In a week, Panthers go from controlling destiny to likely out of playoffs. What happened?
Paul Maurice paused for a full five seconds to consider the question and needed about another three to muster up anything of substance.
There were going to be no easy answers Monday. The question was about what specifically had gone wrong during the Florida Panthers’ ongoing season-worst four-game losing streak, especially in comparison to the season-best seven-game points streak they took into it, but really it was about more. This was week when the Panthers’ hopes to make the 2023 Stanley Cup playoffs might have died and the coach had to come up with an explanation as to why.
“Well,” he finally said Monday and then eventually added, “we played two pretty poor games.”
Florida’s 5-2 loss to the Ottawa Senators on Monday in Canada wasn’t one of them, the first-year coach said. In the middle of the season before every game was under a microscope, the loss might have been one the Panthers could have just quickly forgotten about. They did, after all, handle the Senators in 5-on-5 play, only doomed by a trio of power-play goals by Ottawa.
Their margin for error, however, is far too thin right now to just forget about this one. With eight games left, the Panthers (36-31-7) sit multiple games out of a wild card and now head across Ontario to face the Stanley Cup-contending Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. at Scotiabank Arena.
Maurice’s comments — “We were a good hockey team tonight,” he later said — do ignore some important context about why Florida lost Monday and why it’s likely miss the Stanley Cup playoffs, but they also do illuminate another problem this team has had all year: The Panthers simply threw away too many games.
Some of it is due to injuries — Florida played a long stretch this winter without its top two centers. Another piece is the coaching change the Panthers made — Maurice did what general manager Bill Zito wanted and completely overhauled Florida’s style of play, which understandably took some time to do.
Even so, there are inexcusable losses in there, namely the first game of the skid against the Flyers on Tuesday. The Panthers were one of the hottest teams in the NHL when they went to Philadelphia and lost to one of the worst, losing control of their own destiny in the process. It’s another one of those games which could be OK in a vacuum, only the next two games were against two of the best teams in the league — the Maple Leafs (44-20-9) and Rangers — and Florida lost them both at FLA Live Arena, falling behind by multiple goals in each one.
So far this year, the Panthers have losses to the Blue Jackets, Blackhawks and Coyotes, and two to the Flyers, plus home games to the Blues and Sabres.
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The Senators have a losing record, too. This was another one of Florida’s easiest games left, and the Panthers again failed to capitalize.
“Obviously, this is not the result we dreamed about coming to the rink today,” All-Star right wing Matthew Tkachuk said Monday.
The reason why is pretty simple, too: Florida is the most-penalized team in the NHL and one of the worst on the penalty kill.
It’s the simplest way to explain the disconnect between the way the Panthers feel about themselves and the actual results. When games are played at even strength, Florida is a good team and teams mostly assess themselves based on 5-on-5 play, as do most advanced and predictive metrics. When either team is on the power play, the Panthers are bad.
Florida has a bottom-five penalty kill, based on percentage, and isn’t in the top-10 in power-play percentage, either. On Monday, the Panthers went 0 for 4 on the power play and 1 for 4 on the penalty kill.
“They definitely crushed us in the whole special-teams battle,” Tkachuk said. “That’s something that we’ve had a hard time with, so we’ve got to figure that out.”
They only have three weeks to do it and there are no signs they will, and even if they do, it might be too late.
“The rest of the games are really big for us,” forward Eetu Luostarinen said Monday. “We just have to cool down here, and get on the bus and start focusing on the next game.”