The scene was the bowels of Madison Square Garden during the late afternoon of October 23rd.
Bob Boughner was surrounded by reporters during his pregame press briefing, all of whom were asking probing questions regarding a team that at the time had lost five of its first six games and did not at all appear to be one of the trendy preseason picks to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Eventually, Boughner was asked if he thought the start of the 2018-19 Florida Panthers season was similar to how the 2017-18 edition began theirs.
“It feels different,” Boughner said at the time. “Last year I think there was a lot of uncertainty in the systems early on, and guys were making big mistakes. Analytically we’re better in a lot of areas that we wanted to see. We haven’t been a good second period team. We haven’t done very well controlling momentum of the game when we have control of the game. That’s something we have to get better at. Systems-wise I think we’re a lot tighter in our system.”
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A mere 25 days later, Boughner’s words still ring true. A team that was 1-2-3 when he spoke is now 7-7-3 after Saturday night’s 4-2 loss to the Rangers at the Garden. Mike Hoffman extended his franchise-best point streak to 15 games with his eighth goal of the season 4:40 into the game, and Aaron Ekblad added a power play goal 5:31 later to put the Panthers ahead 2-1. But Brendan Smith tied the game 1:38 after Ekblad’s goal, and Vladimir Namestnikov’s pop-up early in the second was the game-winner. Chris Kreider added a power play goal in the third. The Panthers outshot the Rangers, 41-24, yet were only able to solve Henrik Lundqvist (39 saves) twice. Roberto Luongo allowed all four New York goals on 24 shots.
“We had our chances,” Hoffman said. “The difference was they capitalized on theirs and we didn’t capitalize on ours.”
The loss was only the third this month for the Panthers, who opened November with a 4-2 loss to the Winnipeg Jets, then won five straight before dropping matches to the Blue Jackets and Rangers, the latter of which caused them to end Saturday in the same position in which they began the day: last in the Atlantic Division.
“We’re doing a lot of good things,” stressed Keith Yandle after Saturday night’s loss. But the data has proven him to be both right and wrong.
The positives are the Panthers have outscored opponents 26-21 in November, and over the course of the month are 11-32 on the power play, and have outshot opponents 282-255.
“If you’re out-shooting teams, out-chancing teams, that’s the first step. The second is to clean up the (defensive zone) a little bit. Limit their chances (and) the quality of scoring chances we give up,” said Hoffman.
Defensively, the Panthers are a work in progress.
Entering Saturday’s game, the Panthers averaged 3.2 goals scored per game but allowed the same number of goals against while out-shooting opponents by an average of 35-30. Specialty teams has also been a mixed bag. Whereas the power play is 17-for-72 over the course of the season, the penalty kill has allowed 14 goals on 54 man advantages against.
All of which puts pressure on the goaltenders to bail out their teammates.
“Obviously I’m not happy with the first couple goals I let in. I have to be better than that. It’s tough to let in two goals like that and ask your teammates to win. They played well. I just have to make the saves,” said Luongo, who now has a 2.48 goals against average and .918 save percentage. “That’s what’s happening the last couple of games. Like I said, it’s on me to bail them out when there’s mistakes made, but that’s how hockey goes. There’s going to be mistakes made in the game and I have to come up (with) the save.”