Forget all the noise about punt returns and missed extra points as Super Bowl Sunday approaches. The Florida Panthers are putting on a special teams display of their own at the BB&T Center.
And on Thursday, the Panthers continued to excel during hockey’s two biggest opportunities for success or failure: the penalty kill and power play.
Since a Jan. 2 win over the Rangers, Florida has shut down 90.7 percent of its opponents’ power plays. In those previous 54 chances, they’ve allowed just five goals. The defensive performance wasn’t quite as sharp on Thursday, as the Panthers allowed two goals on seven power play chances, but coach Gerard Gallant seemed pleased with the effort.
“The penalty kill has been strong for us for the last number (of games),” Gallant said. “They got two against us tonight, but (we) still did a real good job against a power play that was really dangerous every time they touched the puck.”
Florida’s ability to fight off the opposition’s power play has been a constant theme during this five game win streak. The league-leading Washington Capitals score on the power play at a 25 percent clip, but the Panthers killed off all eight of Washington’s power play chances at the Verizon Center on Tuesday.
The showing only served to bolster the Panthers’ seventh-ranked penalty kill unit that has staved off opposing power plays at an 83.4 percent rate this season. There’s also still plenty of room for improvement, as the Panthers have racked up 14 penalties in their last two games.
“Our penalty kill’s been phenomenal all year,” center Vincent Trocheck said. “(Derek) MacKenzie, (Reilly) Smith, Jussi (Jokinen) and (Sasha) Barkov, and then all our defensemen have been great on the kill. Power play, we’ve been working on it. We were struggling there pretty badly for a stretch and special teams is going to be big going late into the season, into the playoffs.”
That 0-for-28 stretch lasted most of January but has ended in a big way. Since Nick Bjugstad ended the drought against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Jan. 23, the Panthers have poured in goals on six of their last 15 chances.
Florida jumped from 25th to 22nd in the NHL after Thursday's game and hold a 17.7 percent power play conversion rate. Their most recent success would put them above even the Capitals. The Panthers scored on two of their four power play opportunities on Thursday, and they’ve now tallied a power play goal in four consecutive games.
Gallant said he couldn’t explain the recent surge, but he said his team has been skating hard and pointed to the chemistry on various lines.
“We work a lot on it,” Brandon Pirri said, “and there’s a lot of homework that goes into it. I think our coaches do a great job setting us up on tendencies, what they do, and at the same time, we’re executing. That’s what it comes down to.”