The Florida Panthers are suffering.
All season long, they've been unlucky. When the Panthers played the Canadiens three times in three weeks around the turn of the calendar, the sentiment was the same each time: the Panthers are better than their results.
Florida has achieved mixed results against the Habs, beating Montreal twice before the Canadiens took one back. Sadly, this pattern has not been reflective of the rest of their season, as the Panthers could never muster much momentum in the standings, despite their momentum on the ice.
The Panthers cumulative fenwick close has topped out at 51% at times this season, well in the realm of playoff contention. Their ten game peaks tell another story: the Panthers have enjoyed spurts of truly elite play, reaching a ceiling above 57%. The name of the game is consistency, but considering that the Los Angeles Kings, the gold standard for possession hockey in recent years, normally sit around 56%, a ten game stretch of 57% is worth taking notice of.
Ultimately, the Panthers playoff aspirations never reached the lofty heights of their work in the possession department, and recognizing this, the front office made some adjustments at the trade deadline.
Goaltender Tim Thomas was flipped to the Dallas Stars for tonight's starter, Dan Ellis, but that wasn't the big news. Neither was the trade of veteran defenceman Mike Weaver, who is now a solid contributor in Montreal. Even the trade of one of the league's better bottom six players, Marcel Goc to the Penguins for draft picks, was overshadowed by Florida's pursuit of one of the league's most notable brands.
Play in the Panthers' crease had been abysmal all season long, and so the Panthers went out and got a goalie. Roberto Luongo was brought back to the Sunshine State, and the team immediately proclaimed optimism. The team's owner and General Manager talked about the impact of bringing in a player like the Olympic gold medallist, and how the move reiterated the team's commitment to competing for a championship.
The early returns, at least in the Panthers net, have been good. Luongo earned a shutout in his first game back in an orange jersey, and has been a definite upgrade over the likes of Thomas, Scott Clemmensen, or one half of the pair of players sent to Vancouver for Luongo, Jacob Markstrom. Contract and age concerns aside, the Panthers finally have some stability in the crease. At least, until this happened:
Luongo left the game injured on the play, and will sit out this evening as a result. Now, the start will fall on the shoulders of former Canadien Dan Ellis, whose play has been the worst of the Panthers quintet of questionable keepers this year. After just ten games, the Panthers are again without confidence in their crease, at least temporarily.
Tale of the Tape
The absence of the Montreal native complicates things for Florida in other parts of the rink, as well. The Panthers have been hampered by injuries to key players all season, and tonight will be no exception. The two men who may be Florida's best forwards, Aleksandr Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau, will both sit this evening, alongside reliable defender Tom Gilbert. With Goc dealt for futures, and Matthias playing on a different coast and country, Florida's corps of skaters has been gutted. The result is some of their worst play of the season, as the team's underlying numbers have gone from playoff-worthy to bargain basement. Like the CH's recent bouts with the Buffalo Sabres, a clash with the weakened Cats should be eminently winnable.
As usual, the Habs will do their best to give their opponent a fair shot. From varying positions of necessity and ignorance, the Canadiens will include Douglas Murray, Francis Bouillon, and George Parros in tonight's roster. While the Murray and Bouillon choices are purely optional, Parros' inclusion is the result of a myriad of recent injuries to the Habs' bottom six, combined with the absence of Tomas Plekanec as he attends to a personal matter.
A Canadiens' lineup with no Plekanec is a terrifying thought, but the silver lining is that it looks like the Habs will be suffering only temporarily. When one compares the Habs' plight to the suffering of their opponent, things start to look pretty good in Montreal.