RECORDS: Panthers 8-9-3 Hawks 8-10-5
PUCK DROP: 6:00 p.m. Central
If all you ever read were press releases and interviews with front offices in denial, tonight’s tilt between the Panthers and Hawks would be as must-see as a hockey game at six o’clock on the Saturday after Thanksgiving could possibly be. We’ve gone over the tipped-over porta-potty that is John McDonough’s “remodel, not rebuild” philosophy for the Hawks, and the Panthers seem to find themselves in a similar mind-set for different reasons.
Since that 103-point campaign and first-round playoff loss in 2015–16, the Cats have missed the playoffs twice, though last year was by the skin of their ass. Yet, you can’t help but wonder what this Panthers team would look like if they hadn’t gone Biff Tannen and replaced their analytically minded front office with HOCKEY MEN. This year has been even worse than expected for the Panthers, and after a 2-4 road trip, they return home to host the Hawks much worse for wear.
In the crease, the Panthers made the superb decision to entrust 39-year-old Roberto Luongo with the bulk of the starting responsibilities. Bobby Lu has been hurt a lot more than not, but even when he’s been healthy, he’s been wildly inconsistent. In his first four games back from his opening-night knee injury, Luongo posted a sparkling .951 SV%. He then followed that up with a .826 over the next four, good for a .902 overall. Not great, Bob.
And he hurt himself again last night, leaving James Reimer in charge of the crease. James Reimer is not someone you want in charge of the crease if you have playoff aspirations. While his .920 at evens is good, Reimer has gotten hosed on the PK to the tune of .791. The Panthers have given up the sixth-most goals on the PK despite playing the least amount of PK time in the league this year.
On the forward lines, there’s some on-paper potential for the Panthers that can never seem to get over the hump. After brain genius Dale Tallon cut Jonathan Marchessault loose for literally nothing last year, he had to go out and find himself a new scorer in Mike Hoffman. Despite the high school drama that brought him to Florida, Hoffman has been the Panthers’s most consistent offensive weapon, with 20 points on the year (10 G, 10 A) through 20 games and a recently ended 17-game point streak. He, Aleksander Barkov, and Evgenii Dadonov round out a formidable top line despite their lack of possession as a unit (48+ CF% together).
After that top line, things start to get dicey. The Panthers lost the well-rounded Vincent Trocheck earlier in the week after his ankle took the road less traveled. Trocheck did a bit of everything for the Cats and played consistently on both the PP and PK in his 18 games. That leaves you with a second line of Nick Bjugstad, the talented Jonathan Huberdeau, and, fuck, Denis Malgin? Frank Vatrano? Any of these names doing anything for you?
After that is a veritable who’s-who of what ifs, maybes, and retreads. Jared McCann has a ton of two-way potential, but tends to defer. He might end up tossed onto the second line to fill in for Trocheck at some point. Troy Brouwer plays on this team. The fourth line includes the name-generated Dryden Hunt and Colton Sceviour, who are both fine and perfectly suited where they are, but don’t really provide the much-needed scoring Florida lacks beyond the top line.
The Cats’s blue line hinges on Aaron Ekblad, who turns the ice at a 53+ CF% despite a 47+% oZ start rate. He’s done it primarily next to Mike Matheson, who after a slow and plodding start to the first year of his eight-year, $39 million contract has turned up his offensive contributions, with five points in his last five games (all assists). Still, Keith Yandle takes the mantle as the Cats’s most offensive D-man, with 19 points over 20 games. After that, you’ve got Alex Petrovic—who is definitely “a guy,”—fucking Bogdan Kiselevich, something called Mark Pysyk, and young MacKenzie Weegar, who looks exactly how you’d imagine a guy named “MacKenzie Weegar” would. That’s a whole lot of #6 D-men spread across that blue line.
For the Men of Four Feathers, Colliton ought to consider kicking his Marlboro 72 habit before New Year’s, because Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook have looked like dogshit together. Though there’s not much to work with on the blue line—remember when Brandon Manning was StanBo’s BIG DEFENSIVE SIGNING?—the one thing that seemed to work best was Keith–Jokiharju. Keith might not want to play mentor, but too fucking bad. Henri Jokiharju the best thing they have, so Colliton needs to put the kibosh on his “We’re sitting him for his development” bit and let him breathe. Erik Gustafsson’s spurs have been jingling and jangling far too often, Gustav Forsling still looks lost in this own zone, and Jan Rutta blows. So fuck, I don’t know, 2–28, 56–7, 42–44? Somehow, it looks even worse when you write it down.
You probably won’t see too many changes up front, though we probably should. Brandon Saad–Jonathan Toews–Patrick Kane sounds nice, but the chorus we’ve been singing is “If they aren’t dominating, split them up,” and after last night, it would be hard to describe them as dominant. We’re still waiting to see 12–8–88 at some point, and what better time than tonight? The Fortin–Kampf–Kahun line is at least fast, but you’re tempted to see Anisimov centering it and just having Fortin and Kahun aim for him instead of the net. Suckbag Johnson, Chris Kunitz, Andreas Martinsen, or John Hayden will round it out on the fourth line because someone has to.
With the Blackhawks in the denial stage and the Panthers teetering toward anger, this game will be a case study in grief. With Reimer in net and Trocheck out, the Panthers look eminently beatable if the Hawks can shut down their top line.
Let’s go Hawks.
Game #24 Preview Suite