In today's Baptist Health Practice Notebook, the Panthers are getting very good results on the penalty kill, MacKenzie Weegar is piling up points and Chris Driedger is set to return to the net.
SUNRISE, Fla. - No one earned a maintenance day more than Noel Acciari.
With the Panthers sent to a 5-on-3 penalty kill during the first period of Thursday's loss to the Predators, the tough-as-nails forward put his body on the line for the good of the team, laying out to block four - yes, four! - shots within the span of a single shift to keep the game square.
And although they didn't pick up the W, the significance of the moment didn't go unnoticed.
"They had some big blocks," coach Joel Quenneville said following Friday's practice at BB&T Center. "Some positives out of that kill. [Acciari's] game is really going in the right direction as well. He's one of those heart and soul guys that really makes you appreciate that he brings it."
Overall, that kill also stands as a monument to the team's marked improvement in that area.
In the midst of an 11-for-11 stretch over the last three games, Florida's penalty kill has been one of the league's best in recent weeks. Since March 4, they've killed off 23 of 26 opposing power plays over eight games, with their 88.5% success rate ranking fourth in the league in that span.
What's the driving force behind this progress? Well, Quenneville believes it comes to down to the team's uptick in pressure and aggressiveness. When they're on the kill, the goal is to shut down dangerous scoring plays before they even start by pestering the opposing team's players at the blue line and within the neutral zone in order to deny entries and keep pucks out of play.
In their last eight games, Florida has allowed more than four shots on the PK just three times.
"I think we've had some good clears, had some good blocks, denied some lanes, got some big saves," Quenneville said of the approach on the kill. "I think you combine them all and there's a little more pressure on entries and in the zone setting up as well. I think that's been disruptive."
Echoing Quenneville's assessment, forward Alex Wennberg agrees that aggression is key.
"I feel like we're playing a little smarter right now," said Wennberg, who ranks third on the Panthers in shorthanded ice time (73:14). "We're moving our feet and don't really give them much time. Being that aggressive really helps us right now with winning battles, winning pucks."
With the Panthers continuing to push toward the playoffs during the second half of the season, players know they'll need to continue being sharp on the penalty kill moving forward. After all, three of the top-ranked power plays in the league unfortunately sit within the Central Division.
Entering Friday's slate of games, the Hurricanes currently rank first with a 31.9% success rate, while the Blackhawks sit in third place at 29.2% and the Lightning occupy fourth place at 28.9%.
Over their final 27 games of the regular-season, the Cats will face those teams 12 times.
"Those are some great power plays we're up against and it makes you focus a little bit more, but it doesn't matter really who's on the ice," Wennberg said. "Whoever you play, you've just got to be ready. When you have the opportunity to kill a penalty, you've just got to do it."
Here's an interesting statistic for you.
As it stands now, MacKenzie Weegar ranks tied for 19th among NHL defensemen in scoring with 18 points (two goals, 16 assists) in 29 games this season. But if you remove everyone ahead of him that has at least one power-play point, he suddenly rockets up to the top spot.
In short, the 27-year-old defenseman is simply getting it done at even-strength.
"I think he's just getting more composed," Quenneville said of Weegar. "I think he has more composure with the puck, better play recognition. He does get a lot of good looks during the course of the game, him and Ek [Aaron Ekblad], be it off the rush or in the zone together."
Sitting second among NHL blueliners in even-strength points (17), Weegar currently trails only Edmonton's Darnell Nurse (19) in that category. At the same time, he also ranks ahead several very big names such as Tampa Bay's Victor Hedman (14) and Washington's John Carlson (16).
On the defensive side of things, Weegar continues to flourish while playing on Florida's top pairing alongside a potential Norris Trophy candidate in Ekblad. A positive player at 5-on-5 (his 53.95 CF% ranks third among the team's defensemen), he also excels at suppressing shots.
Per NaturalStatTrick.com, among defensemen that have skated more than 200 minutes this season at 5-on-5, Weegar ranks eighth in shot attempts allowed per 60 minutes (45.22). That number is even more impressive when you consider the top talent he faces every single game.
"He's just evolving in the right fashion," Quenneville said of Weegar, who is in his fourth full season with Florida. "Defense is a point that we'll always emphasize as far as being a priority, and he adds to it with his possession game. It's a good thing going on for him and real good progress."
Weegar is currently riding a career-high, six-game point streak (one goal, seven assists).
DRIEDGER BACK IN NET
After backing up red-hot Sergei Bobrovsky over the past five games, Chris Driedger will make his return to the crease when the Panthers battle the Predators at BB&T Center on Saturday.
Off to a great start this season, the 26-year-old goaltender boasts a 7-3-2 record with a 2.40 goals-against average and .920 save percentage. In two career starts against Nashville, he's been nearly perfect, going 2-0-0 with an outstanding .981 save percentage and one shutout.
Bobrovsky, meanwhile, has gone a stellar 12-3-2 with a .906 save percentage this season.
"We have two really good goalies," Wennberg said. "With the schedule that we have, it's great to have a guy play one game and then the next guy step in. It doesn't matter who's in net, we're comfortable with both of them. I think it's really good for our team to have that advantage."
As for other lineup notes heading into tomorrow's matchup - which has a 2 p.m. ET puck drop, so make sure to adjust your schedule accordingly - Quenneville noted that Acciari, Jonathan Huberdeau and Carter Verhaeghe are all on track to suit up despite sitting out today's practice.
"I'm thinking that they could all play tomorrow," Quenneville said. "We'll see."
FRIDAY'S PRACTICE LINES
Mason Marchment - Aleksander Barkov - Anthony Duclair
Grigori Denisenko / Vinnie Hinostroza - Alex Wennberg - Patric Hornqvist
Frank Vatrano - Eetu Luostarinen - Owen Tippett Ryan
Lomberg - Juho Lammikko - Brett Connolly
MacKenzie Weegar - Aaron Ekblad
Gustav Forsling - Radko Gudas
Keith Yandle - Markus Nutivaara
Riley Stillman - Anton Stralman
Maintenance Day: Noel Acciari, Jonathan Huberdeau, Carter Verhaeghe