Following impressive unbeaten streak, homestand stumble acting as wake-up call for Quenneville’s Panthers

The Florida Panthers hold a practice at the BB&T Center on Feb. 8, 2020. (WPLG)

SUNRISE, Fla. – The first few weeks of the Florida Panthers 2020-21 season were about as peculiar as they come.

In terms of Panthers seasons, that is.

Training camps and opening nights coming in January was odd, but that was the same for every team across the board.

Or so we thought.

Right off the bat, COVID-19 postponements threw a wrench into the Panthers schedule and made things even more unorthodox, though the same can be said for half the teams in Florida’s division and several others around the league.

The strangeness surrounding the start in Sunrise has been, mostly, due to the unexpected success of the Panthers.

Unexpected because, quite frankly, Florida has historically never been the quickest runner off the blocks.

This is a team notorious for stumbling out of the proverbial gate, a problem generally magnified when the goal of obtaining an elusive playoff berth comes up just a few points short.

That’s why vaulting out to a 6-1-2 record and picking up 14 of a possible 18 points after nine games is about as nice of a jumping off point as you’d hope for.

But as the saying goes, all good things must come to an end.

“I feel like we had a great start this season,” Panthers center Alex Wennberg said following Sunday’s 4-1 loss to Detroit. “Obviously (tonight) was not the result we wanted, but we can’t bury our heads too much on this one.”

Unfortunately for Florida, riding the second-best start to a season in franchise history meant the noise made by the team’s recent stumble has seemed that much more amplified.

The Cats have kicked off their current six-game homestand by going 1-1-1, with a hard-earned 2-1 victory over Nashville on Friday sandwiched between a pair of incredibly frustrating losses.

The first defeat was more than a little troubling considering Florida held a 5-3 lead with just over two minutes remaining in the third period.

A pair of power play goals and a bad decision on a challenge cost the Panthers their lead, and a mix-up in overtime cost them the game.

“It was one of those situations where you took a little risk and it came back to bite us,” head coach Joel Quenneville said after the OT loss. “We’ll move forward and learn from that.”

The second loss came to the lowly Detroit Red Wings, a team that hadn’t won over its previous eight games.

Aside from Detroit getting a stellar game from goaltender and apparent part-owner of the Panthers Thomas Greiss, Florida wasn’t able to shut things down defensively against the Wings in the same way they’ve had success doing over the first bundle of games.

“I thought Greiss was really good tonight,” Florida winger Jonathan Huberdeau said afterwards. “We had some chances, and he stopped a lot of pucks. I think they deserved it maybe a little more than us, but we have to forget about it, our first loss in regulation, and come back and be ready for the next one.”

Detroit actually ended up outshooting the Panthers 15-13 during the third period of that game, despite Florida trailing in the goals department the entire way.

Part of what has worked well for the Cats so far this season is their ability to take solid defensive play and quickly transition into an offensive rush.

It’s when the quality of play in the defensive zone has dropped that Florida has been finding itself in some sticky situations around their goaltender, something that has not gone unnoticed in the locker room.

“I think we just have to be more aware defensively at times,” top line winger Anthony Duclair said Monday. “Sometimes we’re not playing our coverage and we’re letting too many loose pucks in front of our crease and we’re letting guys behind us, so just little things we need to adjust in the defensive end.”

There is no denying that Florida has been able to generate plenty of offense, whether it be off the rush or sustained zone time thanks to keeping possession of the puck.

Recently, that offensive pressure hasn’t been translating to goals the way it was earlier in the season. The Panthers have scored just three goals over the past two games after averaging 3.7 goals per game over their first seven.

It’s a small sample size, but the sudden drop in goal output is not being overlooked by the Cats.

“I think offensively we’re supposed to score way more than what we’re putting out there,” Duclair said. “We have to keep working hard. Goals will come.”

Overall, the attitude around the team has seemed to be a positive one. There has been a lot more good on the ice than bad, and it’s still very early in the season.

A young team like Florida with so many new players should only get better as the year progresses.

“I think we’ve been consistent in most games,” Quenneville said Sunday. “Whether ahead or behind or in a tie game, we seem to be playing the same way and don’t change the approach and stick with it.

“Special teams have been good, our D-zone coverage has been better, our balance in the lines has been fine. A lot of good, positive things that have started off here in the right fashion, but it’s going to be a test every night and getting back on the right track is going to be what we’re looking to do.”

About the Author:

David Dwork joined the WPLG Local 10 News team in August 2019. Born and raised in Miami-Dade County, David has covered South Florida sports since 2007.