Florida Panthers Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov are Difference Makers

Just three games into their return from injuries and Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov are already reminding the hockey world not to sleep on the Florida Panthers making the playoffs. They are the difference markers from the team making the playoffs last season to missing it, if the playoffs started today.

The Panthers are three points behind the Toronto Maple Leafs for the final Wild Card spot. One of the biggest things holding the Panthers back from the playoffs is their ability to score. And what better way to improve on that than the returns of Huberdeau and Barkov to the line-up?

The Cats down in The Sunshine State were one of the biggest stories in 2015-2016, as they managed to surprisingly finish first in the Atlantic division, ranking top 10 in both goals for and fewest goals against. But a big reason why they aren’t playing at the level they were last year is due to impactful injuries.

Florida lost left winger, Jonathan Huberdeau before the regular season to an Achilles injury and their players seem to have continuously go down with injury after injury, the most notable victim being young centre, Aleksander Barkov. The good news for this team though is they are now back on the right track, and the big difference is these two players coming back on the ice.

Jonathan Huberdeau, 23, took a significant step in his development last season. He helped carry the offensive load with career a high 20 goals and 59 points. While Barkov, 21, is slowly turning into a very good two-way forward, and this year was having his best offensive season of his young career with nine goals and 27 points in 36 games before his back injury on December 28th.

The return of these two players means better balance throughout the lines. When Barkov was out of the lineup, Vincent Trocheck filled in and did a solid job, leading the team in points with 35. But Trochek being bumped to the top line posed problems further down the depth chart. Florida has experimented with Jussi Jokinen and Nick Bjugstad in the second centre spot, which has not gone overly well for the former – Jokinen has a 53.33% CF% and Bjudgstad a poor 49.45%. Neither have been able to generate consistent individual offence.

The team that was known for their balanced attack last year hasn’t been able to replicate it this time around. Before Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov returned, Florida was ranked 26th in team goals per game, 25th on the powerplay, and have scored more than four goals just nine times compared to 18 last season at this time.

In their successful 2016-17 campaign, Huberdeau and Barkov were critical weapons. They contributed for almost 21% of the team’s goals and combined for 11 goals and 29 points with the extra attacker. In addition, the young guns have made a difference in the historic career of the ageless wonder, Jaromir Jagr, who’s only one point away from 1,900.

Playing alongside Huberdeau and Barkov, it looked as if the 43-year-old had an extra spring in his stride. He potted 27 goals, his most since 2006-2007 with the New York Rangers, for a team high of 66 points. Jagr’s 18.9 shooting percentage was the third best of his 25-year NHL career, and he has the youngsters to thank. Of his 49 5-on-5 points, 70% (34 points) came along side Huberdeau and Barkov. The line has only been back together at full strength for three games now, and they’ve already found the back of the net in all three of them. In that span, Huberdeau has five points while Barkov has three.

But it’s not like the Panthers haven’t held their own without their two stars. They’re a top 10 NHL squad in possession and are sporting a 51% Corsi. One major problem, however, is that Florida ranks in the bottom three for produced scoring chances.

With 29 games left in their schedule, the Panthers are still in a position to push for a playoffs spot. Huberdeau and Barkov are difference makers. Them being healthy comes at the perfect time to help the team make the postseason for the second consecutive year, a feat that the franchise has only experienced twice in their 23 year history.

via Last Word on Hockey, by Jake Howorth

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