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NHL

Whatever You Do, Don’t Take A Big Lead On The Panthers

Jonathan Huberdeau celebrates
Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

I don’t know what the Maple Leafs were thinking. On the road in Florida, against one of the few NHL teams with a better record than them, Toronto jumped all over the Panthers, scoring three goals in less than two minutes at the beginning of the second period as part of what became an eventual 5-1 lead. Mitch Marner had one that was both shorthanded and unassisted, then picked up another 37 seconds later on the power play.

I know what you’re thinking, because you can read headlines, but I’m going to say it anyway. What fools! Everyone should know by this point that taking a lead on the Panthers is the No. 1 cause of Panthers comeback wins.

Soon after the game’s halfway point, some nice criss-cross passing on the power play gave Sam Reinhart his second of the contest, making it 5-2. Then Radko Gudas, of all people, scored on a nothing slap shot during a penalty kill. And before the period was over, Claude Giroux recorded his first goal as a Panther off a beautiful give-and-go with Jonathan Huberdeau.

“When we’re down 5-1 and we made it 5-2, it’s like the crowd knew we were coming back,” Giroux said afterwards.

The 5-4 lead that the Leafs clung to lasted only a couple minutes into the final period, as Huberdeau prompted the play-by-play man to shout “Hooby Dooby Doo!” with a tap-in rebound during a power play. Then his buddy Aleksander Barkov scored a similar looking goal a few minutes later to make it 6-5 Florida. Though there were plenty of Leafs fans in the building for this one, the crowd was aflame at this point, and despite John Tavares tying it late, Huberdeau appeared again in overtime to snag that 104th point for the Panthers—already the most in franchise history.

The Leafs shoulda seen it coming! Just a few days ago, on Saturday, the Panthers pulled almost the exact same trick. Down 6-2 at the start of the third period against the lowly Devils, Florida rallied for four straight, including two from Barkov with the goalie pulled, before winning in overtime by the score of—I’ll do the math for you!—7-6.

This isn’t just an odd week for the Cats or anything, either. The Panthers lead the league with a .613 winning percentage in games where their opponents score first. They’ve picked up a league-best 10 wins when trailing at the start of the third period. And most astonishingly, they’ve set an NHL season record by winning five times in games where they’ve trailed by three or more. Why teams keep trying to build a lead on the Panthers, I have no idea.

In all seriousness, though, this is a tricky thing to evaluate. No one can deny that the Panthers, with their league-leading plus-84 goal differential, are a great team and a top Stanley Cup contender. But while these kinds of dramatic comebacks are exciting, they also mean that the squad spent half the game or more getting outplayed. The Panthers themselves understand this perfectly.

“It’s a little worrisome as much as impressive,” coach Andrew Brunette said late Tuesday night. “We have to stop doing this because this isn’t a good sign.”

“We’re finding ways to win, obviously,” said defenseman MacKenzie Weegar. “But in the playoffs, it’s going to be hard to come back from four or five goals.”

Hard, but not impossible. The Panthers have the offensive weaponry to quickly close the gap in any game. They’re the only team in the NHL averaging more than four goals a night, and, especially with the addition of Giroux, their firepower isn’t concentrated all on one or two lines. Huberdeau, Giroux, and Sam Bennett, with their combined 71 goals on the year, can carry the load some nights. On others, Barkov, Anthony Duclair, and Carter Verhaeghe—83 goals put together—can provide the spark. And beyond even the major names, Sam Reinhart has scored a career high 26 this season while mostly playing on the third line. The Panthers have for years enjoyed production from centerpieces Huberdeau and Barkov, but now they’ve finally acquired the depth behind them necessary for a deep run.

Of course, the offense is currently working its tail off trying to cover for the Panthers’ deficiencies. There’s nothing horrific about the Florida defensemen, but they’ve slipped in recent games in large part due to Aaron Ekblad’s recent injury, which has kept the top blueliner in “week-to-week” condition. That Ben Chiarot, an analytics demon (opposite of darling, I think), was one of their big pick-ups at the deadline hasn’t made them any better. But the concern more than anything has to be centered on the goaltending. Sergei Bobrovsky, their expensive veteran netminder, inspired hope with a strong start that he could reverse a disappointing first two years in Florida, but he’s struggled mightily of late, and he’s failed to finish either of his last two starts. (Spencer Knight, the 20-year-old back-up, has played like … well, a 20-year-old back-up.)

So the Panthers are messy and fun and stressful and difficult to get a grip on. They are a delicious steak dinner served without anything to drink. They are a team that I simultaneously fear and do not trust, with the potential to sweep anyone but also make an embarrassing early exit. There are plenty of holes you could poke in the Panthers as they stand now, and at least a few other teams have been lower-maintenance in their wins of late. But Florida has won eight of nine, and 14 of 17, and no other team in the East has been able to match or catch them this year.

I like the way Huberdeau’s mind worked on this subject after the win over the Leafs. “Obviously, we’ve just got to play better defensively. We know we can score goals, but it’s not going to happen every game,” he said, before having second thoughts.

“We say that. It’s been happening.”