NHL Florida Panthers

Florida Panthers Stay Hot, Gain Ground in Wild Card Hunt

Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

The Florida Panthers are one of the hottest teams in the NHL this month, having won three in a row and five of their last seven games including tonight’s 2-1 road win over the Montreal Canadiens. A lot of the credit should go to improved play in the defensive zone, as the statistics in those facets of the game have improved drastically.

The Panthers were formerly one of the worst teams in the league in getting outshot, but during December have completely turned that number around. Florida is outshooting their opponents 223-200 so far this month. The smaller amount of shots getting through the Florida back line has been an enormous help to goalies Tim Thomas and Scott Clemmensen, as in the seven games they have given up a total of 18 goals.

Another area of improvement for the Panthers has been in special teams. Florida was near the bottom of the league in penalty-kill percentage going into the streak. But during these last seven games, they have given up seven goals in 26 instances when at a man disadvantage. That newfound proficiency was especially vital in the third period tonight, as Montreal got three of their four power play opportunities in the final frame.

The improved defensive play and point streak has helped the Panthers climb back to relevancy, now just eight points behind the Toronto Maple Leafs for the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spot with 38 games left on Florida’s schedule.

Toronto is the next destination for the Panthers, where if the Maple Leafs lose in Pittsburgh tonight, Florida will have an opportunity to put themselves over the 30-point threshold and very much into the mix of teams contending for a wild card spot.

If the Panthers can get into, and stay in, wild card contention for the rest of the season, it will be a great turn around from where they were at the end of November. The difference so far has been better execution in the defensive zone, and that will have to continue for Florida to keep its point streak alive.

Derek Helling is a writer for Rantsports.com. Follow him on Twitter, “like” him on Facebook and add him on Google+. Read more here