Merry Christmas fellow LBCers. The NHL is currently in the middle of a three shutdown so now is a good time to take a look at where our Panthers, who get an extra day off before facing Detroit on Saturday in the second of this five-game stint at home, are right now.
Despite the disappointing back-to-back losses to the Winnipeg Jets and Tampa Bay Lightning, the Cats have played their best hockey by far during December. The club sports a 7-4 record in the final month of 2013, with the seven wins coming over the course of a heady eight-game span. With only three games left before we flip the calendar to January, our team has guaranteed itself a first winning month of the season. This is definitely a step forward after what we witnessed in October and November.
Scott Clemmensen came off the pine to post four of the wins, but after Monday's 6-1 loss to the Bolts, it's clear the Panthers need a fully healthy Tim Thomas back in the net, pronto. The good news about Thomas' latest stint on IR is that Clemmensen proved he is still capable of winning games, which was highly questionable after his play last year and early this season. This means the Cats are finally in a position to lighten the load on Thomas going forward. Unless Clemmensen totally reverts back to sieve status, there is absolutely no need for the Cats to start Thomas night after night after night after night... well, you get the picture. Give Thomas and his wonky groin a break now and then. There is no reason for Timmeh! to make more than four or five consecutive starts depending on how the schedule breaks down.
With its recent 3-1 swing through Canada, the Cats proved, under Peter Horachek, they are indeed capable of playing gritty, winning hockey on the road. Now it's time to flip the script on home ice. The Panthers started off their third five-game homestand of the first half with the embarrassing loss to Tampa Bay. While not surprising they lost, the Bolts are a superior team after all, the way they folded over the final two periods was very disturbing. The first five-game homestand saw the Cats post a 1-2-2 record, while the second saw them go 2-3. A repeat performance of this type could send the Cats spiraling again, leaving them too much ground to make up over the course of the second half of the campaign.
A couple of concerns, for me, as the Panthers finish off this current homestand and move into 2014 are that 1) injuries are starting to pile up and 2) special teams play continues to be absymal.
The club recently lost Jesse Winchester, who has been a surprisingly useful player so far this season, to a hand injury. Erik Gudbranson just underwent surgery to repair a damaged orbital bone, Scottie Upshall was hurt in the game against the Lightning, and then there is always Thomas' groin to worry about. Despite all the summer signings to bolster the depth in San Antonio, there isn't anyone down there to really make up for the loss of these players. Florida must stay at or near 100% healthy to remain to in the chase, so here's wishing all the injured Panthers a very speedy recovery.
Then there are special teams issues, in particular the power play. Somehow, the Panthers managed to reel off those seven wins in spite of it. It's hard to imagine that will happen again without fixing things to some degree. The Cats aren't a team that scores a lot of goals, so getting a little bit more on the power play is imperative moving forward. The 11.2% conversion rate, which is a dead last 30th in the league, is simply not cutting it and the lack of success with the man-advantage tends to swing momentum and puts too much pressure on the team's defense and goaltending. The penalty kill is almost as terrible, currently ranking 29th in the NHL. It could be Peter Horachek, if he sheds the interim tag, needs an entire training camp and some personnel changes to fully correct these areas, but there has be a way to improve things over the second half of the season. Maybe the Olympic break will provide the staff with the necessary time to shore things up.
Looking ahead over the next ten days, the Cats welcome a team they've already beaten twice, the Red Wings, next before they face-off against the Canadiens and then the Rangers on New Year's Eve. The club gets another three days off before closing the homestand against the Nashville Predators. Wins are needed to maintain the gains made this month and to provide a strong springboard into the second half of the schedule. Currently eight points behind the Toronto Maple Leafs, with a game in hand, for the final wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference, the Panthers simply cannot afford another sub .500 performance over the course of this holiday run at the BB&T Center.