We’ve reached the NHL All-Star break, and the Florida Panthers have been a disappointment, sitting 10 points out of the eighth and final playoff spot currently held by the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Panthers (20-20-8) have 48 points, and they would need to leapfrog three other teams in their remaining 34 games just to get to the Penguins.
But then there’s also the fact that the Panthers were the hottest team in the league last year from Jan. 30 to the end of the regular season. They finished just one point short of the playoffs.
This year, they got started a little early — as least compared to last season — as they have taken their current nine-day break while on a three-game win streak.
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So … are the Panthers too late to make a serious push to contention … or are they actually a bit early?
It might well be the latter if the Panthers can maintain the level they have showed in this winning streak, beating three teams who now hold playoff spots — the Leafs, Predators and Sharks.
“We have our confidence back, that swagger,” Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo said after his team’s last game before the break. “Three good teams, and we were able to play hard and get the wins.”
The Panthers have shown they won’t back down from elite squads. They are 3-3-2 against the four division leaders and 9-11-4 against teams currently holding a playoff spot.
However, the Panthers need to do a much better job against teams such as the Rangers, who are rebuilding, and the mediocre Canucks. Against those two teams, the Panthers are 0-4-1.
On the positive side, the Panthers’ win streak began with the first game back from injury for second-line center Vincent Trocheck, a 2017 All-Star who missed 28 games this season due to a fractured right ankle.
Trocheck, who scored 54 goals the past two seasons — never missing a game — has been hot upon his return.
He has two goals and four assists in those three games, and he also provides speed on the back-check as an all-around contributor.
“[Trocheck] coming back is huge for our club,” Luongo said. “He energizes the guys in the locker-room. He gives everyone a little bit more jump.”
When Trocheck returned from his injury, the Panthers were mired in a seven-game losing streak that was the longest for the franchise in nearly six years.
But, just like that, the momentum has been changed.
“It’s fun to win some hockey games,” Trocheck said. “It’s been tough for us this year in that department. To go into the break with a little bit of momentum, it’s going to make a big difference in the second half.”
Besides the return of Trocheck, the other change that started last week was improved defense. The Panthers this season have the third worst defensive record in the league in terms of goals per game (3.54).
However, during their three-game winning streak — with new defensemen Josh Brown and Ian McCoshen in the lineup — the Panthers allowed 1.67 goals per contest.
Brown, 25, and McCoshen, 23, have added physicality to the Panthers defense. Brown is a a 6-5, 215-pounder. McCoshen is a 6-3, 215-pounder.
On Tuesday, the Panthers sent Brown and McCoshen — along with rookie forward Jayce Hawryluk — to their American Hockey League affiliate, the Springfield Thunderbirds, allowing them to continue to work on their games during Florida’s break.
However, they could all return once the Panthers get back on the ice Feb. 1 against the visiting Nashville Predators.
Brown and McCoshen have replaced two defensemen: Alex Petrovic, who was traded to the Edmonton Oilers on Dec. 30; and MacKenzie Weegar, who went on injured reserve on Jan. 15 as part of the concussion protocol.
“These are two big d-men who can move bodies in front of the net,” Luongo said of Brown and McCoshen. “They play physical in front and make it hard on forwards, and that’s maybe an element we were missing earlier in the season.
“[Brown and McCoshen] have done a fabulous job as a pair. It’s brought a lot to our club.”