The Florida Panthers are leading the Atlantic Division on Dec. 28, with 44 points in 36 games.
No, this is not an eggnog hangover.
Granted, it’s taken 12 wins in 15 games to erase the bad taste of their nine losses in 12 games. Granted, they’ve played one more game than the Detroit Red Wings and the Boston Bruins, the former trailing them by one point and the latter by two points. (The Ottawa Senators are also two points back, having also played 36 games.) Granted, it took the total collapse of the Montreal Canadiens after losing Carey Price and Brendan Gallagher to injury, losing six straight as the Cats won six in a row.
But still … the Florida Panthers are leading the Atlantic Division on Dec. 28.
"We got off to a slow, average start but the past month, it's no fluke that we're winning. We haven't been good for a week. We're really learning to carry the momentum,” said defenseman Aaron Ekblad, via the Miami Herald.
Here are six reasons why this ascent is pretty amazing.
1. No Nick Bjugstad
The Panthers have vaulted to the top of the division without one of their key offensive contributors in Bjugstad, who is out with an “upper body injury” that’s included migraines. He last played against Detroit on Nov. 29. The Panthers have gone 10-3-0 since then. Bjugstad is due back soon, unless someone decides to Tonya Harding him because he was obviously the problem.
2. A 43-Year-Old Leads Them In Scoring
Look, we’re not going to spill more digital ink singing the praise of Jaromir Jagr, but really, people: He leads the Panthers with 25 points, is second in goals with 10 and that’s with missing three games. Still the greatest.
3. They’re Ridiculously Good Defensively At Even Strength, Which Is Good Because Their Penalty Kill Is Strikingly Average
The Florida Panthers have the fifth least even-strength goals against with 51 in 36 games. Meanwhile, their penalty kill ranks No. 16 overall at 80.3 percent. The good news is that they’ve limited their times shorthanded to 3.1 per game (112 on the season, 17th in the NHL).
4. They Have No Rally
These are not the Cardiac Cats. They’re a team that’s 1-10-1 when losing after two periods and 0-7-2 when they trail after the first. The good news, obviously, is that they’ve only trailed in 12 of 36 of their games entering the third – they’ve had a lead heading into the third in 16 of 36 games. But there are only two other teams that have yet to win a game in which they’ve trailed after the first period – the Carolina Hurricanes and the Columbus Tire Fire.
5. They Stink In OT, Rule In Shootout
The Panthers are 1-3 in overtime. They’re 5-1 in the shootout, however, the most skills competition victories in the NHL. And it hasn’t been Roberto Luongo's mastery that’s powered them – he has 11 saves on 18 shots. No, it’s been Sasha Barkov (5-of-5) and Brandon Pirri (5 of 6) leading the way.
Which brings us to …
6. Don’t Look Now, But Aleksander Barkov Is Jonathon Toews: Miami
Barkov missed some time with injury, but he has 20 points in 26 games, has a 50.3 percent faceoff winning percentage and is playing 19:37 per night, including 1:20 shorthanded. He starts only 26.7 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone, and his opponents’ goals-for average for every 60 5-on-5 minutes he’s on the ice is 1.99. Their Corsi-For percentage is 54.02. (Toews, by comparison, is 2.18 and 53.88).
“He plays both sides of the puck; he’s great defensively and plays a great offensive game. He’s a real team player,” said coach Gerard Gallant.
Greg Wyshynski is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at email@example.com or find him on Twitter. His book, TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE PUCK, is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.
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