Yesterday’s incredible Christmas time blowout of the NY lslanders—by the Florida Panthers believe it or not—was as comprehensive as it was unexpected.
Where did that one come from?
Just last Friday I, and most Panthers fans in general (come on admit it!), had this season pegged as a rebuilding season. Perhaps it would be better to just throw in the towel and admit we won’t make the playoffs this time either; for the umpteenth time?
Well, the Panthers answered us back from Newark, of all places, by beating the Devils 4-2 in what was the Cats’ best game of the season. They then went on to pry another point from the reigning champs in Pittsburgh, and subsequently finished off the Islanders with a 7-1 whipping on the Isle.
Now, any Panthers fan will tell you; the Cats spring these startling comebacks every year when they look down and out, only to tantalize the fans a bit before going on another losing streak. And when they again look down and out they spring another response, etc, ad infinitum.
And of course, in the end, the net result is always another disappointing placing outside of the playoffs.
Consistency has never been the forte of this club, apart from the consistently undulating campaigns of mediocrity and sudden short-lived burst of surging power; always inevitably leading to another season of outsiders looking in syndrome.
Actually, come to think of it—the Cats are very consistent—just not in any positive aspect.
Anyway, back to the point…
The Panthers have enjoyed success on the road this year and are thus still in the playoff hunt; against all odds and despite their worse than poor home record.
The Cats are 4-6-5, thus amassing 13 points on home ice; whilst doing considerably better away with a 9-8-2 record that sees some 20 points having been collected away from the Sunshine State.
Even if the Panthers would win the 3 games less that they’ve played on home ice versus away games—no matter how improbable that would be—they’d still not reach the level of play and points collected away from home.
So what makes these felines tick as soon as they leave South Florida?
I’d say there are a few key words that can go a long way in illuminating this mystery. They are namely: Playing to their strength, a simplified approach, no pressure, and, underestimating opponents.
Let’s look at each more closely and I’ll explain my train of thoughts on the subject:
Playing to their strength
The Florida Panthers are not a high powered offensive juggernaut—yesterday’s Islanders game aside—and don’t dominate many games in any given season. Even in that 7-1 thrashing of the NY Islanders, it is worth noting that the Cats were still outshot 31-25.
The Florida Panthers is a counter attacking team. Again, if we take the Islanders game as example, a majority of the goals came from breakaways—plays that originate from breaking up the opposing teams offensive play—defense to forwards.
The Cats also deploy a dump and chase tactic that will see the Panthers spend most of their time in the offensive zone trying to dig out pucks from the corners. Using their mobile forwards and pinching defenders—the idea is then to set someone up in the shooting zone for a one-timer at goal.
Aggressive forecheck and responsible backchecks are embedded in the players’ mind and stifle to a certain extent any more flamboyant tendencies from the forwards; molding them in to a collective and creating a form of ‘chasing pack mentality’ that is based on speed and responsible defensive play—first and foremost.
The idea is to limit opponent’s shots to the perimeters. Opponents may get many shots off at goal—but they’ll lack precision as well. Put the body on the line to block shots and then hit back on the counter.
Again; speed and mobility is key.
This tactic currently employed by the Panthers is more successful on the road than it is on home ice. Reason is that when playing at home the Cats must also attempt to entertain the crowd and not just put defensive responsibilities first.
The problem is that when Florida open up and try to play more expansive hockey they are typically picked off by teams which a higher collective skill level and individual talents to boast.
As soon as the Cats step away from the collective approach they become sitting ducks for the opposition to shoot down.
Playing away thus keeps the game plan intact and the Panthers can focus on playing the collectively responsible game.
A simplified approach
A closely related point is the simplification of Florida’s game plan away from home.
Any time you want the team to play more expansively, a fair degree of creativity is required, and the Cats are to put it plainly not blessed in this compartment. Especially not when Cory Stillman and David Booth both occupy a place on the long-term injury list.
So when Florida travel north to meet an opponent they do what all teams do—to a certain extent—on the road; they simplify their approach, play more defensively sound, and look to grind down the home team’s early offensive efforts—to hit back later in the game instead.
This approach fits hand in glove with the Panthers original game plan and players available, as previously explained.
Playing away is great if a team suffers from certain anxieties when it comes to facing an elevated sense of pressure and expectations upon their individual performances.
Everyone knows this is the case with the Florida Panthers: They don’t deal well with pressure and expectations, period.
As soon as they get into a good spell of performances and the expectations rise as a consequence; they without much further ado head off on another losing streak. Once the expectations then fade—performances pick up again.
Statistically we can look at how the Panthers fare when going in to the third period with a lead and thus face the pressure to try and keep that lead intact or indeed extend it: They are 29th in the league with a .563 record of winning those games.
Also, we can see that the Cats have lost only two points on away ice in an overtime/shootout—whilst on home ice—5 such points have been squandered.
Dealing with pressure situations is clearly not the strength of the Florida Panthers; they do better when coming from behind.
Whilst I’m sure all opposing coaches tell their players not to underestimate the Panthers when they come to town for a visit, it is understandable if this still happens nonetheless.
Florida has no star forward, no defensive powerhouse, and Tomas Vokoun in goal has always been underestimated among goalies.
His numbers are always up there amongst the best and this while playing on a team that regularly allows the most shots on goal in the entire league; yet, he gets very little recognition when he regularly puts up herculean efforts—to give the Cats a chance to win.
Despite the lack of star power the Panthers are a tricky team to play. Their tenacious fore- and backchecking wears on opponents and Florida hardly ever give up a game—they still come surging forward, even long after a game has realistically become a lost cause.
This point in question is highlighted in the last game away to the Washington Capitals on December 3rd.
Despite being 6-0 down in the third, the Cats still kept coming forward and scored a couple of late consolation goals to make it 6-2 instead. It may not change the match, but it gives the club and players some regained pride and belief that can help them in the next one.
We have seen in several games on the road that the opponents had not really expected the Panthers to be in their face as much as they were and lacked the necessary fire to subdue them. Essentially handing the momentum over to the Cats instead—to try and find a way through.
In a league of parity you underestimate an opponent at your own risk, even the Florida Panthers.