In today's Baptist Health Practice Notebook, the Panthers look to replicate one of their best performances on defense of the season, and MacKenzie Weegar is feeling like his old self.
CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. - The Florida Panthers have found the blueprint on defense.
Now, they just need to replicate it.
On the heels of a 3-0 win over the Nashville Predators on Saturday, the team hit the film room prior to taking the ice for practice at the Panthers IceDen on Monday. Their mission? Find out what worked and then try to bring it into Tuesday's home contest against the Minnesota Wild.
"The key to replicating is just playing a complete game," Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad said. "It's nice when everything clicks like that and we get a great performance in net; everything just starts to roll. It's a good full-team effort. We tried to replicate it on the ice at practice today. I think we're all feeling good and confident going into our game against Minnesota tomorrow."
Despite posting 27 shots on goal, the Predators rarely came close to lighting the lamp against the Panthers. Of those shots, only five originated from high-danger areas on the ice, according to NaturalStatTrick.com. And of their 40 shot attempts at 5-on-5, only four were considered to be high-danger - the fewest 5-on-5 high-danger shot attempts allowed by Florida this season.
When the opposition did threaten, Chris Driedger came up with the save.
Making his first NHL start after being recalled from the AHL on Nov. 25, Driedger, who led the AHL with a .938 save percentage in 14 appearances prior to his call-up, was stellar when he had to be but gave most of the credit to the staunch defense in front of him after the victory.
"It was incredible," said Driedger, who became the first Panther to ever record a shutout in his first-career start. "Every shot that I saw, I could save. If I didn't see them, [the defense] blocked them. It was awesome. They did an incredible job in front of me."
Entering the matchup with the seventh-most goals in the league (86) - including at least three scores in their previous five games -- the loss marked the first time all season the Predators were shut out.
"I thought we played a really solid team game, groups of five," Panthers coach Joel Quenneville said. "The ice was good. Our D-zone coverage and our gap control was very good. [Zone] exits were strong. Possession time in the offensive zone took away from them having the puck. I think every part of our game was as good as we've played all year defensively."
Like Ekblad, Quenneville said the goal moving forward is to keep building upon that foundation.
"That's our challenge," Quenneville said. "We talked about that at the start of the year, that we want to get better as we're going along here. Checking is part of the game. We think we've got enough ability to score goals, so if we play the right way without the puck [we'll be fine].
Looking to pick up another win and gain a firmer grasp on second place in the Atlantic Division, Quenneville announced that Driedger will start again for the Panthers (13-8-5) against the Wild.
"I thought our group of defense played really well in front of him," Quenneville said. "He was big in the net, not a lot of rebounds. But it was the least amount of chances in on our own end we've had all year long. He did what he had to do, and I thought he was very efficient at it as well."
WEEGAR GETS BACK TO WORK
There's no question Florida's defense also benefitted from the return of MacKenzie Weegar.
After missing the previous eight games while recovering from an upper-body injury suffered in a 6-5 shootout win at the New York Rangers on Nov. 10, the 25-year-old defenseman skated 19:51 against the Predators, finishing the night with two hits, two blocks and a plus-2 rating.
"It was big," said Ekblad, who had been paired with Weegar prior to the injury. "Loved having him back in there. He's an awesome player. He makes a lot of really great plays in every zone on the ice. He's not afraid to make mistakes, so that makes him a very dangerous player."
In his return, Weegar was deployed alongside veteran Anton Stralman on the blue line.
"I think Straly did a great job with me," Weegar said. "He has such a calming presence and makes me feel relaxed. It was a good game, and I'm happy for him too. He had a great game… It doesn't matter [who's paired with who] because we have six strong D. Me and Straly played together all training camp, so we sort of had a little bit of a feel for each other."
In 18 games this season, Weegar has notched 10 points (three goals, seven assists).
"He gives us some energy," Quenneville said. "I think that defensively he's played very well this year. Offensively, he likes to get involved with it. He makes good decisions exciting the zone. Offensively, he sees plays. He's had a real good start to the season, and I like the way he came back off an injury."
Returning to the lineup just in time for Florida's franchise-record, nine-game homestand, Weegar said he's looking forward to seeing a lot more action at BB&T Center this month.
"I love playing at home," Weegar said. "Our fans are great this season."