Florida Panthers have clawed back into playoff contention

December 12, 2015: Florida Panthers center Aleksander Barkov (16) [10089] takes off with the puck. The Boston Bruins defeated the Florida Panthers 3-1 in a regular season NHL game at TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photograph by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire)
(Photograph by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire)

The NHL season is a long one, chock full of streaks, droughts, hills and valleys. Despite that, we usually have a pretty good idea about which teams will be playoff bound by Thanksgiving. According to a study done by STATS last year, squads that hold postseason spots at the end of November have made the playoffs 77.3 percent of the time since 2005-06.

Sometimes teams rise and fall, but in general we know who the Stanley Cup contenders are two months into the season. Players and coaches will tell you that it’s way too early to think about April, but the stats support the claim.

The Florida Panthers went into Thanksgiving five points out of a playoff spot, losers of nine of their last 12 contests and on a three-game losing streak. The team wasn’t doomed, but the uphill climb was already apparent and daunting. At the time, head coach Gerard Gallant knew that his team had to improve quickly to keep the playoff chase alive, telling George Richards of The Miami Herald the following:

“We haven’t won enough games over the past dozen; it’s not good enough. If we want to be a playoff team, we have to play better.”

Since then, the Panthers have climbed the Atlantic Division standings, winning eight of 11 games in December. Overall they’ve won 10 of their last 13 and have closed a considerable gab between themselves and the Division-leading Montreal Canadiens. Heading into action on Dec. 21, Florida is just three points behind the Montreal Canadiens and it holds the first Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference by three points.

What a difference one month can make.

The Panthers are now in control of their own destiny again and are pushing hard to be one of the teams that bucks the Thanksgiving cutoff trend. A handful of things have started to go right in Florida, starting with steady goaltending from Roberto Luongo and Al Montoya.

In the team’s last 10 wins, they haven’t given up more than two goals against. Luongo took back-to-back 4-2 losses on Dec. 6 and 8 and allowed three goals against Boston on the 12th, but he’s been excellent outside of those hiccups. His .925 is good for 10th in the NHL and he has recovered nicely after an inconsistent start to the season.

Montoya doesn’t get many starts — he has eight games under his belt this season — but he has been steady for the Panthers as well, winning five of his games.

The Panthers’ young core also seems to be collectively taking a step forward. Jonathan Huberdeau didn’t score until the 16th game of the season, but has quietly been turning in strong performances over the last two months. The 22-year-old is tied for third on the team in scoring with Vincent Trocheck, who has been a revelation of sorts during his first full NHL season. He has kicked in 10 goals and added another 11 assists, centering an effective second line with Jussi Jokinen and Reilly Smith.

Trocheck also started off slow, but has established himself as a legit top-six forward in December. The former third-round draft pick has a ton of talent and a considerable ceiling, so don’t be surprised if he continues to trend upward.

When looking at the Panthers roster, it’s the younger players that stand out initially, but the veterans have been doing plenty of damage too.

Jaromir Jagr has continued to defy Father Time this year. He is leading the team in scoring with 24 points and is second in goals behind Smith, who is having an outstanding season in his own right with 11 goals.

What makes the Panthers a dangerous team is their scoring depth. They get goals from all over the place, leading to the league’s 10th-highest goals scored total in 2015-16. They’ve been strong on the defensive side of the puck as well, as only six teams in the NHL have allowed fewer goals than the Panthers. Tack on the 12th-best power play in the league, and this is a team that can win games in a variety of ways.

After several years of rebuilding, Florida seems to be putting all of the pieces together now. Aaron Ekblad continues to evolve into one of the league’s better defenseman. Brian Campbell is still pulling his weight and reinforcements are arriving from the minors when needed. And Aleksander Barkov is doing stuff like this:

They are likely still a piece or two away from truly contending with the heavyweights in the Eastern Conference, but the Panthers have turned their season around this month and are heading into the New Year looking like a playoff contender.

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