The Panthers will make their seventh trip to the post-season (second consecutive appearance) after downing the the Nashville Predators 7-4 in a wild third period comeback in Nashville.
Last night was an exercise in a variety of play. Bob struggled through 40 minutes (before being replaced by Knight), Yandle couldn’t get shots through and general sloppiness by the group at times, but the Florida youth movement with Tippett, Heponiemi, Denisenko, and Kierstad looked strong and managed to help the Cats come out on top. And don’t forget about Mr. Clutch Vatrano...
I think the major takeaway from the win (besides clinching a playoff spot) was the fact that they “figured out” Saros and loaded the Preds’ net with biscuits - even the PP was effective, going 3/5. I like how the Duke looked out there on the man advantage and thought the PP last looked like a totally different team out there. They moved the puck well and forced Nashville’s PK unit to have to move and drew them out of position. It was strange seeing that kind of play out of Florida’s PP because they’ve been so stagnant and slow to develop for a long time.
While it’s the time to celebrate clinching the playoffs, I’m not getting too carried away. The reality is that there is still plenty of work to be done and the Cats need to take these remaining handful of games to work out as many kinks as possible as they gear up for the post-season.
Thoughts/Concerns Going Forward
Scoring seven goals and guys like Barky, Huby and Bennett (who combined for 11 points last night) staying hot is encouraging. Barky has been a beast this season and has been a consistent scorer/point producer - which is expected of him - but can he continue this in the playoffs? That’s a big question mark for me because both he and Huby have a tendency to disappear in big game/important situations. Think back to last year’s first round exit...
Then there’s the question of if this team as a whole can figure out ways to manufacture goals in the post-season when play really tightens up and the defensive side of the game ramps up.
When it comes to goaltending, I’m not concerned about Bob. I thought he was Florida’s best player in last year’s first round exit and he’s been much improved this season. In a weird twist, I’m actually more concerned about Driedger. Never thought I would say that with how great he’s been for these guys, but I feel like his last couple starts (prior to the injury) were shaky. He has seemed “off” and was getting beat on things he would normally stop. Hopefully he heals up and gets his confidence/game back.
If they can continue to build off the positives of last night’s Power Play success, they will be in a good place in terms of having an added arrow in their quiver. Again, the movement was great and it forced NSH to have to move and get out of position, allowing the Cats to strike in the weakened areas. If they can stay on that side of the man advantage and not fall back to the pass-happy, stagnant version, they are in good shape.
I really like the Cats’ speed heading into the playoffs. We have seen it overwhelm opponents at times and get them on their heels. Combine that with the added toughness/physicality of guys like Gudas and Bennett, net-front/pest ability of Hornqvist and promising youth, there’s a nice blend of a lot of good things here that the Panthers haven’t had in a long time.
Despite losing Ekblad, the Cats have done a nice job stabilizing/improving the blue line through guys like Gudas, Montour, Forsling and Weegar (arguably the most important). However, they are still susceptible to the issue of allowing the opposition to get in behind them and have prime/dangerous offensive opportunities. We’ve seen this a lot throughout the season and it was on display last night a few times in Nashville. Would love to see them tighten this up.
This has been a special season for the Panthers. One in which I think they have found their identity and are continuing to mold it. But consistency is still a factor and they have struggled at times confidently winning games - as in taking the lead and holding it. Admittedly, there are times I have felt I can’t get too comfortable watching them with a lead because they often surrender it and let the opponent take over the scoreboard. With the playoffs in the crosshairs, they need to get the lead, and in the words of Jocko Willink, “lock it down.” That’s what separates the good teams from the great ones. The pretenders from the real deal.
I love the fight these Cats have and how they have come from behind many times this season, but I don’t want to rely on that come post-season. Get that lead. Battle. Hold it.
Lastly, looking forward to getting some healthy cats back on the ice in the form of Driedger, Verhaeghe, Marchment and Hornqvist.
Enjoy the clinch, but the work continues...Go Panthers!