For the Florida Panthers, who play host to the Winnipeg Jets on Friday, this could’ve been a disaster.
Coming off the franchise’s first trip to the Stanley Cup Finals since 1996, the Panthers started this season with huge questions on defense.
Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour — the team’s highest-scoring defensemen — started the season on injured reserve after shoulder surgeries.
In addition, the Panthers lost defensemen Radko Gudas and Marc Staal in free agency. Although the decision to let them walk could be seen as a youth movement — Staal is 36 and Gudas is 33 — those were two valuable players.
Staal played all 82 games last season and was a plus-10. Gudas, considered the hardest hitter on the team, played 72 games and was a plus-14.
But despite the injuries and turnover on defense, the Panthers spent Thanksgiving Day in playoff position — second place in the Atlantic Division with 25 points — which is usually a good sign in terms of postseason participation.
“The last month has been very good to us,” Panthers forward Anton Lundell said after Florida’s 3-1 loss to the division-leading Boston Bruins on Wednesday night. “We had a slow start, but then we found our game. The last 10 games have been really good, and we can be proud of that.”
The Panthers, who got Ekblad and Montour off the injured list last week, have survived on defense because of the additions of Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Niko Mikkola and Dmitry Kulikov, and also the play of holdover Gustav Forsling.
It helps to have goalie Sergei Bobrovsky playing well (9-5-1, 2.69 goals-against average), and the same goes for backup Anthony Stolarz (3-1-0, 2.28 GAA).
On Friday, that Panthers’ defense will be tested by a high-scoring Jets team that also spent Thanksgiving in playoff position (24 points, third place in the Central Division).
Winnipeg is 5-2-1 on the road and has won four straight games overall.
The Jets rank fifth in the NHL in goals per game (3.67), and they got an overtime score from Adam Lowry to beat the host Tampa Bay Lightning 3-2 on Wednesday.
Since the start of last season, the Jets have 11 overtime wins. Only New Jersey and Carolina — with 12 each — have more.
But Lowry hinted that Winnipeg had a little extra motivation that apparently came with the win — a day off on Thursday.
“(Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck) was pushing for the day off,” Lowry said. “I think there’s some great fishing on the east side of Florida.”
Connor Hellebuyck is 9-4-1 with a 2.84 GAA. Kyle Connor leads the Jets in goals (14) and points (22). Mark Scheifele and Josh Morrissey are tied for the team lead in assists (15).
Lightning coach Jon Cooper, who has won the Stanley Cup twice over the past four years, said he knows why the Jets are winning.
“Teams with depth win, and they have that goalie back there,” Cooper said in reference to Hellebuyck. “You add those things up, and it’s plain to see why Winnipeg is in the upper half of the standings. They have star players, they have a goalie, and they’re deep.”
–Field Level Media