Panthers enjoying holiday week in unusual place: a playoff spot

Quenneville’s Panthers in second place through 24 games

Dominic Toninato of the Florida Panthers celebrates his goal against Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers on November 10, 2019. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. – Over the past two-plus decades, Florida Panthers hockey and Thanksgiving have not been an ideal pairing.

Panthers fans have rarely had the opportunity to sit around the Thanksgiving table and discuss how good their hockey team is playing.

Well, to quote the great Bob Dylan, "the times they are a-changin'."

Feel free to supplant the tired old polo shirt with your bright red Panthers sweater (and hat, depending on house rules, of course) and fire up some casual Cats chatter.

Pass the gravy, Uncle Rusty, and speaking of passing, did you see the play Jonathan Huberdeau made the other night?

Wow, mom, it must have taken a lot of time and effort to make a turkey this moist and delicious, just like the time and effort Joel Quenneville is exerting to get the Panthers playing his defensive system to perfection.

OK, you get the idea.

Florida heads into Turkey Day with a solid 12-7-5 record, good for second place in the crowded Atlantic Division; only four points separate the Panthers and sixth place Buffalo.

Overall, that's a big positive. Usually, at this time of year, the Panthers are struggling to stay afloat and trying to avoid digging themselves another early-season hole in the standings.

It's an effort that generally ends in failure, as Florida has made the playoffs just twice since the year 2000.

This year, with Quenneville running the show, things are clearly quite different.

Case in point: For the first time this season, Florida is coming off consecutive regulation losses.

It's Thanksgiving week.

The season began on Oct. 3.

Let that sink in for a moment.

Good? OK, back to the story.

While two straight losses are no cause for alarm, it's a trend that the players want to squash before it becomes anything more.

"We’re trying to keep it steady as she goes, but I think everybody is a little bit pissed off right now," Panthers defenseman Mark Pysyk said earlier this week. "We didn’t want to lose two in a row, obviously, but there’s nothing we can do about those games now except move on and make sure it’s not three in a row."

For a few weeks, it looked like Florida's overall defensive play was beginning to really tighten up.

Progress was being made and it was apparent, as Florida will go through stretches where they hang on to the puck for long periods of time, ensuring that no goals against will be scored.

Florida's defensemen play a key role in the possession game, as they must first gain control of the puck in the defensive zone, then join whatever rush the Panthers get going through the neutral zone, and finally, once in the offensive zone, keep the puck in there while also creating plays (and more importantly, not turning the puck over) at the blue line.

That's just part of the immense responsibility that falls on the defensemen, but it's also one of the main concepts of Quenneville's system. As long as Florida has the puck, its opponents can't score.

"That’s our mindset, to play in their end as much as possible," Panthers defenseman Josh Brown explained. "The last two games, our offensive zone time has been down a little bit, and we lost. It's something we know we can clean up."

Following Wednesday’s road tilt against the Washington Capitals, Florida will begin a massive, season-long, nine-game homestand.

Only three teams (Tampa, Vancouver, Carolina) have scored more goals at home than the Panthers, who have averaged 3.82 goals per game at the BB&T Center this season.

Conversely, no team allows more home ice goals than Florida, which has surrendered 3.55 while playing in Sunrise.

"I think our possession game could be better, which would complement our defensive structure," Quenneville said. "Our defense is more noticeable when it's involved offensively, as I think it helps our gap (control). Everybody is a part of our offense, all five guys. We want to have the puck and we want to make sure those guys spend some time in the offensive zone."

It will be interesting to see how things shake out as December passes by.

Of the nine teams Florida faces on this three-week homestand, only three of them rank in the NHL's top ten in scoring on the road.

Regardless of the opponent, Quenneville knows if the team plays its system properly, the results should be there, and he's been the first one to acknowledge that it's been work in progress.

"Whether it's in the neutral zone or our rush game, I think we’re giving too much off the rush," Quenneville said. "I still think, in zone, we could be better, but I think we’ve got to be better positionally and more determined to kill their (rushes)."

While Q and his assistants are a very no-nonsense bunch, the players have been raving all season about how much they enjoy playing for this staff.

The coaches are always filling the players with confidence and helping them magnify their skills while correcting any issues that are noticed.

The combination of positive reinforcement and open communication is working quite well with the young Panthers.

“They’re constantly building us up and telling us exactly what they want, so there’s no guesswork in that sense,” Pysyk said of the coaching staff. “You know what they’re expecting, and you know exactly what they’re expecting of you, so you can expect it yourself.”

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