Following Florida’s 7-6 comeback win over Toronto on April 5, most fans felt nothing but elation. For the Panthers themselves, that game marked a need for change. The Florida Panthers defense had been struggling mightily in the first eight games Aaron Ekblad missed due to injury, and that game marked the tipping point for the team’s coaching staff.
After the game against Toronto, head coach Andrew Brunette mentioned the need for stronger defensive showings. He knows the importance of a formidable defense in the playoffs. With the regular season winding down, the team needed to begin to shut down their opponents. Even with Ekblad presumably returning for the playoffs, the team needed defensive answers with the current group.
In the four games since that shift, the team has allowed only seven goals. Excluding the first period against Buffalo, the team surrendered only four goals in the past 11 periods of hockey. That impressive turnaround can be attributed to several factors which have re-energized the Florida Panthers defense.
New Florida Panthers Defensive Pairings
One change Bruno implemented with the Florida Panthers defense was to change up the pairings. For these combinations, Bruno decided to pair strength with strength. He paired offensive defensemen Gustav Forsling and Brandon Montour together, as well as physical defensemen Robert Hagg and Radko Gudas.
These changes create some interesting wrinkles for opponents. The high-powered offensive duo have used their collective speed to grab the puck and push it out of their own zone. In the past four games the pair each have four points (Forsling 3g 1a, Montour 0g 4a.)
Conversely, Hagg and Gudas use their physical nature to shut down opposing chances. Because neither are offensively gifted, the team opts for a separation of responsibilities when they come on the ice. Indeed, the duo disrupts all opposing chances and the forwards do the heavy lifting on offense. So far, it has worked to perfection. In the 27 minutes of the Hagg-Gudas pairing thus far, the tandem boasts a remarkable 72.4 expected goals percentage.
Improved Goalie Play
Of course, none of this would be possible without the goalies. Both Sergei Bobrovsky and Spencer Knight have given amazing performances this past week. Bob was 3-0-0 with a 0.931 save percentage while Knight stopped 24 of 25 shots and won his lone appearance.
Specifically, this last start for Bobrovsky stands out. Against Winnipeg, Bobrovsky stopped 30 of 31 shots. He finished with a goals saved above expected of 1.43. After a horrible couple of starts against New Jersey and Toronto, these games have meaning. They help build confidence and rhythm going into the playoffs. Bobrovsky will likely be the team’s starting goalie come playoffs, and his play can make or break the cup run.
However, if Bobrovsky’s inconsistency proves to be Florida’s weakness in the playoffs, the team should feel encouraged about Spencer Knight’s progress. Knight played one of the best games in his career against Nashville last week. He finished with 1.45 goals saved above expected, which brought his total number for the year into the positive.
After a terrible start to the year, Knight has given the team very consistent play in net. While he likely won’t be the starter, he will end up in net at some point come the playoffs.
New Additions Getting Comfortable
When looking back at the terrible two-week defensive stretch, it is clear that working in some new additions played a part in it. Earlier this year, Sam Reinhart discussed the difficulties of getting acclimated to Florida’s unique system. After 15 games, he became one of the teams best players. His slow start was quickly forgotten by fans and media alike.
The same should have been expected of the deadline acquisitions, namely Ben Chairot and Roberg Hagg. We talked earlier about Hagg finding his fit with Gudas, and the same could be said for Chairot. Now spending his time with Weegar, the two increased their expected goals percentage together from 55% to 62%. Chairot also has two assists over his last four games.
With the chemistry this Florida Panthers defense gained in the past week, the team may have solved its biggest problem. If the team regains its strong defensive play AND adds Aaron Ekblad going into the playoffs, they instantly become the team to beat. Indeed, the ceiling is high, but the team needs to make tweaks in these last few games more than most in their position.
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