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10 Thoughts: Panthers preparing to resume push towards rare playoff appearance

Florida went into the All-Star break on season-high 6-game winning streak

From left; Florida Panthers defenseman Josh Brown, right wing Evgenii Dadonov, center Aleksander Barkov and left wing Jonathan Huberdeau celebrate after Barkov scored against the Minnesota Wild during the second period of an NHL hockey game Monday, Jan. 20, 2020, in St. Paul, Minn. (AP Photo/Craig Lassig)
From left; Florida Panthers defenseman Josh Brown, right wing Evgenii Dadonov, center Aleksander Barkov and left wing Jonathan Huberdeau celebrate after Barkov scored against the Minnesota Wild during the second period of an NHL hockey game Monday, Jan. 20, 2020, in St. Paul, Minn. (AP Photo/Craig Lassig) (AP Photo/Craig Lassig)

SUNRISE, Fla. – If it feels like forever since you've been able to watch a live Florida Panthers game, you aren't that far off.

Between the All-Star break and Florida’s bye week, which was conveniently scheduled immediately following the annual showcase of superstars, a total of 10 days will have passed between the Panthers last game on Jan. 21 and their next one on Feb 1.

Aside from Jonathan Huberdeau, who participated in the NHL All-Star Game and Skills Competition while spending the weekend in St. Louis, the team has been enjoying a little down time, with many taking the chance to rest and recover ahead of the final push towards a playoff spot.

Sergei Bobrovsky and his wife spent a relaxing few days hitting the ski slopes in Colorado. Frank Vatrano went home to hang with family and friends in Massachusetts. Sasha Barkov stuck around South Florida and was even spotted at a Miami Heat game with a friend from his hometown of Tampere, Finland; Winnipeg Jets star forward Patrick Laine.

The Panthers return to the ice on Thursday and will have to hit the ground running, with three road games in four nights welcoming them back from the bye.

That fun begins Saturday afternoon in Montreal, followed by back to back games in Toronto and Columbus.

Before we jump back into the deep end of hockey season, here are 10 thoughts on what's happening with the Panthers after a reasonably successful first 49 games.

MVP – Most Valuable Prius. Mark Pysyk began the season as Florida's seventh defenseman and was a healthy scratch in six of the Panthers first seven games. Then someone on the coaching staff had the bright idea to try Pysyk at right wing in an attempt to bring a little more defensive responsibility to the forward ranks.

As the weeks passed, Pysyk went from seemingly untradeable to an extremely valuable hybrid player that can move from defense to forward on any given shift. Recently, he's showing more assertion and confidence to make plays in the offensive zone, and has even flashed some soft hands while maneuvering with the puck in tight spots. Panthers head coach Joel Quenneville has also used Pysyk as a defenseman on the penalty kill, even on nights where he's in the lineup as a winger.

Florida defenseman Keith Yandle put it best after last week's win in Minnesota.

"Just find a way to get the puck in the hands of the Toyota Prius, Mark Pysyk. The hybrid does it all."

Florida Panthers defenseman Mark Pysyk is congratulated for his goal against the Detroit Red Wings Saturday, Jan. 18, 2020.
Florida Panthers defenseman Mark Pysyk is congratulated for his goal against the Detroit Red Wings Saturday, Jan. 18, 2020. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Importance of starting off strong. Since losing three straight home games in mid-December to Tampa, the Islanders and Boston, Florida has gone an impressive 13-4-0, scoring the first goal in all 13 wins while failing to score first in each of the four losses.

Overall during that stretch, Florida outscored its opponents 20-14 in the first period. Focusing on just the wins, however, the Panthers hold a 20-9 edge. Conversely, they've been outscored 5-0 during the first period of the four losses.

Mike Hoffman's status couldn't be murkier. The pending unrestricted free agent was a surefire candidate for trade deadline departure, as sources have indicated throughout the season that management was growing increasingly frustrated with the sniping winger.

Quenneville, in his ongoing attempts to get Hoffman going, put him on the same line as Frank Vatrano after the holiday break at the end of December. The two have skated together almost exclusively in the 13 games since, and both are currently reaping the benefits (more on Vatrano in a moment).

Hoffman's game has seemed much less one-dimensional as he continues to work on being better while possessing the puck, which in turn has helped him play a more responsible brand of hockey. Additionally, Hoffman's playmaking ability, from visualizing plays to executing passes, has been much improved.

He has 16 points (6-10-16) in those 13 games, including a plus-6 rating and 30 shots on goal. It's also worth noting that five of those 16 points have come with Florida on the power play.

