in the NHL through 24 games. The past three games in particular have been an absolute masterclass in effort, poise and discipline. In all three games, the panthers faced a serious uphill battle. It never rattled them. The 4-1 deficits they faced in two of those games would have broken most other teams.
Not this group, this group likes the challenge.
Three games in a row they trailed for the majority of the game, and all three still ended with two points. What could have been a brutal stretch for a team missing its best player has turned into an indictment of anyone who doubted them. The fans have even revitalized the “comeback cats” nickname because of the recent games.
This recent stretch has elevated the Panthers into a different echelon of hockey team. Changes the coaching staff has been forced to make (due to the injuries the Florida Panthers have had) have unlocked a cavalcade of new dynamic weapons. If the roster can regain its health, these new team developments will be the key to cup contention going forward.
Reinhart and Huberdeau: A Match Made in Heaven
When Aleksander Barkov went down with injury, Head Coach Andrew Brunette chose to pull out an old trick. He reunited Anthony Duclair with Johnathan Huberdeau and Sam Bennett. When Anthony Duclair went down, Coach Bruno had to think of something new. He decided to place newcomer Sam Reinhart on the top line with the Bennett-Huberdeau pairing.
Right now, that move looks to be a stroke of genius. In the past three games, Huberdeau has nine points (1G, 8A) while Reinhart has six points (3G, 3A.) They have arguably been the biggest contributors to the comeback cats over the most recent stretch. Even when the puck stays out of the net, that line controls play and does not let their opponents generate shots.
Reinhart has struggled at times this year, as has the Bennett-Huberdeau line depending on who is paired with them. This change seems to be a solution for both. When Barkov and Duclair return, the Panthers have the ability to have two of the most productive lines in hockey. If it comes to fruition, they will have an offensive advantage no matter the matchup.
Lucas Carlsson — The Missing Piece on Defense
Coming into the season, most fans and analysts agreed that the biggest hole on this Panthers team was on the blue line. Injuries placed additional strain on the defense, as regulars Markus Nutivaara and Gustav Forsling have both been out of the lineup. Several replacements have been placed in the lineup, but only one has stood out positively: Lucas Carlsson.
Carlsson, the former fourth round pick for the Chicago Blackhawks, was not considered one of the top defensive prospects in the organization. Most would have considered Matt Keirsted or Chase Priskie to be more NHL ready than Carlsson. When the opportunity arose, however, it has been Carlsson who has impressed. In his last two games, Carlsson registered four points (1G, 3A) all while driving play at a very high level.
Carlsson’s booming slap shot and willingness to join the offense has created numerous scoring chances for the cats. His instincts and nose for the puck have been matched by his smarts of the defensive end. Carlsson has played like an NHL veteran this season despite playing less than 30 NHL games. If he can maintain this level of play the rest of the season, the Panthers may have enough quality defensemen to solve their blue line woes.
Not The Depth You Expected
In October, the names most commonly mentioned when discussing the forward depth of the Florida Panthers were guys like Frank Vatrano, Owen Tippett, and Patric Hornqvist. Those guys have all had their moments, but I would argue they have not been the game changers in the bottom six the way others have. Namely, two of the biggest catalysts behind the comeback cats of late have been Ryan Lomberg and Eetu Loustarinen. Together, the pair have been textbook at turning defense into offense.
The game against the Washington capitals on Tuesday perfectly exemplifies what they bring. Down 4-1, Ryan Lomberg buried a rebound and Eetu Loustarinen scored on a shorthanded breakaway to bring the cats within one. The Panthers ended up winning that game, and they can thank the two of them for igniting the comeback.
Lomberg and Loustarinen play their roles perfectly, and it allows the Panthers to always generate scoring opportunities even when their best players are on the bench. Having a fourth line that can generate consistent offense from unsung heroes will give opposing teams fits for the rest of the year.
The Panthers begin a three game west coast trip on Tuesday with a rematch against the Blues. hopefully they will have some players returning from injury by then. If not, be prepared for the comeback cats to pull off another one.
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