On Christmas Eve, the NHL made the announcement that the restart to the 2021-22 season would be postponed by a day. For the Florida Panthers, that means another couple days added to their extended holiday.
The Panthers, a team which shot out of the starting gates like one of Vinnie Viola’s prized thoroughbreds, could benefit from the extra time off.
It may have been the best gift of all this holiday season.
The Panthers had their season put on pause due to a rash of Covid-19 positive tests which pulled seven players — including top defenseman Aaron Ekblad and top-6 forwards Sam Bennett and Carter Verhaeghe — out of the lineup.
The team is scheduled to practice Sunday afternoon as Covid testing resumes.
Florida’s return game was supposed to be Monday night at Carolina, but that was postponed as well.
As it stands, Florida has four games to make up — all of which will probably be played in February now that the league is not sending players to the Olympics.
So, aside for a lot of negative Covid tests, what is on the Panthers’ Christmas list?
A Healthy Sasha Barkov: Between a left knee and an undisclosed upper body injury, the Panthers have missed their captain for more than a month.
Barkov came back after missing eight games with the knee in St. Louis, played 18-plus minutes and left in the third after appearing to do something to his shoulder or upper arm. He had been skating before the pause, but it is not known when he could return. It could be this coming week. Maybe longer.
Regardless, Florida’s strong start to the season allows them the leeway to make sure that Barkov is no less than 100 percent. They need him to be completely healthy down the stretch and cannot risk having a lingering problem affect him as the season rolls on.
That said, Barkov is missed. No player, save for the goalie, is as counted on as much as Barkov is. He runs the power play, is one of their top penalty killers, drives the offense.
Florida is 11-2-4 with Barkov; 7-5-0 without.
A Return to High-End Goaltending: When the season started, few goalies were as hot as Sergei Bobrovsky was — and his play was a big reason the Panthers got off to the start they did.
Bobrovsky’s play cooled, as did the play of Spencer Knight, but his numbers still look much better than they did in his first two seasons with the Panthers.
Still, there was a lot of talk about Bobrovsky being in the running for a third Vezina Trophy. That talk has dissipated over the past few weeks.
Bobrovsky is going to be a big reason whether the Panthers get to where they want to go and his numbers — his 2.47 GAA is 15th among goalies with at least eight appearances and his .917 save percentage is 17th — have been good enough.
Both Florida and Bobrovsky would like to see them go up once this season gets going again.
Better Special Teams: Simply put, Florida’s power play has to be better. It should be better, right?
As it stands, the Panthers are ranked 25th in the league with a power play success rate of 16.8 percent. It has struggled without Barkov in there although it was not doing that great when he was playing.
The penalty kill sits at 80 percent which is OK but, again, should be better. The old measure of a successful special teams is to have the penalty kill and power play success rate to add up to at least 100; Florida is almost at 97 percent.
Andrew Brunette, the interim coach, still runs the power play and has tried a number of different looks when it comes to personnel.
Since Barkov has been out, the Panthers have gone just 5-for-38 (13 percent).
Expect the power play to get better. It simply has to with the talent Florida is throwing at it.
The Atlantic Division Title: The Panthers were the top-ranked team in the NHL for a long time, but recently, they have slipped a bit. Not much, but enough.
Florida will come out of the break third in the Atlantic Division, four points back of Tampa Bay and two behind Toronto. The Panthers are ranked sixth in both the Eastern Conference and in the league.
If these standings were to hold, the Panthers would open the playoffs against Toronto.
The Panthers, certainly, would like to win the division and square off against a wild card team instead of playing Tampa Bay or Toronto. It looks like the top three in the Atlantic are set; the seedings will change. There’s a lot of hockey to be played.
For Florida, a team which has won just two divisional titles in its history, winning the Atlantic would go a long way to help this team make it out of the first round for the first time since 1996.
A Deep Playoff Run: This one is obvious.
Get out of the first round, first, and then we can talk.