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Behind Enemy Lines: Crunch time approaches the Florida Panthers

The Canes visit the Panthers in a last-chance battle of Eastern Conference wild card outsiders.

NHL: Florida Panthers at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

As the season draws to a close, the Florida Panthers and Carolina Hurricanes sit together at 73 total points, eight points out of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, and in need of a terrific finishing kick to stay alive. Tonight’s game may well amount to a de facto elimination game for these would-be contenders.

For Florida, this season has been a disappointment following their unexpected rise to division champion last season in the Atlantic Division. This season has featured the firing of coach Gerard Gallant, the subsequent placement of front office member Tom Rowe as head coach, and what can best be characterized as a disappointing season to this point.

The Panthers’ greatest struggle this season has come on the offensive end. After finishing last season with the sixth most goals, they have sank to 24th in 2016-17, and this decrease has worryingly coincided with a drop off in their goal prevention. Also sixth in that category a season ago, the Panthers now sit at 19th in goals against, which when combining those two stats, paints a pretty simple picture of how they have struggled to regain the success in the standings they were expected to have.

Offensively, the Panthers have been led by Vincent Trocheck, who leads the team in points at 49. Goal leader Jonathan Marchessault has netted 23 thus far, in what amounts to a breakout season for the 26-year old. The disappointment in terms of points has come from ascending star Aleksander Barkov, who is on pace to finish just under the 59 points he scored a season ago. While his 46-point effort thus far is not overly concerning, there is little doubt that the Panthers had increasingly high expectations for the young center from Finland which have not been completely met.

The other significant disappointment has been the young American Nick Bjugstad, who had finished with an average of 38 points over the past three seasons has slumped all the way down to just nine total points in 43 games played. Bjugstad’s rough year, coupled with the anticipated slowing of the NHL’s second all-time goal scorer, Jaromir Jagr, who has tallied only 39 points this season after finishing with 66 in a renaissance season last year, has led to the depressed offensive production which the Panthers have been unable to overcome.

In net, the Panthers hoped to bolster their tandem by adding free agent James Reimer to alleviate some of the heavy load from 37-year old Roberto Luongo. This strategy has worked decently, with Luongo and Reimer having a .915 and .917 save percentage respectively, while roughly splitting time in net (Luongo has 40 starts, Reimer has 35, although Luongo has been out injured the past couple of weeks).

The issues have come from in front of the last line of defense. This season, the Panthers have allowed the seventh most shots against them, after finishing with the 18th most against them a season ago. With only a slight decrease in overall save percentage from a season ago (.917 to .913) the Panthers have managed to go from sixth to 19th in goals against.

In order to win tonight’s game, it is imperative for the Hurricanes to get off to a quick start. The Panthers have outscored their opponents in the first period 65-61 this season, but have been blitzed by double figures in each of the final two periods. If the Canes can get out on top against a wounded Panthers team, it will make their job much simpler.

The Panthers are expected to send Reimer out in net and are still without top defenseman Aaron Ekblad who is dealing with concussion-like symptoms. The speed which Carolina has displayed in their more impressive performances lately must be on display in order to secure the much needed two points available in Sunrise. We shall see which team can execute as we barrel toward the end of the season.

What to Watch For

  • Expect to see Eddie Lack in net for the Canes. Can he continue to build on his good play of late?
  • The Panthers are limping to the finish with a 3-9-1 record in their last 13 games. It will be interesting to see if they show signs of packing it in, or if they dig deep for the extra energy and edge needed to rip off a significant streak. If they are to do so, expect it to start tonight, in the first game of a three game homestand.
  • Bill Peters shuffled his lines in the second and third periods in Philadephia on Sunday. Will he settle back into the groupings of the last few weeks, or will he look to make further changes? Perhaps he will keep some of the lines in place which sparked the Hurricane comeback on Sunday.