The last time the Florida Panthers had four wins in a row? March 17, 2012... yea, it's been awhile. The Cats are now rolling, topping the Toronto Maple Leafs 3-1 and winning their fourth in a row and second in their current four-game road trip. Florida turned in yet another complete effort to stymie the gassed Leafs, who lost to Pittsburgh the night before 3-1. Rookie Aleksander Barkov would earn two assists, Tomas Fleischmann would score his first in goal in six games, and Sean Bergenheim would net a goal and an assist. Scott Clemmensen earned yet another win, making some key saves when called upon.
What can you say about a team that looked to be one of the worst Panther clubs in recent memory, and is now riding a four-game win streak and mostly controlling the pace of play during that stretch? There's just so little rhyme or reason as to how a team that looked as discombobulated and lost as the Panthers did through 20 games has now turned a corner so drastically that they're making some of these games look easy. Personally, I could care less; let's just keep that effort and team play going forward and before we know it, this club will be sitting in a position to start thinking about the post season.
Pipe dream? Maybe. But they're playing like they want it and it's translating into points.
- Florida has been much, much more composed when facing adversity, whether it's killing a penalty, responding with a good shift or two after allowing a goal, or pressure in shootout situations. I'm not sure if it's the new coaching staff or the players themselves, but the team as a whole has a levelheaded approach to each game and doesn't seem to get overly rattled.
- Neither of Barkov's assists looked like much, but you can see a bit of the vision he possesses and some of the playmaking sense he has. More importantly for Barkov, he's playing excellent two-way hockey, something that the Panthers top center, Nick Bjugstad, has also been doing. The Panthers now have two mid-tier centermen to anchor the top two lines, and everyone's hoping they continue to grow offensively as well as maintain that two-way play, and turn themselves into marquee centermen for years to come.
- Bergenheim was all over the ice and fought like a caged beast along the boards and in front of the net. He was rewarded with a goal and a helper in this one, but more importantly, he was again playing the type of puck possession game that allowed his line to maintain offensive zone pressure. He's definitely rounding back into form and gives the Panthers some much needed depth at left wing, especially when someone like Huberdeau is out of the lineup.
- No one's really talked about him much, but Brian Campbell has really simplified his game and as a result he's been logging more minutes with a lot less headaches. He's been very steady defensively, something you couldn't say for him for much of the first half of the season. He's a positive player in terms of plus/minus in the month of December, and it's looking like that is going to continue to trend upward. The Cats anchor on the blueline needs to continue his simple, smart play for the team to continue to succeed.
- Could Marcel Goc and Shawn Matthias come any closer to finishing a goal as they did in the first and third periods? Poor guys deserved better but really need to finish those plays, too. Matthias might not be the finisher everyone wants him to be but he's been making a lot of space out there for himself and his linemates. Oh, and he's finishing his checks. Can't understate that. When he moves his legs all game, he's an impact player no matter what line he's on or which position he's playing.
- The Panthers' fourth line isn't going to light the lamp often, but they've been doing a great job playing the cycle in the offensive zone lately, which is really helping to contribute to the Panthers keeping the shot total against down, and also to wear out the opposing defensive pairings.
- A nod to Clemmensen, who had another solid game in relief for the injured Tim Thomas.
- I thought the Leafs were making a mistake keeping Morgan Rielly up with the big club this season, but he's the real deal. He'll be an anchor on the Toronto blueline for a long, long time if the Leafs can keep him around. Toronto has some excellent young talent starting to show up, and will be a solid division rival for the Panthers for the foreseeable future.