‘What we’re doing is working’: Florida Panthers are winning playing their style of hockey

The Florida Panthers’ lead on the Buffalo Sabres shrunk to a single goal with a little more than seven minutes left and yet the Panthers hardly looked fazed.

Gustav Forsling, whose momentary lapse of attention let Tage Thompson get free to score, tilted his head back for maybe a second before returning to the bench. Sergei Bobrovsky peered at the big screen to self-scout what went wrong on his end. Florida was still up 3-2 and knew the score would stay right there when the game ended 7:16 later.

“We didn’t like giving up that 3-2 goal,” star winger Matthew Tkachuk said, “but, at the end of the day, we’re not giving up another one after that one.”

He was right. The Panthers (39-16-4) hung on for yet another win to continue their best stretch of the season — and maybe the best stretch anyone has played in the NHL this year.

Florida has won 12 of 14 to surge, at least for the moment, to the top of the NHL standings. The Panthers haven’t given up more than two goals in a single one of these games — the run is tied for the longest such streak in the NHL this season — and they’re now one of just two teams in the league giving up fewer than 2.40 goals per game.

They aren’t as flashy as they were two years ago when they won their first Presidents’ Trophy while averaging more than four goals per game. Their story isn’t as dramatic as it was last year, when they made the 2023 Stanley Cup playoffs in the final week of the regular season before running all the way to the 2023 Stanley Cup Final.

They might, however, be South Florida’s best team yet.

“What we’re doing,” defenseman Brandon Montour said, “is working.”

The Panthers held the Sabres (27-28-4) to just 30 shots despite leading for most of the final 45 minutes and giving up four power plays. They outhit Buffalo, 37-19, and beat the Sabres on special teams, scoring twice on power plays to rally from an early 1-0 deficit in Sunrise.

Even though Florida fell behind 1-0 in the first 10 minutes and didn’t build a two-goal cushion until Montour scored a 5-on-3 goal with 10:19 left, the Panthers and their 18,243 fans at Amerant Bank Arena never faced much stress.

“I didn’t think it felt wobbly or dangerous at any point in time,” coach Paul Maurice said.

After Buffalo cut Florida’s lead to 3-2 with 7:16 left, the Sabres only fired two more shots at Bobrovsky. The All-Star goaltender finished with 28 saves on 30 shots, including 22 of 23 at even strength, and the Panthers ultimately cruised the to the finish, pinning Buffalo back into its own zone so badly in the final minute that the Sabres couldn’t pull their goaltender for an extra skater until about 25 seconds remained.

Florida still has 23 games left in the regular season, so the Panthers don’t want to feel like they’re peaking already, but they certainly are playing something like the style they hope they’ll be employing once the 2024 Stanley Cup playoffs start in April.

For the last month, they’ve played like the team they want to be. In the next couple months, they’ll try to make sure it’s just who they are.

“We do have a lot of really good offensive players in here, but, at the end of the day, defense wins and we’re all so committed to that, especially after last year, kind of learning that style and playing it over, and over and over again,” Tkachuk said. “It’s kind of just burned into our brains now. That’s how you play and the buy-in from this group is at an all-time high.”