Panthers take big step forward with revamped power play

Florida Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad notched two power-play assists Tuesday night against the Detroit Red Wings.

Russell LaBounty/Russell LaBounty-USA TODAY Sport

SUNRISE, Fla. — The Florida Panthers returned from the All-Star break with a few new tricks up their sleeves as head coach Gerard Gallant unveiled a revamped power play which sported four forwards, instead of the traditional three.

As a result, Florida, which returned from the break with one power-play goal in its last 23 attempts over an eight-game span, netted three power-play goals on five attempts in a 5-4 loss to the Detroit Red Wings on Tuesday night.

It marked the first time this season that the Panthers have netted more than two power-play goals in a single game and the first time since a 6-4 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Feb. 26, 2013, that they’ve scored three.

"It went well last night," Gallant said after Wednesday’s practice at the BB&T Center. "They moved the puck and they looked confident last night. You can put whatever system you want in there, and last night it seemed to fit what they were doing."

Like all new endeavors, however, there were a few kinks to be worked out at first as the team adjusted to playing in an unfamiliar system that they’d only had one full practice to work on.

On their first power-play attempt of the night, the Panthers coughed up a short-handed breakaway goal by left wing Drew Miller at 8:06 of the first period. It was the third short-handed tally allowed by Florida this season.

From that point on, though, Florida was dialed in on the power play as the team’s two units — one quarterbacked by rookie defenseman Aaron Ekblad and the other by defenseman Brian Campbell — kept heavy amounts of pressure on Detroit goaltender Peter Mrazek up until the final buzzer.

"We practiced it and we accomplished it," said Ekblad, who notched two power-play assists on Tuesday night. "We set our minds to it and we did it. That’s what has to happen with the rest of our game. We can’t just focus on one thing and leave the rest out to dry. We have to focus on our defense and be prepared for that just like we were with our power play. It’ll snowball and we’ll start playing really well."

During their last playoff run in 2012, the Panthers saw success using a similar system in which Campbell shared the point with then-Panthers forward Miakel Samuelsson. Florida finished the regular season with the seventh-ranked power play in the NHL.

Now, it’s up to the newest generation of Panthers to carry the special teams torch and re-ignite a power play that entered Tuesday night as the 29th-ranked unit in the NHL.

Getting recalled

"Everyone is trying to learn this," said Ekblad, who played in similar umbrella systems during his junior hockey career with the OHL’s Barrie Colts. "If someone is in the box, it’s no big deal and someone can jump into that position. If both lines are tired then the next line can go. It’s all about diversity and variety and each line being able to bring it. All of us are talking and trying to figure how to attack it.

"We’re excited about the direction that we’re headed."

Still, the Panthers aren’t ready to pat themselves on the back just yet.

In the midst of a season-long five-game losing streak, Florida took a big step forward in fortifying one of its most blatant weaknesses Tuesday night, but the team will need to show that they can be consistently lethal with the extra attacker if they hope to remain in the playoff picture.

"It worked yesterday, but it’s only one game," said Panthers winger Jonathan Huberdeau. "We made some good plays, but the most important thing is that we’re working hard on the power play. We’re not soft on pucks and we’re winning our one-on-one battles. I think that’s what we’ve got to do throughout the rest of the season.

"The power play is huge for our team."

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