By Bill Whitehead
After a pair of games in eastern Canada, the Florida Panthers (25-12-4) take to the other end of the Great White North with a 9:30 game against the suddenly better Edmonton Oilers (17-22-3). Florida will be trying to extend their NHL season-long 11-game winning streak against the Oilers, who are 8-2-0 in their last 10 against the Cats.
After watching the Oilers lose Saturday night’s game against Tampa Bay in a game they completely dominated – Tampa had all the puck luck in the world, scoring three goals in the third on shots that all bounced off Oilers — I’ve come up with a couple of areas Florida should focus on in an effort to get to a dozen consecutive wins.
Don’t run-and-gun: Edmonton is young and talented, icing highly skilled forwards, some who were No. 1 overall or lottery selections. That youth likes to get out and go to demonstrate their abilities. Florida doesn’t need to get caught up in matching the fast pace of the game and should just take the opportunities presented. Hey, I’ll take Jonathan Huberdeau or Sasha Barkov against Cam Talbot or Anders Nilsson in a breakaway all day over Taylor Hall against Roberto Luongo or Al Montoya, but the Panthers don’t need to play at Edmonton’s pace.
Stay within the system: Coach Gerard Gallant has utilized a tight defensive system that clogs up the neutral zone, creates traffic in the shooting lanes on attempted shots and allows breakouts to get possible odd-man rushes. If Florida can demonstrate their system works better than first-year Edmonton coach Todd McLellan’s, the young Oilers and Barkov-like Leon Draisaitl (by far my favorite non-Cat player from the 2014 draft) may become frustrated and slip into some bad habits. This could lead to breakdowns and offensive chances.
Don’t get caught up in the streak: The team and Gallant have handled the winning streak and its attention like true pros instead of newcomers being fawned over as media darlings – actually, like they’ve acted like they’ve been here before. That said, there’s no reason to press and gamble against Edmonton. A look at the standings says Florida is five points ahead of second-place Detroit in the Atlantic, and for once Florida isn’t chasing the divisional leader. Going to overtime in Rexall Place against a Western Conference club and being assured of at least one point in the standings isn’t the worst thing in the long run.
EMPTY-NETTER: Florida immediately treks to Vancouver for a game Monday night against the Canucks. I watched all of the Vancouver’s game Saturday against Tampa – an overtime loss to the Canucks – and this version of Luongo’s old club isn’t that special. The Sedin twins didn’t stand out in the loss to the Bolts, and none of the veterans, including winger Radim Vrbata (who may be a rental target for a playoff team, maybe in South Florida), stood out at all.
What Vancouver does have is a nice young core. Jake Virtanen has exceptional speed and flair to his game, and Bo Horvat is fun to watch, too. Also, former Panther goalie Jacob Markstrom, once thought to be the netminder of Florida’s future, played a strong game against Tampa (aside from his flopping effort on Nikita Kucherov’s game-winner), though it would be hard to picture him as Vancouver’s future No. 1.
Staggeringly, Vancouver has scored two goals or less in 26 of their 42 games, not exactly the high-flying numbers put up by the team over the last decade or so. Florida’s defense could be the difference.
It will be a hard test in British Columbia, but don’t be confused into thinking this is the Vancouver that Luongo suited up for.
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