The Panthers are in the midst of their longest winning streak since March of 2012, and we can point to several factors for an inspiring run that has them back in the playoff conversation.
Young centers Aleksander Barkov and Nick Bjugstad have become big factors on a nightly basis; young defenseman Dylan Olsen continues his surprising offensive surge; Dmitry Kulikov has responded to a one-game benching by playing stellar hockey; Erik Gudbranson is playing rock-solid defense in the Panthers zone. And we could go on and on.
But near the top of the list, if not the very top, has to be goaltending. Quite simply, the Panthers wouldn’t be on this run of four consecutive victories and six out of seven without quality goaltending. And the man doing the job right now is Scott Clemmensen.
The veteran backup is playing his best hockey since the playoff season of 2011-12, and that is just one of the many encouraging signs for the Panthers right now.
Having quality goaltending is key for any team in the National Hockey League, but it’s especially important for teams without marquee offensive players like Sidney Crosby or Alexander Ovechkin or Patrick Kane or the Sedin twins.
The Panthers soon might have one of those types of players — and maybe more than just one — if Jonathan Huberdeau, Bjugstad and Barkov continue to progress and build off the solid starts all have had in the NHL. As it stands right now, though, the Panthers need to work hard for their goals and they simply can’t afford to give up shaky goals.
Unfortunately, it happened too often last season and it happened too often early this season. Make no mistake, that was a big reason for the Panthers’ struggles.
For the Panthers to have success, they need for their goaltending to be a strength, not a concern. Again, while that sounds obvious, it’s more important for a team that operates with a smaller margin for error.
For example, it’s a lot less damaging for the Penguins to give up a bad goal when they can just watch Evgeni Malkin go out on the next shift, skate through three defenders and score a goal.
If you think back to the Panthers’ Southeast Division title run in 2012, the contributions of a Brian Campbell or the top line of Stephen Weiss, Kris Versteeg and Fleischmann quickly come to mind. But the Panthers also had strong goaltending that year from both Jose Theodore and Clemmensen.
For assorted reasons, including the lockout of 2012 and a knee operation before the start of this season, Clemmensen simply hadn’t been the same goalie until recently. The numbers bear that out: His save percentage his first three seasons in Florida was between .911 and .913 before dipping to .874 last season and .857 through his first five appearances this year.
But something clearly has clicked for “Clemm.” With Tim Thomas sidelined with a groin injury, Clemmensen has started the last three games. In those three games, he has given up four goals and stopped 68 of 72 shots, a save percentage of .944.
The hope coming into the season was that Thomas would be able to steal some victories for the Panthers. That was part of the formula for the Panthers to be able to contend for a playoff spot.
Quality goaltending is at the forefront of the Panthers’ current winning streak when you consider they beat Detroit, Washington and Montreal with two goals each time, earning the extra point in the shootout against the Red Wings and Capitals.
Thomas was playing perhaps his best hockey of the season when he was injured in practice last week and the hope is he can pick up where he left off when he returns, which should be soon. In the meantime, Clemmensen is holding down the fort in a most impressive way.
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