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FHN Film Room: Stenlund Key to Florida Panthers Success on PK

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Kevin Stenlund, going against Toronto star center Auston Matthews during the home opener on Oct. 19, has been a big addition to the Florida Panthers’ penalty kill this season. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)

To say the Florida Panthers penalty kill is on a tear right now is quite an understatement.

After starting the season at a league-worst 65.4 percent success rate, the Panthers have undergone a complete turnaround.

Since Oct. 28, Florida is 43-for-48 on the penalty kill, good for an 89.6 percent clip and the third-best mark in the league during that span.

The top PK unit has certainly grown into itself — and has successfully killed off its opponents past 20 power play attempts.

Not bad.

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There were a lot of new faces added to the Panthers’ penalty kill after they finished the playoffs with an abysmal 70.4 rate — and still made it to the Stanley Cup Final.

Key penalty killers Eric and Marc Staal were replaced with players such as Kevin Stenlund, Steven Lorentz and Niko Mikkola to start the year.

With star defensemen Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour out with injuries for the first month of the season — as well as Radko Gudas departing in free agency — multiple other defensemen had to step into that role as well.

That included more new faces in Dmitry Kulikov and Uvis Balinskis.

After a month of figuring out which pieces were the best fit, general manager Bill Zito’s vision of an improved penalty kill seems to have paid off.

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Perhaps the most impactful of the moves he made this offseason has been the acquisition of Stenlund.

The 6-foot-5, 215-pound center was brought in to shoulder the fourth-line center role Eric Staal filled last season.

While the fact that he has a career-high six goals through the first 22 games of the season is impressive enough, his impact on the penalty kill has been even bigger.

Stenlund centers Florida’s top penalty-killing forward group next to Eetu Luostarinen.

His size and length bring a lot of what worked when Staal manned the same position next to the 6-foot-3 Luostarinen but with even more positives.

While Staal did often get to the right places on the penalty kill — having the IQ to read opposing power plays after spending much of his long career being the centerpiece of top units — his skating left much to be desired.

At 6-foot-4 and 38 years old,  he would often get beaten by faster, younger players and it cost the Panthers in a few big spots last year.

Following the playoff run, Zito said the Panthers had a few positions they wanted to improve upon.

Stenlund was one of those upgrades.

Stenlund provides the same length Staal did and has the same defensive IQ, albeit coming from the perspective of a two-way centerman by trade rather than a power play specialist, but with quicker and more fluid skating.

And that allows the Panthers to get as aggressive as they need to be in order to shut down passing lanes.

His impact was on full display during the four-minute penalty kill the Panthers were on to end the third period in Tuesday’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

On his first shift, he watched William Nylander like a hawk while still hovering over his position down low and forced him to pass out of two potentially dangerous shot opportunities by impeding his space with his long reach.

Nylander, by the way, ranks Top 15 in the league in goals (12) and points (27).

After Sasha Barkov and Sam Reinhart took a shift up front, Stenlund quickly went back to work.

Immediately after coming off of the bench, he poked the puck straight off of Connor Timmins in the offensive zone.

He thwarted off both Timmins and Auston Matthews, pinning the puck in the corner and pressuring the Maple Leafs into keeping the puck in their own zone for nearly 20 seconds by the time it was all said and done.

On the penalty kill, 20 seconds of peace for your defensemen is invaluable.

Stenlund finished that shift by getting his stick in a shooting lane and blocking a Timmins shot.

All of those moments directly contributed to the Panthers escaping Toronto with a point despite being pinned against the league’s No. 5 power play (coming into the game) for the final 3:04 of regulation.

Even after the game ended on a sour note in the shootout, Stenlund helped Florida squeak out a point that will almost certainly be important come April.

By the way, the Florida penalty kill — which has not given up a goal since Frank Vatrano scored at 7:39 of the third at Anaheim on Nov. 17 — is now No. 14 in the NHL with a success rate of 81.1 percent.

Quite the move up from tied for last not too long ago.

ON DECK

FLORIDA PANTHERS @ MONTREAL CANADIENS

  • When: Thursday, 7 p.m.
  • Where: Centre Bell, Montreal
  • TV/Streaming: Bally Sports Florida, ESPN+
  • Radio: WAXY 790-AM; WBZT 1230-AM (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
  • Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932, NHL app
  • Last Season: Florida won 4-0
  • This Season — At Montreal: Thursday; April 2. At Florida: Dec. 30; Feb. 29.
  • All-time Regular Season Series: Florida leads 55-38-11, 6 ties
  • Up Next for the Panthers: Saturday vs. New York Islanders, 6 p.m.

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