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The Panthers Are On A Rampage

The Florida Panthers celebrate after defeating the New York Rangers
Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images

Monday night's Panthers-Rangers clash at the Garden pitted two of the NHL's shiniest records against each other, but after 60 minutes, one team had undeniably made the better impression. The Rangers needed a four-minute power play to keep the game tied at two after two, and Igor Shesterkin let in a softie for the game-winner in the third, so after the empty-net punctuation mark it was the Panthers celebrating not just their league-best 42nd win, but also their 15th victory in their last 17 games. Like in the regular season two years ago, and in the playoffs of 2023, these Panthers are steamrolling the competition. But this might be the most well-rounded version of this franchise we've ever seen.

The key to this win was the Cats' combo of Aleksander Barkov and Sam Reinhart, who produced two goals at the game's midpoint. Reinhart, a trade acquisition from Buffalo a few years back, is on a supernova of a 44-goal campaign so far, while Barkov, the 28-year-old who's led the team as captain since 2018, is relatedly on pace for a career high with 47 assists through 56 games. Reinhart is finishing when he gets opportunities, and with the strength of his fellow teammates on the ice with him (Carter Verhaeghe also has 30 goals; the defense keeps play out of their own zone better than most), he's had plenty of high-quality chances to put the puck in the net.

Reinhart was ready, for example, when Barkov worked some magic to tie the game. Trying a give-and-go zone entry with Verhaeghe, the puck took an awkward bounce off Barkov's stick. Nevertheless and calmly, he stayed focused on the little black disc, juggled it around one Rangers defenseman, and laid out his body to knock it to Reinhart on the other side of the net. Even if this hadn't ended in a goal, it'd still be a highlight. Because the red light flashed, it's one of the best plays of the Presidents' Trophy frontrunners' year.

The Panthers of two years ago were constant winners but still stood a little wobbly, relying on an overpowered offense to produce comebacks when their back half faltered. The eight-seed Panthers of last playoffs blew through the East but couldn't help but feel somewhat fluky, since they nearly ran out of breath hustling just to make it into the first round. These Panthers, though, are hard to poke any holes in. They're enjoying valuable seasons from both options in goal, are limiting opponents to fewer shots than anyone but the Hurricanes, and are forcing enemy netminders to work harder against them than any other squad. While it's the top line that's hogging the goals, and the intense Matt Tkachuk/Nick Cousins second line giving other teams headaches, no group of skaters is out there wasting their minutes, and low shooting percentages for guys like Cousins and Evan Rodrigues give hope that Florida hasn't even hit its ceiling yet. Nothing about a hot streak in March guarantees anything two months later, but the Panthers of today don't need to fix a thing.

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