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Strong D, Penalty Kill Help Streaking Florida Panthers

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Florida Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky stops a shot by Carolina’s Jesper Fast during the second period of a 5-2 win on Friday night in Sunrise. (AP Photo/Michael Laughlin)

SUNRISE — The Florida Panthers have come a long way on the penalty kill since the start of the season.

And it showed in their 5-2 win over the Carolina Hurricanes on Friday.

At the start of the season, Florida was off to a league-worst 65.4 percent efficiency on the penalty kill.

Only the Nashville Predators (68.2) operated at a clip lower than 70 percent as the Panthers were preparing to leave for Boston to start a three-game road trip on Oct. 27.

Since?

They have allowed just two goals on 17 power play opportunities — an 88.2 percent clip that’s good for fifth in the NHL in that span.

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Sunday, the Panthers attempt to extend their first winning streak of the season to four games when the Blackhawks visit Sunrise.

“It’s a new system that we’re running and it took a while to get but I think we’re starting to,” coach Paul Maurice said.

“Our aggression is starting to show and that comes when the players get a good handle on what they are trying to do.”

Friday’s win against Carolina was a culmination of everything the Panthers were trying to work on as the season progressed.

They went 3-for-3 on the penalty kill and did not allow a single shot to a Hurricanes power play which ranks eighth in the NHL.

“We have been working on it a lot and talking about it in practice,” captain Sasha Barkov said.

“All of the guys on the ice know what to do, where to go and how to execute, so it’s been one of our strengths this year.”

On Friday, it seemed like the Panthers had an answer for every move Carolina made on the power play.

They got their sticks in the passing lanes and effectively held the Hurricanes to the perimeter as they desperately tried to break through the wall that was in front of them.

And they failed to even get a single puck to leak over to Sergei Bobrovsky.

“The penalty kill was strong and same with our whole defensive game tonight,” Bobrovsky said.

“We have a good group of guys, good structure and new guys have had the opportunity to step in. It’s fun.”

After a few weeks of tinkering things, Maurice has found combinations on the penalty kill that click.

Kevin Stenlund and Eetu Luostarinen man the top unit, both possessing high defensive IQ, a long reach and the speed to keep up with opposing stars.

Both are good in the face-off dot with opposite handedness, which allows them to pick their spots on draws.

Barkov and Sam Reinhart’s chemistry 5-on-5 has extended to the penalty kill as well, with both of them making one good defensive read after another and, at times, turning them into dangerous chances on th either side of the ice.

Anton Lundell has had a few different partners on the third unit, mainly being paired with Steven Lorentz, but found success with Will Lockwood at times on Friday.

The Panthers have an endless list of penalty kill options up front and it’s finally starting to show.

And their defense, even without stars Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour in the lineup, has consistently done the same all year.

“The Hurricanes are very close to leading the league in offensive zone time. They are hard to breakout on and I thought they did a really good job,” Maurice said.

“A lot of forwards helped out and it was exactly what we would hope we look like at this time of the year with the people we have out of our lineup. We looked like a team that was cohesive.”

Even without their top two defensemen in the lineup, the Panthers are tied for the ninth-fewest goals-against per game at 2.85.

Efforts from all four free-agent defensemen they brought in to help mitigate their loss have helped and Florida is now in the position it wants to be in.

With Ekblad and Montour’s returns on the horizon, the Panthers have the second-best record in the Atlantic Division at 8-4-1.

They will take that straight to the bank.

“It’s very hard without those guys,” Barkov said. “You can’t replace them.

“Everybody on this team just had to step up a little bit and play a little better, and I think every single guy on this team has been playing as hard as possible. That’s all we can do, that’s all we want to do, and when we do that, we have a chance to win.”

PANTHERS ON DECK

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS @ FLORIDA PANTHERS

  • When: Sunday, 1 p.m.
  • Where: Amerant Bank Arena, Sunrise
  • TV/Streaming: Bally Sports Florida, ESPN+
  • Radio: WQAM 560-AM; WBZT 1230-AM (West Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); WCZR 101.7-FM (Treasure Coast); SiriusXM
  • Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932, NHL/Panthers App
  • Last Season: Tied 1-1
  • This season (Chicago leads 1-0): @Chicago 5, Florida 2 (Nov. 4); @Florida, Sunday
  • All-time regular season series: Blackhawks lead 29-18-4, 3 ties
  • Up Next for the Panthers: Tuesday at San Jose, 10:30 p.m. (ESPN+)

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