The 2021-22 Florida Panthers season has certainly been dramatic. From a red-hot 8 game winning start to a coaching change to tying an NHL record for home wins to two consecutive three goal comebacks, the South Florida faithful have experienced in 24 games what many fanbases experience over many years. Despite their success at FLA Live Arena where the team has started 14-1-0, the team has not been as fortunate when traveling taking a 3-3-3 record on the road or 3-6 if you prefer to combine Regulation losses and OT Losses.
The Panthers last road win, a dramatic 3-2 overtime victory to begin Andrew Brunette’s tenure and finalize their 8 game winning streak in Detroit on October 29th has put the Panthers in the longest active stretch of not having won a game on the road (days wise) in the NHL. Every other NHL team managed one win away from their home barn in November, but not the Panthers. Normally, this is a sign of a bottomfeeding team, but the Panthers are an enigma. Thanks to favorable scheduling early in the season, the Panthers have played the least amount of road games in the NHL and their dominance at home (14-1-0) has them on top of the league. Despite this success in front of their home barn, the team and everyone knows that a 14-1-0 record, which puts them on pace for a 38-3-0 record at home over the season is not sustainable. The Panthers need to win games on the road if they want to be taken as a serious threat.
Now in the Panthers defense, the road schedule hasn’t been favorable. They’ve had to play the Rangers, Capitals, Penguins, Bruins and Lightning (twice) in each team’s respective barns, but they’ve lost games to teams that they should’ve won, most notably the 7-3 drubbing in New Jersey. Every team the Panthers have lost to on the road, has lost at FLA Live Arena (w/ the exception of the Rangers and Lightning who don’t visit until December 29th and 30th respectively). The Lightning also are a bit of an exemption as the Panthers beat them in their first visit to Amalie and lost the second one in overtime to a Brayden Point cherrypicker goal.
The Panthers have 57 games remaining and 32 will be on the road, which will make up 56.1% of the remaining schedule. 6 of the Panthers next 9 games are on the road, which will include visits against tough opponents such as Colorado, Minnesota and Carolina. A 5-3-1 record will be satisfactory for the Panthers who are only scoring 2.89 goals a game on the road, while allowing an even 3 per game.
The Panthers begin a 3 game trip tonight which will see them go to St Louis (whom they beat Saturday 4-3 in the shootout), Arizona (previously beat 5-3) and Colorado (previously beat 4-1). This trio has a combined record of 30-33-8 (w/ 18 of the regulation losses coming from Arizona). The teams combined are 16-12-2 (7 Ls contributed by Arizona) at home. The Blues have four consecutive wins on home ice with their last loss in the Enterprise Center coming on November 16, a 3-2 defeat by the Coyotes. The Blues will be eager for revenge having just lost to the Panthers on Saturday in a shootout.
The good news for the Panthers is that their lineup will gain reinforcements on this trip. Gustav Forsling is probable to play Tuesday, after missing the past 3 games with a lower-body injury. Lucas Carlsson performed admirably in his countryman’s absence and won the 6th defender spot, which will be his for the time being as Markus Nutivaara is unlikely to come back before the Olympics. Forsling’s smooth skating and two-way mentality will boost the Panthers D-corps.
More importantly, Captain Aleksander Barkov is questionable for Tuesday’s game. Barkov has struggled with injuries this season, after a solid stretch of healthy seasons. The Finn has missed the past eight games after suffering an ugly knee injury that looked like it could’ve ended his season, but turned out to look worse than it actually was, as he began skating a few days after the injury. Barkov is currently on a ten-game point streak and has the co-lead on the team in goals with 9. Among players with at least 10 games of NHL action this season, Barkov is second on the team in points per game at 1.13. Barkov helps boost the Panthers, who have performed admirably in their captain’s absence. The question is if the team can continue to play their game or if they will take the foot off the gas pedal. The team has shown a penchant for seemingly laying off the gas a bit when playing with their captain, preferring to let him dominate the show. The team cannot do that. The team needs to continue their game with everyone contributing. They can’t just take a game off and expect Barkov and the goalies to bail them out, especially with Sergei Bobrovsky beginning to regress back to the mean in terms of save percentage (hopefully the mean is his career mean and not his mean in Florida). That is unfair to Barkov, Bobrovsky, Knight, Andrew Brunette, the fans, the organization and most importantly themselves, with the amount of talent this team is capable of.
Additionally, Anthony Duclair, the speedy winger is expected back Friday. Duclair has missed the past five games with a lower-body injury and his speed was sorely missed in the Panthers poor performances in Washington and against Seattle, as well as early in the Washington home game and Buffalo game. Duclair co-leads the team in goals and has become a fan favorite in Florida. The Duke brings passion, energy and stunning skill and speed to each shift he plays and is a phenomenal ambassador for the community. The team’s energy has largely flowed through him this year, with him taking over the Carolina game.
Overall, while there is cause for concern with the road record, the Panthers are in a good place. Andrew Brunette is learning more and more every game and is already seemingly farther along in his terms of in-game management than I expected he would be. Brunette isn’t a legendary in-game mastermind like his disgraced predecessor was, but he is seemingly on a good trajectory so far. The team plays hard for him, and has seemingly embraced him easily as their leader, something former coaches, such as Rowe and Boughner struggled to obtain. Brunette should only improve with more games under his belt as a coach, and his record of 10-4-3 (especially considering he missed his captain for half that stretch) so far has given him reasonable job security. Brunette’s 1-3-3 road record needs to improve and the team has proven they are more than capable to do so.
The Panthers have faced more adversity this season than most teams have in past seasons and have passed with flying colors. This is simply another challenge. I have confidence they will be up to the task, but it is time for them to put up or shut up. Quite simply, if they can’t win on the road, they have no business in the playoffs, where a minimum of two games are played in each series in unfriendly territory.