Brandt Frye The Hockey Writers
Panthers’ Playoff Hopes Hinging On Goaltending
As the Florida Panthers continue on their quest to qualify for the NHL Playoffs, one major liability is holding the team back: goaltending. Heading into this season, the goalie is the last thing Panthers fans would expect to be the team’s biggest weakness, after signing Sergei Bobrovsky this past offseason.
The Panthers find themselves in a familiar position – the playoff bubble – this season. Though currently on the right side of the bubble, Florida’s season hangs in the balance as they wait for Bobrovsky to improve. That’s exactly what will need to happen if the Panthers are to return to postseason action for the first time since the 2015-16 campaign.
Bobrovsky Struggling So Far
After signing a seven-year, $70-million contract this past offseason, the richest ever given to a free agent goalie, Bobrovsky has turned in a disaster season. He is set to post career-worst marks in goals against average (GAA) (3.25) and save percentage (SV%) (.897). On top of this, he is at least partially responsible for many of Florida’s 16 losses.
“Bob” simply isn’t providing stability in net. Consistency has completely eluded the two-time Vezina Trophy winner. Whether it’s giving up a weak goal at a critical point in the game, or getting blitzed for three goals in the first period, this is simply not the Bobrovsky the Panthers signed up for.
Related: Bobrovsky Ready to Shine for Panthers
The netminder returned to action last Saturday after missing two games with an upper-body injury. He stopped 27-of-28 shots in a dominant 4-1 win over the Detroit Red Wings, earning first star accolades in the process. He followed that performance with a shaky night Monday in Minnesota, stopping 29-of-33 shots in a 5-4 win.
Chris Driedger to Miss “Weeks”
In Florida’s Jan. 17 win over the Los Angeles Kings, backup goalie Chris Driedger was injured in the first period. Because Bobrovsky was already inactive for the game, Sam Montembeault was called into action. The Panthers nearly squandered a 4-0 lead, allowing three third period goals before hanging on to beat the Kings, 4-3.
Driedger has been the Panthers’ best-performing goalie this season by a wide margin. Driedger has an incredible .932 SV%, good for a 5-2 record in eight starts. He’s been a strength for Florida in the second game of back-to-backs throughout the season and has allowed just 18 goals in nine total appearances. Unfortunately, Driedger is expected to miss “several weeks” with a groin injury.
With Driedger out, Bobrovsky’s current backup is Montembeault. Montembeault is just 23 years old and is still better suited to be playing in the American Hockey League at this point in his career. He owns a dreadful .891 SV% in 19 career games. Plain and simple, Montembeault will not be able to bail Bobrovsky out down the stretch as Driedger has for the majority of the season.
Panthers Approaching Must-Win Games
Despite both injuries and poor performance in net, Florida currently holds a 27-16-5 record, good for 59 points and third place in the Eastern Conference’s Atlantic Division. The Panthers also have played two or three fewer games – 48 total – than most of the teams they’re competing with in the East. the Toronto Maple Leafs, Philadelphia Flyers, Carolina Hurricanes, and Columbus Blue Jackets have all played more games than Florida to this point.
Despite being in the midst of a six-game road trip, the next three matchups are ones the Panthers should win. Following games with the Minnesota Wild and Chicago Blackhawks, Florida will play Montreal on Saturday. These are all games a playoff team should win.
Panthers’ Offense Key To Current Winning Streak
Florida is currently one of the hottest teams in the NHL, having won a season-best five straight games and 12 of their last 16. In those 12 wins, the Panthers’ offense has tallied a ridiculous total of 64 goals, completely erasing any goaltending issues the team has had.
While an offensive onslaught is certainly welcomed in Sunrise, it can’t be counted on for the Panthers’ remaining 34 games. Scoring over five goals per game will guarantee a win for almost any team, regardless of the goaltending. There will be plenty of nights in which this team only musters one, two or three goals. Bobrovsky must step up and turn some of those games into wins.
Whether or not Florida can get to the postseason will come down to goaltending. Will the league’s second-highest-paid goalie turn his season around and propel this team into the playoffs?
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