The Florida Panthers, the same ones that are currently second last in the East and ten points back of playoff spot, have actually outperformed the Montreal Canadiens in terms of 5-on-5 hockey in close games. So, why are the Habs fighting for the top spot in the Conference, while Florida wallows in the basement? To get an answer, let's rewind a couple of seasons.
In the 2011-12 NHL season, the Cats qualified for the playoffs for the first time in over a decade. Their roster, featuring players like goaltender Jose Theodore, centre Stephen Weiss, and defenceman Brian Campbell, took the New Jersey Devils to double overtime of game seven of their opening round series before bowing out. While the loss was disappointing, the inherent progress represented a significant milestone for a team that was struggling back to relevancy.
In the lockout-shortened 2013 season, the Panthers kept most of their roster intact, re-upping key cog Kris Versteeg and even adding Alex Kovalev for some extra scoring punch. Visions of returning to the playoffs vanished quickly, however, as the punchless Cats went from over-performing division leaders to under-performing bottom-dwellers.
The Panthers made some adjustments, mostly to bring some stability to their goaltending situation and unburden themselves of any dead weight skaters. Versteeg, for example, was long gone by that point, as was the failed Kovalev experiment. While winger Scottie Upshall remains in his prominent role, but former colleagues like Weiss are now playing elsewhere. His linemates are now talented young players, Jonathan Huberdeau and Nick Bjugstad. Sean Bergenheim, a member of that Florida playoff team and a one-time playoff hero with the Tampa Bay Lightning, plays on a third line with 2nd overall pick rookie centre Aleksander Barkov. This is a team full of up-and-comers, so why are they placing so poorly?
For the third consecutive season, the Panthers just can't buy a goal. Despite their decent possession play, the Panthers just aren't converting, with a team shooting percentage of 5%. Habs fans may remember the team's struggles earlier this season, when it felt like Montreal was just never scoring. That performance, if memory serves, occurred with the team at around 6.5%. Given the consistency of Florida's shooting performance, which has been similar for three consecutive seasons, it seems possible that some of this may be roster or systems-based. Given the turnover of the roster and influx of new talent, however, it's more likely that Florida's scoring is due to for an uptick.
As for their goaltending situation, it appears that Tim Thomas has brought as much stability in the Florida crease as he brings to his encounters with the media. Thomas has a .909 save percentage and a record just under .500, and is allowing almost three goals per game. The Canadiens appear set to miss an encounter with their old Boston adversary, though, as Thomas has recently been placed on the injured reserve. If Thomas has been unstable, Scott Clemmensen's 2013-14 play has been brutal. Having made only four starts, plus some fractional time in two other games, Clemmensen has allowed sixteen goals on only about 26 shots per 60 minutes. The Panthers goaltending situation appears to be doing a lot to undermine their strong even-strength work.
Our final area of focus is special teams, where the Panthers are last and third-to-last in their powerplay and penalty kill results, respectively. This effectively makes them the opposite of the Habs recent struggles, as they've become a team that plays well at evens, gets no timely scoring, is awful on special teams, and can't rely on their goaltender.
On paper, the Habs should have a winnable game, but the fickle nature of the percentages means that Florida can't be underestimated. Their respectable even strength play is the foundation of a good squad, and if the Cats receive a good goaltending performance, or back their way into a powerplay goal, they have enough ammunition to hold off the Habs. While anything can happen in any NHL game, the Panthers seem like better-than-average candidates to make that anything something the Habs won't like.