When David Kampf – hardly an NHL blueblood – easily skated right around Florida Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad on Saturday night and then scored on goalie James Reimer … it was not a good sign for the home team.
The Panthers lost to the visiting Chicago Blackhawks 5-4 in overtime on Saturday, and the issue – again – was defense.
Florida is allowing 3.62 goals per game, which is the second-worst average in the league, better than only the Ottawa Senators.
Given that porous defense, it’s no coincidence that the Panthers (8-9-4) and Senators are the two worst teams in the Eastern Conference.
The Panthers seemingly had Saturday’s game won, 4-3, before allowing yet another goal, this one by Alex DeBrincat with just 1.8 seconds left in regulation. Then the Panthers got beat in overtime by Erik Gustafsson.
Offensively, the Panthers rank 12th among 31 teams with 3.24 goals per game. But defensively …
“We can’t be allowing five or six (goals) per game,” Panthers winger Mike Hoffman said. “We have to take ownership of that as a group. We have to learn from this. It’s happened too many times now. It’s unacceptable.”
Hoffman, who last week set a Panthers record with a 17-game points streak, was correct when he mentioned the word “group”.
Defense is not just a goalie thing – defensemen play a huge role, and the forwards have to do their jobs as well.
Turnovers are another issue. The Panthers led Saturday’s game 4-2 and were on a power play when forward Nick Bjugstad was stripped of the puck in his own end by Chicago’s Alexandre Fortin.
Reimer made the initial stop on Fortin’s breakaway. But the puck bounced into the net off of Fortin’s left skate – all because of the turnover.
“That shorthanded goal turned the whole tide,” Panthers coach Bob Boughner said. “We sort of beat ourselves, and it hurts.”
In an attempt to find answers to what ails the Panthers defense, here are some of the numbers:
▪ The Panthers are killing just 75 percent of their penalties – only three NHL teams are worse.
Florida’s star defensemen – Ekblad, Keith Yandle and Mike Matheson – are known more for offense than being shut-down defenders. Newcomer Bogdan Kiselevich, a former all-star in Russia, was supposed to help the PK unit, but he hasn’t had a major impact.
The injury on Monday to center Vincent Trocheck hurts because he is known as a two-way player who can score but also defend.
▪ While not all the blame can be placed on the goalies, the fact that starter Roberto Luongo is now on his second injury of a season that is only 21 games old is a big problem.
Luongo is a sure-fire Hall of Famer, but he will be 40 in April, and he has been breaking down a lot the past three seasons. He played just 40 games in 2016-2017, then 35 last season and nine this time around. He has a 3.07 goals-against average and a .902 save percentage.
Reimer has a 3.43 GAA and an .894 save percentage. And third stringer Michael Hutchinson hasn’t been the answer, either – 4.17 GAA and .839 SP.
“With Trocheck and Luongo out,” Boughner said, “you’ve got to make sure you’re doing the right things with the puck.”
▪ The Panthers rank second in the NHL in most shots on goal per game (35.7), and there are no major issues on face-offs as they are winning 50.4 percent of their draws.
Florida’s power play, with the trade acquisition this past offseason of Hoffman, has been hot and has moved up to sixth in the league (25.6 conversion rate).
But giveaways should be a point of emphasis as the Panthers had 19 of those to only nine for Chicago on Saturday. Ekblad had the most giveaways with four, and Hoffman had three.
The good news for the Panthers is that they have played the fewest home games in the NHL at the moment, compiling a 3-3-2 record at the BB&T Center. The schedule will even out as Florida’s next seven games are at home.
It’s time for the Panthers to take advantage, but that will only happen if they can maintain focus for the entire game, especially defensively.
“We (tend) to outshoot teams and out play teams – 45 minutes of good hockey,” Panthers captain and center Aleksander Barkov said.
“But then we give (opponents) five minutes every period that they can do whatever they want. We sit back and don’t play confident, and that is costing us games.”