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Goaltending, defense key Panthers into Atlantic lead

by Rob Vollman / Florida Panthers

The Florida Panthers are the hottest team in the NHL. After starting the season 8-9-4, they have won 16 of their past 19, including an active 10-game winning streak in which they have outscored their opponents 33-12, and have moved into first place in the Atlantic Division.

How are they doing it, and will it continue?

A look behind the numbers reveals Florida's improvement has been primarily because of a strong blue line and outstanding goaltending by Roberto Luongo. Offensively, the Panthers remain a below-average team, and are playing no better than even in terms of overall shot attempts.

The following table divides Florida's play between the first quarter of the season, ending Nov. 26, 2015, and the second quarter through Jan. 5. It's clear the Panthers' improved defensive play and goaltending has keyed their recent success, not their scoring. With the exception of its hot shooting percentage, Florida's offensive numbers have remained in the League's lower half.

Key Team Statistics for the First and Second Quarter of the 2015-16 Season

StatisticFirst QuarterSecond Quarter

Record 8-9-4 (21st)16-3-0 (1st)

Offensive Statistics

Goals per Game2.57 (16th)2.74 (12th)

Shots per Game28.8 (22nd)27.7 (25th)

5-on-5 Shot Attempts per Game38.7 (24th)36.8 (29th)

Shooting Percentage8.9% (16th)9.9% (7th)

Power Play Percentage22.1% (4th)11.3% (27th)

Defensive Statistics

Goals Allowed per Game2.62 (15th)1.58 (1st)

Shots Allowed per Game31.8 (28th)26.8 (5th)

5-on-5 Shot Attempts Allowed per Game42.3 (17th)40.3 (7th)

Save Percentage.918 (8th).941 (1st)

Penalty Killing Percentage76.5% (25th)86.9% (4th)

Total Statistics

Goal Percentage49.5% (16th)63.4% (1st)

Shot Percentage47.5% (27th)50.8% (14th)

5-on-5 Shot Attempt Percentage (SAT)47.7% (25th)47.8% (20th)

Florida has been the toughest team against which to score in the second quarter of the season, and a lot of the credit goes to the League's oldest goalie, Roberto Luongo. His save percentage jumped from a solid .922 in the first quarter to .941 in the second quarter, the highest in the League.

Luongo quietly has been providing the Panthers with near-elite goaltending. Overall, he has a .924 save percentage since being acquired from the Vancouver Canucks on March 4, 2014, the same figure as Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers.

Given the significant improvement in shots and shot attempts allowed in the second quarter, the blue line also is to credit for Florida's recent success.

The three players who remain from the last time the Panthers made the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2011-12 are defensemen: Brian Campbell, Dmitry Kulikov and Erik Gudbranson. Add in Willie Mitchell, signed as a free agent off the Stanley Cup-winning Los Angeles Kings on July 2, 2014, and Aaron Ekblad, the first selection in the 2014 NHL Draft, and the Panthers quietly have assembled one of the League's top blue lines.

Florida's turnaround coincided exactly with Ekblad's separation from Campbell for game 22, after which he played eight games with Steven Kampfer before being paired up with current partner Kulikov. Rather than maintaining sharp usage-based divisions between Ekblad's offensive-minded pairing, Mitchell's shutdown pairing and an underused depth pairing, coach Gerard Gallant has achieved great success moving toward three balanced pairings instead.

This new deployment was made possible by the great strides Ekblad has continued to take this season in all aspects of his game. He leads Florida defensemen with 18 points and a plus-16, and his 20:51 of average ice time ranks second on the Panthers to Campbell.

The turnaround also began shortly after Aleksander Barkov's return from missing three weeks with a broken hand. Barkov, who centers the top line between Jaromir Jagr and Jonathan Huberdeau, is a key contributor at both ends of the ice, and leads Panthers forwards with a plus-12 and 19:36 total ice time per game.

The addition of forward Reilly Smith, acquired from the Boston Bruins on July 1, 2015 for forward Jimmy Hayes, has helped Gallant construct a viable second line with veteran Jussi Jokinen on left wing and either Nick Bjugstad or Vincent Trocheck at center. Florida is one of three teams to have seven forwards with at least 20 points this season; the Columbus Blue Jackets and Washington Capitals are the others.

How long will Florida's second-quarter success continue? Statistically, the primary area of concern is the low 47.8 percent SAT metric, which historically has proven to be one of the key indicators as to which teams will make the playoffs. As it stands, the Panthers continue to allow more shot attempts than they take, largely because of a below-average offense and depth lines being outplayed.

Despite that one concern, the Panthers' chances of making the playoffs are as strong as any other team, other than the League's three other divisional leaders. If they succeed, it will be their fifth appearance in their 22-season franchise history.

With enough momentum, Florida could secure its second division title in franchise history. In 2011-12, the Panthers won the Southeast Division with 94 points. This season, the Atlantic is very tightly packed, and its division crown should be the most hotly contested. A superb second quarter has put Florida in a position to win it.

Author: Rob Vollman | NHL.com Correspondent

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