The Panthers are becoming all the rage in the NHL.
Fast, aggressive and fun, South Florida’s hockey team has earned accolades throughout the NHL this season, and it continued late Thursday evening after their 5-1 victory over the Canadiens in a packed BankAtlantic Center.
NHL and TSN analyst Pierre McGuire called the team’s victory against the Canadiens “vintage Florida Panthers.”
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“They are no longer the old Florida Panthers,” he added. “They are the new Florida Panthers. Aggressive, fast, in-your-face and fun to watch.”
McGuire is the latest to rave about the Panthers, who continue their climb up the standings toward the playoffs.
Red Wings’ coach Mike Babcock said back in November the Panthers had a “lot of pieces here,” and added, “I think the future here is going to be real good.” And Flyers’ coach John Stevens said he was impressed with the Panthers before his team lost Tuesday at BankAtlantic 3-2.
For the Panthers, their success is very real. They’ve gone 16-6-7 since Nov. 24, earning 39 points in 29 games, and will pull into Long Island for Saturday’s game against the Islanders with a January record of 7-1-3. A victory will equal the franchise’s best January record from 1999-00 when they earned 19 points.
But the Panthers would do it this time in two fewer games.
Despite their run of success, the Panthers are in a fight for the playoffs and coach Peter DeBoer understands it will stay that way until April. But DeBoer also says he isn’t playing to hold onto the eighth playoff spot, but to move up the standings.
“We’ve talked in our meetings about trying to hunt down the teams above us in the standings,” DeBoer said. “Let’s not worry about the teams beneath us and the teams we’re battling with. Let’s look at the teams above us and hunt some of them down. And I think that’s the attitude we have to take in the second half; not to hold onto eighth and make the playoffs but we want to close the gap on some people ahead of us.”
Through Thursday, the Panthers are “playing the way we need to play to be successful,” DeBoer added.
“The guys seem to have bought into the fact that if we do that we (can) have some success,” he said. “The nice thing from a coaching point is we’re getting rewarded for it with points right now, so that always makes the message easier.”
DeBoer credited his players, particularly David Booth, Radek Dvorak and Michael Frolik – all of whom have had penalty shot goals this month – for creating speed through the neutral zone and “putting the defense on their heels.”
The Panthers are the second team in NHL history to record three successful penalty shots in a calendar month. The New Jersey Devils' Mark Johnson, Aaron Broten and Pat Verbeek all had similar feets in March 1988.
And he gave credit to goalie Tomas Vokoun, who’s 4-1-1 in his last six games.
“That’s the type of goaltending we need,” DeBoer said. “He was great the other night and I thought he was real solid again (Thursday). When we get goaltending like that, it breeds confidence throughout our lineup and it shows.”
But the Panthers will face a huge test Saturday against the Islanders. Despite a 14-29-5 record, the Islanders beat a lackluster Panther team 4-2 back on Dec. 31 and will enter Saturday’s game on their first two-game winning streak since late November.
Coming off emotional victories at home against Montreal and Philadelphia, DeBoer was asked if Saturday’s game could be a trap.
“Absolutely, it’s a trap,” he replied. “They’re a better team than their record indicates. They’re good at home (8-12-3). This is an emotional game for us, and the trap is we (have to) show up with the same type of emotion and effort the next game because the two points against the Islanders is as valuable in the standings as the two points tonight.”