After being deployed together for the first time during the second period of Friday's 3-2 overtime win over Buffalo, the top line of Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov and Mike Hoffman has been firing on all cylinders for the Panthers, combining for 15 points over the last three games.
"They're a lot of fun to play with," said Barkov, who has posted eight goals and 17 points over his last 15 games. "They're really good players. I'm really enjoying playing with them. When you give them the puck, you know they'll pass it back and try to get open. Everybody does the same thing and thinks the same way. It's been working, but I think we can still get a lot better."
At even strength, that top line has played just over 40 minutes together, registering five goals while absolutely dominating the opposition in shot attempts (63-33) and scoring chances (24-14). Starting 59.57 percent of their shifts in the offensive zone, they have excelled at holding that position and sustaining pressure thanks to Barkov's 54 percent success rate in the circle.
Panthers coach Bob Boughner said that ability to sustain zone time has been key.
"One of the reason's we made that switch is because Barkov's line was getting their chances, but they weren't getting a ton of zone time," Boughner said. "We tried to experiment a little bit there and put Huby back with them. You can see they're not just getting chances off the rush now. They're spending a lot more time down in the other team's end. Real good job by Huby getting back on that line and producing."
Already off to a hot start this season, Huberdeau's fiery stick has been doused in gasoline since being bumped up from the second to the first line. In addition to leading the Panthers with seven points in the last three games, he also enters tonight's contest with a chance to tie Pavel Bure's franchise record -- set back in 2001 -- for the most consecutive multi-point games with seven.
Huberdeau leads Florida in points (31), while his 24 assists are tied for seventh in the NHL.
"It's fun to play with these guys," said Huberdeau, who is one of four Panthers producing at or better than a point per game this season. "We're having a lot of chances, a lot of zone time. That's what you want in a game. It gets your confidence going. When you don't play in your zone, that means you have more chances to score goals."
That top-line chemistry has also been evident on Florida's sixth-ranked power play, where the team has registered at least one goal in 16 of its last 17 games. With another goal on the man advantage in Tuesday's 5-0 win over the Bruins, Hoffman is now tied the team lead with six.
With a multitude of weapons on the power play, Hoffman said opponents must pick their poison.
"I think that's why we've been successful," said Hoffman, who leads the team in goals (14) and shots (102). "There are too many options [on our power play]. You can't cover them all. They're one player short, so if they're taking away me it's going to open up ice for other players."
Since Nov. 1, Florida's 34.9 percent success rate on the power play is second to only one team - Colorado, which has gone 40.9 during that span and currently sits at first in the league overall.
For although the Panthers have only just begun to peel back the surface of their new and potentially game-breaking top line, the Avalanche's dynamic trio of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog has been clicking since the puck dropped back in October.
Rantanen leads the league with 45 points, MacKinnon is second with 43 points, and Landeskog is tied for 17th with 31 points. If you put them all together, you've got a group that has combined for a whopping 46 goals and 120 points. Of those 120 points, 40 have come on the power play.
"It's a great opportunity for ourselves," Hoffman said of tonight's matchup. "Those are the games you like to play. You want to test yourself against the best in the league. It'll be a big matchup for our line to try and contain them as best as we can."
The Panthers (11-10-5) currently sit at 3-1-2 on their season-long, eight-game homestand after shutting out Boston. The Avalanche (16-7-5), meanwhile, have won seven of their last nine, but are coming off a 6-3 loss in Pittsburgh on Tuesday - their first regulation loss since Nov. 9.
As somewhat of a game within the game, Boughner said the battle between Barkov's line and MacKinnon's line should highlight what is projecting to be a thrilling matchup full of fireworks.
"Definitely a concern for every team they play against," Boughner said of the Avalanche's big guns. "It's going to be a matchup for not just Barky, obviously he's a big guy down our middle. Hoff and Huby have to commit to playing the right way as well, with and without the puck against that line. You've got to manage it properly… they're going to get their chances, you just have to limit how many you're going to give them."
-- Keith Yandle currently leads all Panthers defensemen in points (25) and assists (21). His 25 points rank sixth among NHL blueliners, while his 17 power-play points are tied for first among all skaters with Tampa forward Nikita Kucherov.
-- Aaron Ekblad has registered nine points (five goals, four assists) over his last 12 games. With four more goals, the 22-year-old will overtake Robert Svehla (61) as the franchise's all-time leader in goals by a defenseman.
-- Evgenii Dadonov enters tonight's game riding a six-game point, notching four goals and four assists during that span, with all four of those goals coming on the power play. The 29-year-old ranks second on the team in goals (12), while also sitting second in points (27).
-- Jonathan Huberdeau is two points away from his 300th NHL point and four assists away from his 200th NHL assist.
GEICO GOALIE MATCHUP OF THE GAME
Roberto Luongo (5-3-0, 2.71 GAA, .914 SV%) vs. Semyon Varlamov (10-6-3, 2.43 GAA, .923 SV%)
Luongo will make his second straight start after missing five games due to a lower-body injury. In his return to the net, the 39-year-old stopped all 33 shots he faced in a 5-0 win over Boston on Tuesday to earn his first shutout of the season and 77th of his career. In his career against the Avalanche, he has gone 22-17-5 with a 2.59 goals-against average, .913 save percentage and three shutouts.
Varlamov is expected to return to Colorado's net despite surrendering six goals on just 32 shots during a 6-3 loss in Pittsburgh on Tuesday. Prior to that loss, the 30-year-old had won six of his previous seven starts, never allowing more than three goals in that span. In his career against the Panthers, he has gone 7-3-0 with a 2.60 goals-against average and a .922 save percentage.
Jonathan Huberdeau - Aleksander Barkov - Mike Hoffman
Evgenii Dadonov - Jared McCann - Frank Vatrano
Dryden Hunt - Juho Lammikko - Nick Bjugstad
Micheal Haley - Colton Sceviour - Troy Brouwer
Keith Yandle - Aaron Ekblad
Mike Matheson - Mark Pysyk
Bogdan Kiselevich - MacKenzie Weegar
Scratches: Alexander Petrovic, Denis Malgin
Injured Reserve: Derek MacKenzie (shoulder), Jamie McGinn (back), Vincent Trocheck (ankle)
- Dec. 4: G Michael Hutchinson was returned to Springfield (AHL).
- Nov. 24: G Michael Hutchinson was recalled from Springfield (AHL).
- Nov. 22: C Vincent Trocheck was placed on the Injured Reserve list.
- Nov. 22: F Maxim Mamin was loaned to CSKA Moscow (KHL).
- 50/50 Raffle (digital tickets HERE)
- Caravan of Joy Toy Drive
- Santa Claus outside Club Lexus
- $5 Beer Thursday
BITE OF BB&T CENTER
- Italian Sausage for $9 outside of sections 105, 115, 130, 305 and 319
HOW TO WATCH
When: Thursday, Dec. 6, 7:00 p.m.
Where: BB&T Center - Sunrise, FL
TV: Fox Sports Florida
Florida Panthers Radio Network: 560 WQAM (Dade/Broward); 640 WMEN (Palm Beach); 100.3 WCTH (Florida Keys); 1370 WAXE (Treasure Coast)