The Florida Panthers, despite spending most of the season atop the NHL standings, have one big problem.
Really, it’s more like three small problems, Andrew Brunette said.
The Panthers, who entered Thursday with the second-best record in the Eastern Conference, are the best team in the league when they play in South Florida and have a losing record on the road, and this is particularly problematic because the Panthers has have only played 15 games away from Sunrise this year — the fewest road games in the NHL.
“It’s obviously something that we’ve looked at as a team, and we want to find a way to figure that out,” star defenseman Aaron Ekblad said Wednesday. “I think it just comes down to us understanding that a road game is a hell of a lot harder than a home game.”
There are plenty of reasons, some of which apply in any sport and some which are specific to hockey.
Brunette, of course, pointed to the difficulty of traveling and sleeping in unfamiliar beds on the road, plus the positive affect a crowd can have on the home team. The home team also gets to make the last shift during stoppages, which is particularly advantageous for Florida as one of the deepest teams in the league, with the ability to create a good matchup in nearly every situation.
For whatever reason, the difficulties of playing on the road have manifested into three major issues for the Panthers: Their power play drops from middle of the pack to bottom, their penalty kill drops from top five to bottom 10 and their save percentage plummets toward the bottom of the league.
“You put all those together and it’s tough to win games on the road,” Brunette said Thursday before his team continued a season-long five-game road trip, its longest of the season so far, against the Edmonton Oilers at Rogers Place.
At home, Florida scores on 23.1 percent of its power plays, which would rank in the top 10 across the full season. On the road, it scores on just 12.8 percent of those opportunities, which would be the third worst mark in the league.
At home, the Panthers kill off 85.3 percent of the penalties they face, which would rank third in the league across the full season. On the road, they kill off just 73.1 percent of those chances, which would rank in the bottom five.
Florida’s goaltenders have a .922 save percentage at home, which would rank in the top five across the full season. On the road, their save percentage drops to .890, which would be second worst in the NHL.
At home, the Panthers (26-8-5) can usually survive a bad early penalty kill or a garish neutral zone turnover leading to an unstoppable breakaway opportunity because of their knack for riding the crowd at FLA Live Arena to come-from-behind wins — they have 10 comeback wins at home and only one on the road.
The goaltending issue will have to sort itself out and part of the problem is rookie Spencer Knight, who has been among the worst goaltenders in the league this year, has disproportionately started games on the road.
For everyone else, the challenge is sticking to an identity, but making it work no matter where the game is played.. Florida encourages creativity and aggression on offense, which means defensemen will be caught of position occasionally and opposing odd-man rushes — the Panthers have given up the second most high-danger chances in the league — will happen.
“You almost have to play a little bit differently, but at the end of the day we just have to be a little bit sharper in our D zone, make a little bit cleaner plays as we’re exiting and understand that we have to hold onto the puck in the offensive zone,” Ekblad said. “It’s just important for us to really find our mojo on the road and we will at some point.”
Barkov misses out on ASG
Maybe the underrated label isn’t gone for Aleksander Barkov, after all.
The star center won’t be going to Las Vegas for the 2022 NHL All-Star Game next month after fans voted Steven Stamkos into the game to take the Atlantic Division’s final roster spot.
Barkov isn’t too upset, though.
“Thank you for everyone that voted for me. It was nice to see a lot of nice messages, but, obviously, it’s a good time to relax a little bit and stay at home,” Barkov said. “My family’s here, so I’ll stay with them for a bit. ... It’s going to be a nice little break.”
Panthers’ Hornqvist out, Tippett in
Patric Hornqvist remains day to day after sustaining an upper-body injury Tuesday and was not in the lineup Thursday against the Oilers (18-5-2) in Edmonton.
With Hornqvist sidelined, fellow right wing Owen Tippett rejoined the lineup after a brief stint in the American Hockey League.