For the past month, the Florida Panthers have been one of the three hottest teams in the NHL.
The Panthers’ 10-3-0 run from Jan. 30 to the end of February — which ranks them with the Philadelphia Flyers and Toronto Maple Leafs during that span — put them in contention for what would be just their sixth playoff berth since the franchise was born in 1993.
Rookie head coach Bob Boughner has overseen the surprising rise of a Panthers team that was never given much of a chance this season and was surely counted out in January when both starting goalie Roberto Luongo and backup James Reimer went down with injuries.
But Boughner and the Panthers turned their season around thanks in large part to the efforts of rookie (and previously virtually unknown) goalie Harri Sateri, who is now back in the minors, and also to a key line change.
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During this hot streak, the Panthers have gone 5-2-0 on the road.
And, since returning home, they have taken down the Washington Capitals, reigning winner of the Presidents’ Trophy the past two seasons; the Pittsburgh Penguins, reigning Stanley Cup champion the past two seasons; and the Toronto Maple Leafs, who entered the weekend in second place in the Eastern Conference.
Since Jan. 30, the Panthers have shown the ability to win high-scoring games (7-5 over the Edmonton Oilers and 6-5 over the Penguins) as well as goalie duels (3-2 over the Capitals, Leafs and Detroit Red Wings).
Boughner granted the Miami Herald a one-on-one interview this week, and here’s his view on the Panthers revival:
▪ How has this happened?
“Finally, in the second half [of the season], we’ve made the adjustment to the new [coaching] staff, new system, getting to know the players’ tendencies.
“We’ve searched for the right line combinations. The players have been all in all season, but now they are seeing results.”
▪ You moved Jonathan Huberdeau down to the second line to play with Vincent Trocheck, and you lifted Nick Bjugstad to the top line with Aleksander Barkov and Evgenii Dadonov. Why?
“A month ago; we found that, every night, the Barkov line was carrying the team, and we didn’t have enough balance. We needed to have a line for Trocheck to anchor, and the emergence of Denis Malgin [currently injured] really helped. The line changes spread out our attack.”
▪ Do you want to keep these lines together long term?
“The top two lines, I want to especially keep together. There may be times when you change things up when you need a spark or you might put in a defensive-minded forward if you are trying to protect a lead. And we want to make sure we have at least some speed on every line. We don’t want to have two or three slower guys on a line.”
▪ What is the identity of your team?
“We want to be a hard team to play against, especially at home. We want to play fast, stretch teams out in the neutral zone, play north and south and work off the forecheck.”
▪ To what do you attribute the improvement of the power play over the past month?
“We have switched some personnel within the power play, our puck-retrieval has been better, we are playing behind the net and using that area more, and we have more of a shot-first mentality.
“A good power play scores about 20 percent of the time. At the end of the day, even if we don’t score, we want to pin them back for two minutes and make sure we don’t lose momentum, which can happen if you have a bad power play.”
▪ Were you disappointed the Panthers made just one deal before the trade deadline expired on Monday?
“Any coach would be lying if he said he didn’t hope something happens and you improve. But I had a good talk with management. We have great young pieces [in the organization] who we are not ready to part with.
“We wanted to make sure that whatever we did was a long-term thing and not a two-month rental. We have prospects everyone wanted. I think we did the right thing.”
▪ In the one deal the Panthers made, 23-year-old left winger Frank Vatrano was acquired from the Boston Bruins. What do you like about his game?
“He’s a good, young player who will be part of this in the future. I saw him last season when I was [with the San Jose Sharks], and he was one of those guys who was noticeable.
“He has proven in the AHL that he is a good goal-scorer. He can play on our second line, but, more likely, he will bring offense to our third line.”
▪ Sateri won four straight games from Jan. 30 to Feb. 6. How do you view his contribution this season?
“I can’t say enough about him. He had no [NHL] experience [prior to this season], and, all of a sudden, he found his stride. He really did save our season. Without him, we wouldn’t be where we are right now.
“I hope we can keep him around. But he turned his career around, and he might get another job [with another organization].”