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NOTEBOOK: A Team Effort on Defense; Gudas Setting the Tone

by Jameson Olive @JamesonCoop / FloridaPanthers.com

11/22/21 Practice

11/22/21 Practice

Panthers Interim Head Coach Andrew Brunette details what the club's defense has been doing well in their recent stretch of games

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In today's Baptist Health Practice Notebook, the Panthers are making it tough on opposing teams' offenses early on this season, Radko Gudas is doing what he does best, and more.

CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. - Who has a minute to talk about defense?

For as impressive as their offense has been in the early goings of this season, the Panthers have quietly also been one of the top teams in the NHL on the other side of the puck as well.

Sitting atop the Atlantic Division with a strong 13-2-3 record, they're not only scoring the most goals per game in the league on average (3.94), but also surrendering the fifth-fewest (2.50).

In six different games this season, Florida has surrendered just one goal.

"I really like the way they've controlled big parts of the games," Panthers interim head coach Andrew Brunette said of the team's defensive corps after Monday's practice at the Panthers IceDen. "With the gaps, and up ice and in the middle of the ice, I think we've been really tight. It's been hard to get into our zone. In our D zone, we've been really fast and quick on pucks."

When looking at the defense, one of the things that sticks out is consistency. Not just in how they play, but within the lineup itself as well. For the most part, the team's defensive pairings have remained relatively untouched through 18 games as all three duos have found success.

Taking a look at the numbers, all three of the team's current pairings -- Aaron Ekblad and MacKenzie Weegar, Radko Gudas and Gustav Forsling, and Brandon Montour and Kevin Connauton -- boast a positive goal differential at even strength, per NaturalStatTrick.com.

Individually, Ekblad owns a +17 rating, while Weegar isn't too far behind at +14.

One of five different blueliners on the Panthers with at least five points, Ekblad is also tied for fifth among NHL defensemen in scoring with 15 points (five goals, 15 assists) and is currently on a four-game point streak in which he's notched one goal and four assists with a +7 rating.

Despite having his 2020-21 campaign unfortunately cut short by a lower-body injury suffered back in March, Ekblad, who is already garnering some Norris Trophy buzz with almost a quarter of the season in the books, has somehow looked better than ever since returning to the lineup.

"I know the amount of time he puts into it, how hard he works and how much he loves the game," Brunette said of Ekblad. "He loves the game and loves to compete probably as much as anybody I've been around. I'm not surprised. You knew he was going to do everything possible."

When you talk about defense in hockey, however, you aren't just talking about defensemen.

With all five players on the ice giving it 100% on each and every shift, the Panthers have not only benefitted from stalwart play from their boys in the back end, but also from their forwards.

Whether it's throwing the body along the boards, clogging up passes lanes with good sticks or going hard on the forecheck in the offensive zone, the Cats have been using their forwards to suffocate the opposition and shut down any would-be rushes before they can even get started.

With everyone chipping in, Florida ranks fourth in the NHL in hits (474) and first in takeaways (200).

"It starts from the offensive zone," Panthers rookie center Anton Lundell said. "When we lose the puck, we try to get it back right away. We just try to skate a lot. We're a team that wants to be hard to play against. I think all the five guys on the ice are working together out there."

Five guys working together, and strong goaltending behind them.

The backbone of any good defense, the Panthers have been getting exceptional play from a one-two punch in net of Sergei Bobrovsky and Spencer Knight. Both off to hot starts, Knight is 5-2-1 with a .904 save percentage, while Bobrovsky is 8-0-2 on top of a .937 save percentage.

"We can always trust them," Lundell said. "They've saved some games for us."

Off to a great start, Brunette believes the Cats can be even better on defense.

"We've done a good job, but we've still got some things to shore up," he said.

AS GUD AS IT GETS

You didn't really I'd talk about defense without mentioning Radko Gudas, did you?

The tempo-setter in terms of physicality for the Panthers, the man they call "The Butcher" has been doing what he does best in the early goings of this season -- putting opponents on notice with hit after hit after hit while also fitting in perfectly with the team's possession-driven system.

After dishing out a league-leading 250 hits in 2020-21, he's already up to 82 this season.

"He's a huge part of our team," Brunette said of Gudas, who has also blocked 31 shots this season.

"It's contagious when he brings that extra compete and physicality that we probably didn't have my first year here. He gives us a little bit of an edge, a little bit of an identity."

Not long before the Panthers broke the ice in an eventual 5-4 win over the Wild at FLA Live Arena on Saturday, Gudas set the tone by checking an opposing player into Florida's bench.

"He can change games in one play," Brunette said. "He's really been good for this group."

In addition to his mountain of hits, Gudas has compiled five assists and a +8 rating.

Plus, he's also given us the greatest GIF of all time (see below).

Tweet from @JamesonCoop: this is the greatest GIF that I've ever seen pic.twitter.com/2nzDXnrDPL

THESE GO TO ELEVEN

This could very well turn out to be one of those "I was there" moments in sports.

Already one of just four teams to win their first 10 straight games at home to start a season in NHL history, the Panthers will now attempt to match the 1963-64 Blackhawks for the all-time record in that category when they welcome the Flyers to FLA Live Arena on Wednesday night.

A force in front of their home crowd, the Cats have outscored opponents 48-22 in Sunrise.

"We don't want to just be good at home, we want to be great," Brunette said.

For tickets to the game, visit FloridaPanthers.com/Tickets.

MONDAY'S PRACTICE LINES

Forwards

Jonathan Huberdeau - Sam Bennett - Anthony Duclair

Carter Verhaeghe - Anton Lundell - Sam Reinhart

Frank Vatrano - Joe Thornton - Maxim Mamin

Ryan Lomberg - Eetu Luostarinen - Patric Hornqvist

Defensemen

MacKenzie Weegar - Aaron Ekblad

Gustav Forsling - Radko Gudas

Kevin Connauton - Brandon Montour

Goaltenders

Sergei Bobrovsky

Spencer Knight

Extras: Lucas Carlsson

Maintenance Day: Owen Tippett

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