Teammates congratulate Mike Hoffman of the Florida Panthers, after his goal against the New York Rangers on November 16, 2019.
Teammates congratulate Mike Hoffman of the Florida Panthers, after his goal against the New York Rangers on November 16, 2019. (Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)

Frankie's got the jets. Feeling much more comfortable in Coach Q's systems, Vatrano is starting to use his speed more and more, and in turn, he's producing at a much greater clip.

Vatrano has more points in January (12 points in 10 games) than he did in all of December and November (10 points in 26 games). He and Hoffman have helped create a formidable third line, with center Dominic Toninato carving out a spot for himself providing a responsible, two-way presence for the trio.

Stable lineup. Almost the entire month of January, Quenneville has been rolling out the same top three lines. The number one unit of Barkov centering Huberdeau and Evgenii Dadonov is consistently steady, and generally only messed with when Q is trying to get someone on another line going.

That hasn’t been needed in recent weeks, thanks to the reliable play from the Connolly-Trocheck-Acciari line and recent emergence of the aforementioned third line of Vatrano, Toninato and Hoffman. It’s also worth mentioning that Florida’s last five games (all wins) saw Quenneville use the same three players on the fourth line; Brian Boyle centering Colton Sceviour and Mark Pysyk.

South Florida scoring machine. Getting back to Florida’s 13-4-0 stretch, Quenneville’s Panthers have been scoring at a pretty remarkable clip. Overall during those 17 games, Florida has outscored its opponents 74-55, which translates to scoring 4.35 goals per game, while giving up 3.24 goals against.

Zooming in on the 13 wins, the Panthers scoring output jumps to a ridiculous 5.23 goals per game. Combine that with surrendering a much more reasonable 2.85 against and you can see how the Cats have been winning three out of every four games for over a month now.

Matheson rounding back into form. From the start of training camp through the first few weeks of the season, Mike Matheson appeared to be taking a big step forward. Then came an injury during a late-October game against Pittsburgh that cost him five games, and more importantly, any and all momentum he'd made to that point.

It took another month before things started to turn back around for the 25-year-old. The confidence began to show again when Matheson started making plays at the offensive blue line; holding in pucks and making moves around opponents to open up shooting lanes and create passing opportunities.

That led to more assertion in the defensive zone, pressuring puck carriers and creating turnovers with an active stick. This all but confirmed that he had rounded back into the form we saw back in September and October.

Over the past few weeks Q has paired Matheson with Aaron Ekblad, a sign that he’s earning back the trust of the coaching staff.

Florida Panthers defenseman Mike Matheson skates against the Montreal Canadiens, Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019.
Florida Panthers defenseman Mike Matheson skates against the Montreal Canadiens, Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Favorable remaining schedule. After watching the Panthers battle their way through what was called a gauntlet of an early-season schedule, it's nice to know the law of averages is being applied to the remainder of their 2019-20 regular season slate.

Out of the 31 teams in the NHL, Florida has the seventh-easiest schedule between now and the playoffs.

The list, put together by NHL.com, ranked the schedules based on the average point-per-game percentage of each team’s remaining opponents.

The Panthers have 33 games yet to be played, 15 in Sunrise and 18 on the road. The average points percentage of Florida's remaining opponents is .548.

The team with the easiest remaining schedule, based on this format, is Colorado (opponent point percentage of .527) while the team with the most difficult path to walk is Detroit (opp. point percentage .591).

Deadline deals coming? The NHL's next milestone date, the annual Trade Deadline, is less than a month away (Feb. 24 at 3 p.m. ET). It's no secret that Panthers General Manager Dale Tallon has been after a left-shooting defenseman to help fortify Florida's back line, and Tallon has never been shy about making moves at the deadline.

Several players come to mind that might be available, such as Shayne Gostisbehere, Andy Greene and Sami Vatanen (yes, he's a righty, but he can play both sides and gobble up top-four minutes), just to name a few. While Greene and Vatanen are potential rentals (both UFA's after the season), Gostisbehere would be more of a long-term play. He'll have three years left on his current deal, which comes with an annual cap hit of $4.5 million. It's not out of the realm of possibility for Tallon to bring the 26-year-old South Florida native home and try to revive his once promising young career.

One player to keep an eye on as the trade winds blow is San Jose defenseman Brenden Dillon. Another pending free agent, Dillon would add some grit, tenacity and playoff experience to Florida's younger back end. Tallon also has a good working relationship, and friendship, with Sharks GM Doug Wilson.

Final (food for) thought: Over the summer, Florida was in the mix for Artemi Panarin. Last month, the Panthers did more than just inquire when Taylor Hall was on the trade block. Both superstar players ended up elsewhere, but it’s a clear indication that Tallon is open, and possibly still looking, to bringing in another big contract. Just something to keep in mind.


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