Panthers enter home stretch: 10 Observations with less than 10 games to go before the playoffs

Sam Bennett of the Florida Panthers handles the puck against the Columbus Blue Jackets during second period at the BB&T Center on April 19, 2021 in Sunrise, Florida. (Joel Auerbach, 2021 Getty Images)

SUNRISE, Fla. – Longtime followers of the Florida Panthers will say that it makes perfect sense for the Cats to have one of the best seasons in franchise history during a year with realigned divisions and a pandemic-shortened schedule.

Never been done before? Complete and utter unexpectedness? Countless reasons to blame for any struggles or bumps in the road?

Well, naturally that means the Panthers will be competing for the President’s Trophy.

That’s right, there will be no traditional playoff chase in which Florida is scraping and clawing to squeak into a final spot, an effort that more times than not has ended in futility.

This season has been (and we hope will continue to be) an exercise in how a successful hockey organization operates.

With about three weeks left in the regular season, the questions being asked of the Panthers are new and exciting when compared to the usual rhetoric this time of year.

Who will they end up facing in the first round? Will they finish first in the Central Division? Can they keep pace in the race for the President’s Trophy, given to the best regular season team every season?

At least divisionally, Florida appears to hold their postseason position destiny in their own hands. They have two games remaining against both Tampa and Carolina, all of which will take place at BB&T Center.

Indeed, while the Panthers’ 2020-21 campaign has been a rousing success to this point, the best may still be yet to come.

Taking all that into consideration, it seemed like a good time to drop a final regular season edition of 10 Observations to review what’s going on around the coolest Cats in South Florida as they prepare to enter the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

1- Tampa Bay is a better matchup for Florida than Carolina. This has become more and more apparent as the season has progressed. Simply put, the Panthers don’t have to play a perfect game to beat Tampa, but they do against Carolina. This week’s mini-series against the Hurricanes could go a long way toward giving Florida some confidence against the speedy Canes, but the way these three teams have played each other all season, Tampa has been easier for the Panthers to handle.

Granted, a lot could change with the Lightning if/when they get Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov back in the lineup, but even those massive potential additions come with a lot of question marks, as both are coming off of injuries and Kucherov in particular, who had hip surgery in December, hasn’t played meaningful hockey games since last year’s Stanley Cup Final.

2- Brandon Montour’s style of play is fitting right in with Florida, and his presence also appears to be enhancing the game of defensive partner Markus Nutivaara. Maybe it’s chemistry, maybe it’s timing…but Nutivaara is playing his best hockey of the season since being paired up with Montour. Nutivaara’s positioning in the defensive zone has been on point, and on the other side of the ice there has been much more success keeping plays moving and getting pucks toward the net.

As for Montour, he’s been steady defensively and looked incredibly comfortable while working on Florida’s second power play unit Tuesday. The pairing has literally come out of nowhere to become the Panthers top defensive combo over their past three games.

“He moves well with the puck,” Nutivaara said of Montour. “I like him. I’ve got nothing bad to say. I feel good, just got to keep the puck moving and keep on getting better.”

3- After three games, Sam Bennett appears to be a perfect fit with the Panthers. Not since the arrival of Jaromir Jagr has a trade acquisition looked so good in South Florida so quickly. He’s centering a line with a pair of extremely skilled wingers in Jonathan Huberdeau and Anthony Duclair, and all three have been reaping the benefits of being surrounded by such talent.

In the three games since the trio was put together, they have accumulated 16 points (6-10-16) on 22 shots and hold a combined +23 on-ice rating.

“Benny has come in here from Calgary and he’s had a couple nice games for us,” said Panthers head coach Joel Quenneville. “He gave us some presence physically and does what he has to do. That line looks like there’s some fun growing between the three of them.”

Said Huberdeau: “We’re finding chemistry out there. We’re just keeping things simple. Duke is really fast, and Sam just goes to the net, finds the puck and puts it in.”

Added Duclair: “The acquisition of Bennett was huge for us. He’s a big force down the middle. Obviously with Huby, one of the best playmakers in the league, I’ve just got to get open, and they’ll find me.”

4- Mason Marchment does a lot of the ‘little things’ that head coaches rave about. He forechecks well, has a strong stick he uses to disrupt plays and force turnovers, he throws his body around, wins puck battles and is very tough along the boards.

The undrafted 25-year-old doesn’t have the raw skills of a Sasha Barkov or Jonathan Huberdeau, but he makes up for it with a motor that doesn’t stop and by making sure he’s always the hardest worker on the ice.

Marchment took an elbow to the face during Tuesday’s win over Columbus and is listed as day-to-day with an upper-body injury, so hopefully he’s not out of the lineup very long.

5- We thought this team was deep BEFORE the deadline, but now…new Florida GM Bill Zito added three forwards that will instantly push for more playing time and a couple defenseman to an already budding group of young and talented rearguards.

With the forwards, Nikita Gusev and Sam Bennett should be everyday lineup guys. Lucas Wallmark will likely compete for ice time with the likes of Juho Lammikko, Eetu Luostarinen and Ryan Lomberg once Carter Verhaeghe, Noel Acciari and Mason Marchment come back and the forward lines become that much harder to crack.

