It’s easy sometimes to overstate the significance of a game. But sometimes, NHL games in December can really serve as “statement games.”
Such is the case this week at BankAtlantic Center when the Panthers come off their first winning road trip in five years to play host Thursday evening to Southeast Division-rival Carolina and Saturday night to the Maple Leafs.
After winning three of four games on the road and collecting points in five of their last six games, the Panthers could pull themselves Thursday to within three points of the Southeast-leading Hurricanes with a victory.
For the Panthers, it’s been a good couple weeks. For the first time in several years, they’re .500 (16-16-2) in the middle of December. This is no small feat since the Panthers have been .500 after 34 games only twice in the past nine seasons. And now the Panthers play four of their next five games at BankAtlantic.
So after a mundane start to the season, the Panthers come home after playing one of their strongest games of the season Tuesday when beating Montreal.
So what’s changed? Assistant general manager Randy Sexton considered that question Wednesday afternoon.
“What I’ve really seen the last 10 games is our players doing a lot of little, subtle things the average fan doesn’t maybe notice,” Sexton said. “But when they’re aggregated, they equal victory.”
Sexton gave an example.
“In our game against Calgary, Rusty Olesz had a chance to go in (to Calgary’s zone), but he opted for the shot,” Sexton recalled. “It got blocked, they brought the puck up and scored, tie game. Then I see Olesz late in the game in St. Louis. He doesn’t make the same mistake. He ate 10 or 12 seconds off the block and didn’t allow them to get the puck out of their zone.
“I’m seeing a lot of things that are really driven by confidence, and driven by their acceptance that if they buy into the way Jacques and the coaches ask them to play, we can have sustained success.”
Confidence can be seen in other ways as well, Sexton said. The way Olesz scored the Panthers first goal in Chicago with a blast from the high slot, or the goal from Stephen Weiss
“Stephen goes down, looks at Monty (Steve Montador), then – boom – in the net,” Sexton said. “That shows confidence.”
And confidence breeds victories.
“You look at earlier in the year when we had leads and let them slip away, it was a combination of things,” Sexton said. “Guys were not playing the proper position, they were not supporting each other, not communicating, and that’s a lack of confidence. As we’ve continued to evolve into a team, you see a lot of things changing.
“Positionally, guys are more sound. You see little things that are unspectacular, like chipping the puck out and going to get it rather than trying to beat the guy at the blue line. Last night (in Montreal), there was a rebound that came out. (Ruslan) Salei had the guy all tied up, preventing him from getting the puck. Weiss grabbed the rebound and he was gone. We go from (possibly allowing) a great scoring chance to going on the attack. Earlier in the year, our ‘D’ might not have tied up that man, there might not have been good enough support, and the puck might have been in our net.”
The way Sexton sees it, putting these dynamics together “are allowing us to believe we can win.”
And, hopefully, that feeling carries over to home games this week.