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Panthers solid when leading after two periods, but team knows it must be better

Goalie Chris Driedger continues to impress in limited minutes

Florida Panthers' Noel Acciari celebrates with MacKenzie Weegar and Jonathan Huberdeau after scoring a goal against the Dallas Stars, Friday, Dec. 20, 2019.
Florida Panthers' Noel Acciari celebrates with MacKenzie Weegar and Jonathan Huberdeau after scoring a goal against the Dallas Stars, Friday, Dec. 20, 2019. (AP Photo/Luis M. Alvarez)

SUNRISE, Fla. – The Florida Panthers are one of the best teams in the NHL at winning games when leading after two periods.

Following Sunday's win in Pittsburgh, Florida's first in the Steel City in nearly six years, the Panthers improved to 17-0-1 when ahead after 40 minutes.

It's a record that represents a feeling of hopelessness for opponents in that situation, knowing they're playing a team that can clamp down and cling to a lead.

When speaking to Panthers players and coaches, however, many will tell you that the team needs to perform better when ahead late in games.

"Playing with the lead, we haven't been as solid as we need to be," Panthers head coach Joel Quenneville said after Sunday's victory over the Penguins. "Today was as good as we've been in that situation."

Florida, which began the third period in Pittsburgh holding a 2-1 lead, did not try to sit on the slim advantage.

The Panthers kept coming, in waves, regardless of which line Quenneville ordered onto the ice, eventually expanding the lead to two, and finally three, thanks to an Evgenii Dadonov empty net goal.

"It's been an issue of ours, closing out games in the third period, coming out a little bit flat when we have the lead," Panthers center Vincent Trocheck said afterwards. "But tonight, we came out in the third and played just as well as we did in the first and the second, and had a good closeout."

The win leapfrogged Florida over idle Philadelphia into the second Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference.

Sunday also marked the first game of the second half of Florida's schedule.

Through 42 games, the Panthers are one of the highest scoring teams in the NHL, ranking fourth in the league with 148 goals.

It's a similar story when focusing on only the third period, with Quenneville's Cats popping in 52 goals during the final frame, good for sixth-most in the league.

Keeping goals out of the cage has been more of an issue for Florida, though while they rank 25th and 26th in goals against, respectively, in the first and second periods, they’re up to 14th when it comes to surrendering goals in the third.

It's been a bit of a bend-but-don't-break mentality, which is certainly not going to cut it with Q and his staff.

Florida Panthers head coach Joel Quenneville during an NHL hockey game against the Pittsburgh Penguins Sunday, Jan. 5, 2020.
Florida Panthers head coach Joel Quenneville during an NHL hockey game against the Pittsburgh Penguins Sunday, Jan. 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Florida's bench boss has made it clear that he would prefer not to lean on any specific players, unless the situation absolutely calls for it.

The ability to roll four lines not only adds balance and stability to the lineup, but it keeps everyone fresh later in games, as the ice time is more evenly distributed throughout.

"When you're playing four lines, and everybody's going in there, you get a little deeper in the game," Quenneville said. "I think that everybody was still getting the same type of looks at the start of the periods, at the end of the periods, at the end of the game, and I think you can build off of that with your team game.

"You always want to be a four line group."

PREDICTABLE MR. DRIEDGER

Goaltender Chris Driedger is making a strong case to remain with the Panthers through the remainder of the season.

Called up during the last week of November, Driedger has been magnificent since arriving in Florida.

After Sunday's win over Pittsburgh, the 25-year-old now holds a 4-1-0 record, a sparkling .944 save% and a tidy 1.82 goals against average.

In addition to stopping all 11 shots he faced during a relief appearance Saturday in Buffalo, Driedger turned aside 31 of 32 Penguins shots on Sunday, and could be lined up for a second consecutive start when Florida hosts Arizona on Tuesday at BB&T Center.

"Anytime you can get a few key stops on chances, they had a couple 2-on-1's tonight that he bailed us out on, that's huge," Trocheck said of Driedger. "Whenever you can switch the momentum from going their way to our way, it's a big momentum switch for us."

Nearly six weeks have passed since Quenneville and Panthers general manager Dale Tallon decided to make a change, sending 23-year-old goaltender Samuel Montembeault to the AHL's Springfield Thunderbirds and replacing him with Driedger.

It's a large enough sample size that Driedger is now well aware of where the Panthers excel, and where they struggle.

To that end, he expressed his pleasure with how well the team played in front of him Sunday in Pittsburgh.

"It was great," he said of the win. "I was really happy with the way we shut it down in the third period. Playing with a lead like that, good teams find a way to win. I thought we did everything that we needed to do in the third. All-around, it was a great effort."

Florida Panthers goaltender Chris Driedger celebrates with Brett Connolly after a win over the Pittsburgh Penguins Sunday, Jan. 5, 2020.
Florida Panthers goaltender Chris Driedger celebrates with Brett Connolly after a win over the Pittsburgh Penguins Sunday, Jan. 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Indeed it was, to the point where Quenneville said it was "as good as we've been" when playing with the lead.

Coach Q, now with 912 NHL wins under his belt, also had some encouraging words regarding his young goaltender.

"Real solid. Had some key, key saves," Quenneville said. "In his positioning, he's on top of the crease. He takes away the danger look. I think he's very solid, very cool in the net."

GOALIE BUDS FROM JUNIOR DAYS

Driedger's defeat of the Penguins also gave him a win over a longtime friend and rival, Pittsburgh goalie Tristan Jarry.

The two have been facing each other since the beginning of the decade, when both were playing in the Western Hockey League.

“We actually go back (a ways),” Driedger said, referencing their time in the WHL. “He played in Edmonton and I played in Calgary. We’ve been playing against each other for, I want to say nine years now, so it’s not like I haven’t seen him before. He played well. Obviously, it was nice to win.”

The two were drafted a year apart; Driedger was a third-round pick of Ottawa's in 2012 while Jarry was taken by Pittsburgh the following year in round two.

Driedger spent three years with the WHL's Calgary Hitmen before turning pro, though his first NHL start wouldn't come until nearly five years later, with Florida.

He did have a cup of coffee with Ottawa, making three relief appearances over the span of three seasons.

Jarry has spent his entire professional career in the Penguins system, starring for Pittsburgh’s AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barrie/Scranton before earning regular NHL playing time during his third pro season, in 2017-18.


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