Defensively, the sting of losing Aaron Ekblad was alleviated a bit by the addition of Brandon Montour and Lucas Carlsson, as well as the activation of Noah Juulsen off Injured Reserve. The sheer size of Florida’s defensive ranks forced Carlsson to start with the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch, as the Cats are currently carrying 10 defensemen between the active roster and taxi squad.

6- Speaking of injuries, Florida has been able to survive a pretty intense bout with the injury bug over the past month or so. First they lost Sasha Barkov and Patric Hornqvist, cutting a big chunk out of the Cats top two lines and an already depleted and struggling number one power play unit. Anthony Duclair went down next, but he fortunately only missed a handful of games. Just when it looked like Florida was getting healthy, Noel Acciari was suddenly held out of the lineup, and then the news of Carter Verhaeghe being week-to-week came basically out of nowhere.

Despite all that, the train has rolled on. Since March 27, amid all those injuries, the Panthers are boasting a 10-3-1 record. They’re currently riding a three-game winning streak and have points in each of their last five outings (4-0-1).

“That’s what shows our character,” Huberdeau said. “Injuries are going to happen, especially this year, with a lot of games in a short amount of days. The guys have really stepped up.”

7- Nikita Gusev is bringing Florida’s top power play unit back to life. He’s very mobile and active, and has shown he can get his shot off from either side of the ice while facilitating the puck through the middle with great vision and relative ease.

His confidence with the puck is growing as his comfort level rises, and the passing plays will likely get prettier as the chemistry grows with his new teammates; there already appears to be a rapport growing with Sasha Barkov, which would be an ideal situation for Florida.

8- Spencer Knight looked solid in his NHL debut on Tuesday, turning aside 33 shots in a 5-1 win over the Blue Jackets. Knight wasn’t called upon to do anything spectacular, but he was incredibly poised and in control throughout the game, something quite impressive for someone who was a teenager just two days prior (his 20th birthday was Monday).

There are still some technical aspects of Knight’s game that could use some refining, such as unnecessary movements on shuffles and the placement of his gloves, but those are issues that should get resolved as he continues to grow and get stronger (remember what I said about him only being 20 years old?).

Overall, it’s hard to imagine someone that young looking that comfortable at the NHL level. There is a lot to like about Knight’s game, which should only improve now that he’s being coached up by goaltending legends like Roberto Luongo and Francois Allaire.

“I wasn’t as nervous as I thought I would be,” Knight said after Tuesday’s game. “The guys did a good job of just keeping it light, just telling me to go out and play hockey. That’s what I tried to do, and at the end of the day, it’s just hockey.”

Said Coach Q: “He looked very cool and calm in the net. The way he came out and handled pucks and assessed all his options, you could see his understanding of where everybody is around the game. He tracks the puck extremely well. It was a great start for his career.”

9- Sergei Bobrovsky is quietly getting the job done. He’s not setting the world on fire or anything like that, but he’s steadily performing well enough in games that Florida has kept racking up the wins. The cheap goals are almost entirely gone and his aggressiveness, his willingness to challenge shooters and his rebound control have slowly but surely improved.

After Monday’s win over Columbus, Bobrovsky improved his record to 17-7-2 this season, with a respectable 2.82 goals against average and .909 save percentage. Bob will also finish the season with a perfect 5-0-0 record against his former club.

“It’s always fun to win and definitely against the former team, it’s maybe a little bit special” Bobrovsky said after Monday’s game. “Not definitely gives you a little bit more of an edge. I’m happy to be 5-0 against Columbus, but when every game is so important, every game is fighting for two points, you just focus and don’t think too much about the outside.”

10- Bill Zito clearly has the Midas touch, and it boggles the mind to think that it took so long for him to be hired as an NHL GM. Since arriving in South Florida last October, move after move made by Zito and his staff have worked out amazingly well for the Panthers. In the offseason, it was adds like Carter Verhaeghe, Radko Gudas and Patric Hornqvist that instantly infused a combination of effort, skill and grit to the roster, and perhaps just as importantly, a winning and hard-working culture in the locker room. How about Gus Forsling? The training camp waiver claim has turned into a top pairing defenseman, gobbling up minutes and helping mitigate the loss of Aaron Ekblad.

Then at the trade deadline, Zito brought in another skilled top four defensemen in Brandon Montour, who has fit like a glove on Florida’s back line, and former fourth overall pick Sam Bennett, a move that, at least after a few games, appears to be one of the most significant and underrated in the NHL this season.

Zito also lured free agents Nikita Gusev and Matt Kiersted to South Florida, both arriving from completely different situations (Gusev’s contract with the New Jersey Devils was terminated while Kiersted was a highly coveted undrafted free agent out of the University of North Dakota) but each was able to step right into the lineup and contribute to what Coach Quenneville had been implementing all season.

That’s the thing...not only is Zito targeting talented players, but he’s also bringing in pieces that fit right into Quenneville’s style of play. It’s not necessarily about acquiring the best players, it’s about bringing in the right ones. That’s exactly what Zito has done during his first season running Florida’s front office.

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.