With just more than three minutes left in regulation on Tuesday in a tied game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Florida Panthers found themselves in far too familiar territory when fourth-line forward Jonah Gadjovich was sent to the penalty box for a double-minor high sticking penalty.
Once again, the Panthers were on the penalty kill. This time, the group needed to have its biggest moment of the game to ensure Florida could at least get the game to overtime.
It did just that. After three solid minutes with Florida playing a man down, Toronto was called for too many men on the ice, which negated the rest of the Maple Leafs’ power play with five seconds left in regulation.
“It was a big kill,” forward Kevin Stenlund said. “Obviously we needed it at that time.”
The Panthers ended the night a perfect 6 for 6 on the penalty kill.
And while they only got one point out of the effort after losing 2-1 to the Maple Leafs in a shootout, it shouldn’t be lost how Florida’s penalty kill has quickly become one of its most reliable units over the past month after being one of the worst in the NHL last season.
The Panthers have successfully killed off all 20 of their opponents’ power-play opportunities through the past five games, including going 12 for 12 in the first two games of this road trip that ends Thursday against the Montreal Canadiens.
Three of the five opponents in this stretch are ranked in the top 10 in the NHL on the power play: The Edmonton Oilers (fifth), Toronto (seventh) and the Boston Bruins (10th).
Florida’s 89.1 percent success rate on the penalty kill in the month of November is fourth in the league behind only the Columbus Blue Jackets (94.1 percent), Los Angeles Kings (94.1 percent) and Pittsburgh Penguins (89.5 percent).
Compare that to last season, when Florida’s 76 percent success rate ranked 23rd in the NHL — or even the first month of the season when the Panthers were tied for the worst in the league at 67.9 percent — and the Panthers’ rapid ascension is well noticed.
“We’re trying to stay connected,” Stenlund said. “We’re trying to help each other on loose pucks and so on. That helps a lot and brings confidence to the whole team.”
Stenlund, who signed with the Panthers this offseason on a one-year, $1 million deal, has been a big factor in Florida’s penalty-killing success. He and Eetu Luostarinen are the Panthers’ top forward pairing when playing down a man, followed by top-line forwards Aleksander Barkov and Sam Reinhart. Anton Lundell, Sam Bennett and Matthew Tkachuk have been getting shorthanded ice time as well, with their participation on the penalty kill depending on if any of the top four are in the penalty box.
“The penalty kill was a weakness for us last year,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said. “It was something we had to fix. Our penalty kill was so good [Tuesday]... because we’re aggressive with it now.”
And while a strong penalty kill usually comes down to a dominant effort by the goaltender to stop odd-man rushes or big shots from the opponent’s top shooter, the Panthers have been strong at limiting shots from even getting to the net.
Over this five-game stretch without allowing a power-play goal, the Panthers have given up just 15 shots on goal over 33:45 while playing a man down. Seven of those shots came on Tuesday against Toronto. In the other four games, the opponents got no more than three shots on goal on the power play.
“Our PK has been unbelievable the last couple games,” backup goaltender Anthony Stolarz said Tuesday. “You just look at the way guys are being aggressive and going after loose pucks and then just eating shots and blocking shots, not allowing them to gain easy entries. It’s been a big, big part of our success.”
Added Stenlund: “We’re just trying to help each other. Talk more. The last couple games have been really good. Everyone is on their toes and going at it. It’s good.”