Thursday night was quite thrilling, even if the result was disappointing.
The Panthers return to playoff action was a wild one, a 5-4 barnburner which ultimately fell in favor of the visiting New York Islanders. Not exactly what we wanted, but there were some things to like.
First of all, when you dominate a team 77-42 in the shot attempt count like the Panthers did, you cannot help but like that. If the Panthers can drive play in this manner every game this series, good things will happen. In scoring four goals, you cannot fault the Panthers offense for the loss. This is a 3-2 hockey league, even in the playoffs, teams that score three or more goals should win games. Unfortunately, that did not happen. Instead, we saw a combination of iffy goaltending by Roberto Luongo, and defensive mistakes do in an otherwise good effort.
So, what changes? Apparently, Mike Matheson for one. The rookie defenseman appears poised to make his playoff debut tonight, with Jakub Kindl having been cast off with the scratches this morning. I can understand this move, and I approve of it. Kindl in particular had a couple of glaring gaffes that lead to goals. The first was losing Brock Nelson in the neutral zone on the first Islanders goal, and the other came on the fifth Islanders goal, getting burned on a nice move by Alan Quine.
He was not the only one to have a rough game on the back end, there is plenty of blame to go around. However, given the visibility of those mistakes, and how the other defensemen fit in on the Panthers back end, he’s probably the most sensible choice to sit.
As for how that backend fits together, my wishlist is for these pairings:
Brian Campbell – Erik Gudbranson
Mike Matheson – Aaron Ekblad
Dmitry Kulikov – Alex Petrovic
This is probably one of the most optimized configurations the Panthers can roll on the blueline, though it requires a bit of a leap of faith.
Campbell-Gudbranson pairing is an optimal one. These guys profile well together and have looked well when playing with each other. During the regular season, they posted a 53.2 CF%, doing a great job of suppressing shots (46.3 CA60), while performing better relative to the team (+5.4%) in just over 350 minutes together.
The Kulikov-Petrovic pairing is more pedestrian, posting a 49.8 CF%. That runs basically on par with the team, as their RelCF% is literally -0.01%. They suppress well though (47.4 CA60), and many of their minutes came early this season when shooting was a struggle for everyone. Thus, their rather low 47.0 CF60 may be artificially influenced by the team’s early season struggles.
The leap of faith though comes from putting Mike Matheson with Aaron Ekblad. The two only played the final game of the regular season together, but they looked wonderful together. The reason to roll with this pairing is simple: if you are going to insert Matheson into the lineup, he needs to be put into a position to succeed. There’s no better way to ensure that then to put him with your stud, 20 year old defenseman.
This is someone he may well be paired with for years to come. Getting a little playoff experience on that connection may be just what these guys need to take the next step.
Finally, there is the matter of Roberto Luongo. Did he look good last night? No. However, he is going again tonight. There are some who may be calling for Al Montoya instead. You’d definitely see him if this were the regular season. This is the playoffs though, and things are different.
It was not too long ago that Luongo found himself in similar territory with the Vancouver Canucks. He was the subject of much second guessing, eventually leading to a weird back and forth act between him and Cory Schneider.
It didn’t end well for Vancouver.
If the Panthers did not go with Luongo tonight, the door would be open to that kind of drama, like it or not. The Panthers do not need that in their life. Luongo is the guy, and if he’s able to play, he must play.
So let’s fill the building tonight, and let our boys feel the love. They will need the extra energy in the building.