By Dave Joseph for floridapanthers.com
|Craig Anderson will start against the Penguins Saturday as the Panthers look to end their four-game losing streak. (Getty images)
As they approach the halfway mark of the season – as they prepare to try and snap a four-game winless streak Saturday in Pittsburgh against Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the rest of the Penguins – the Panthers continue to search for an identity.
Dr Jekyll or Mr Hyde?
The Panthers have displayed the work ethic to compete and beat some of the best team’s in the league including San Jose, Calgary and Anaheim. They’ve also shown the ability to come out flat and play inexplicably uninspired against struggling teams like the Islanders, Lightning and Thrashers.
Through 37 games, the Panthers (16-16-2-3) are averaging exactly a point a game, and that won’t be enough to get them in the playoffs. But despite their current skid, they remain only four points from the eighth playoff spot and continue to show signs of a team that, while a work in progress, is capable of getting points in bunches as they did from Nov, 20 through Dec. 23, when they were 9-2-3.
It was during that streak, 21 points in 14 games, the Panthers received huge contributions from their goaltending tandem of Tomas Vokoun and Craig Anderson (two shutouts each) and defenseman Jay Bouwmeester, who had six goals (12 points).
“They were a big part of it,” agreed coach Peter DeBoer, before adding, “but I think that would be oversimplifying it.”
“We came out and outworked a lot of teams and did a lot of little things well. Maybe more subtle things. Those two elements (goalies and Bouwmeester) were a big part of it, but we also did a lot of little intangibles during that streak that separates our team from winning and losing on a given night, and those things are blocking shots and short shifts and establishing our forecheck and finishing out hits.”
One area DeBoer will focus on Saturday will likely be the Panthers finishing their hits. In their four-game winless streak, the Panthers have been outhit by their opponents in three games. They’ve also had fewer blocked shots in three of their last four games than their opponents.
But DeBoer, who’s replaced his starting goaltender in three of the last four games, also has to get a strong game in goal Saturday from Anderson, who he named his starter against the Penguins after Wednesday’s 4-2 loss on Long Island.
According to DeBoer, when Anderson and Vokoun are playing well, “they give us the confidence that we can make some mistakes, be a little more aggressive, which is part of our game plan, and get a big save at the other end.”
“When they’re off a little bit our team goes off a little bit,” he continued. “We have to help ourselves, too. As players, we have to help (our goalies). They did a great job for us for five, six weeks, and when they’re struggling it’s up to the forwards and defensemen to maybe give them a break and outplay the other team, and we haven’t done that for (the goalies).”
DeBoer believes the Panthers should have learned a valuable lesson during their November-December streak. And that is those victories came for a reason.
“It was a desperation level in our lineup,” he said. “When we don’t have that…we’re a mediocre team. Everybody has to be better. We need a great effort from somebody, not only in net but up front and on defense, too."
When asked what’s he learned about his team as they approach the halfway mark of the season, DeBoer didn’t hesitate.
“What we’ve learned is we’ve got a lot of character in the room, a lot of guys who have a lot of pride,” he said. “But more than anything what we’ve learned, as a group, is it’s not about the talent we put on the ice every night, it’s about the will and work ethic and buying into a team game.
“The month of November, when we had all those injuries to key people, was a great lesson. We found a way not only to stay afloat but to excell, and that was based just on those factors. Now, the key to moving forward, is going to be to combine the skill we’re putting back in the lineup and not losing that edge.”NOTES
Craig Anderson enters the net Saturday ranked second in the league in save percentage (.935) and sixth in goals against (2.27)… DeBoer has made it clear he’s looking for more from some of his veteran forwards, including Cory Stillman, Nathan Horton and Richard Zednik, who was a healthy scratch Wednesday against the Islanders… The Penguins enter Saturday’s game having lost three consecutive games (two to Boston) and four of their last five… The Pens are 0 for their last 21 power play attempts... Penguins’ coach Michel Therrien switched up his forward lines in Thursday’s 4-2 loss to the Bruins, pairing Crosby with Pascal Dupuis and Petr Sykora and Malkin with Ruslan Fedotenko and Miroslav Satan… Crosby has nine goals and 19 assists in his last 20 games… Malkin leads the league in points (60) and assists (45). He has eight goals and 21 assists in his last 18 games… The Panthers leave Pittsburgh after Saturday afternoon’s game for an afternoon contest Sunday in Montreal. The trip concludes with a game Tuesday in Toronto…