Following a rather tumultuous first half of the season, the return of forwards Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov have rejuvenated the Florida Panthers to five straight wins and a clear path to the playoffs.
This past offseason, co-owners Doug Cifu and Vincent Viola took steps towards success, signing top free agent defensemen Keith Yandle and Jason Demers. In these signings, Cifu and Viola showed that they are willing to spend in order to win games, something that the Panthers’ management has never done in the past.
Mediocrity emanated through the first half of the season, with the Panthers sitting squarely at tenth place in the Eastern Conference, due in part to a multitude of injuries to top flight players including the aforementioned Huberdeau and Barkov. By All-Star Weekend, Florida was seen largely as a non-threat for contenders like Washington and Pittsburgh, possibly being noted sellers on the March 1 trade deadline.
Panthers beat writer George Richards, following a December 28th loss to Toronto, said, “Florida came into the night closer to last place (three points in front of New Jersey) in the Eastern Conference than to Boston for third place (four points back) in the Atlantic. On the 28th, the Maple Leafs beat the Panthers for the third time this season, albeit by a smaller margin than the 6-1 rout in Toronto last month.”
Expectations were low – set even lower following the controversial firing of head coach Gerard Gallant in November – and all of the makings of a largely forgettable season were present.
On the morning of Feb. 3, Panthers team doctor David Westerdahl officially cleared Huberdeau and Barkov for play, setting the duo up for a return that night against Anaheim. The Panthers proceeded to win that game by a score of 2-1, one of the goals being scored by Huberdeau on a feed from Barkov.
In this single game, the two highly skilled players showed their true impact on the Panthers. Danny Janicas of TheRatTrick, regarding the game, said, “Huberdeau did not skip a beat once in last night’s game. He was all over the ice like a mad man [sic]. Whether it was beating his opponent to the puck, laying a big check, or even making plays, Huberdeau did it all last night. In his return to the lineup, Jonathan Huberdeau notched the game winning goal in what would be an important 2-1 win for the Cats.”
As Florida began to rack up wins in the following games, momentum began to build. Cifu and Viola’s team was finally seen in its fruition. A fast, skilled, overpowering hockey club that had not been seen this year up until the past three weeks, bringing concern to the remaining teams in a playoff race, as the Panthers were quickly climbing the standings.
Beginning Feb. 11, Florida embarked on a daunting five-game road trip, facing off against five playoff teams, and the always dreaded California road trip. Captain Derek MacKenzie said, “This is a season on the line road trip. We have to leave it all on the line here.”
Leaving it all on the line is just what they did, putting up seven goals on Nashville in the first game of the trip, winning by the score of 7-4, followed by a clean sweep of California, defeating San Jose, Anaheim, and Los Angeles, respectively before closing out the excursion with a win over St. Louis, in which center Vincent Trocheck scored the game winner with 4.6 seconds remaining.
The success of the five game stretch carried over to the players, as they have a newfound confidence regarding the twenty-seven games they have remaining, and find themselves in a playoff spot, sitting at third place in the Atlantic division, sitting at 66 points, four behind second place Ottawa and four behind Montreal for the division lead. Hockey pundit Tim Reynolds shows the dominance shown by the Panthers, quoting the statistic, “The Panthers played 18,000 seconds of hockey on this road trip and trailed for 93 of them.”
This return to form can almost solely be accredited to Barkov and Huberdeau’s strong play out of the gates from their return, with Huberdeau amassing eleven points in the eight games that he has been back.
Moreover, stellar play from backup goaltender James Reimer has carried the team, playing six of the last seven games, resting thirty-eight year old Roberto Luongo for a potential playoff run.
Florida looked incredibly sharp as a team these past several weeks and they look to continue their winning ways on Feb. 24 against Johnny Gaudreau and the Calgary Flames in South Florida.