Panthers captain and 2019 All-Star Aleksander Barkov hasn’t scored a goal or dished an assist in six games, the longest drought of his season.
Jonathan Huberdeau, the Panthers’ leading scorer this season and a 2020 All-Star, has just one goal and one assist in his past eight games.
And goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, who signed a seven-year, $70 million contract in July to serve as the Panthers’ savior in the nets, hasn’t won a game since Feb. 25 and has spent the past three contests on the sidelines because of lower-body injury.
Yet, even without much help from their superstars of late, the Panthers are on a modest two-game win streak, are still in the playoff hunt and will enter Thursday’s road contest at the Dallas Stars with at least some momentum.
“This is the best time of the year,” Panthers winger Brett Connolly told the media following Monday’s 2-1 road win over the reigning Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues. “There’s a lot of pressure now, but you’ve got to have guts. This is when the guys are giving it a little extra.”
For the Panthers, at least, the guys giving it the most right now seem to be the fill-ins — newcomers such as goalie Chris Driedger and forward Aleksi Saarela.
Driedger, who had never started a game prior to this season, is 2-0-1 with a 1.31 goals-against average and a .955 save percentage since Bobrovsky went down. A former third-round pick of the Ottawa Senators, Driedger has been the Panthers’ best goalie this season, at least according to the statistics: 7-2-1, with an impressive 2.05 GAA and a .938 SP.
“I can’t say enough good things about [Driedger],” Panthers coach Joel Quenneville commented following his goalie’s 4-1 win over the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday.
Saarela, a 23-year-old former third-round pick of the New York Rangers, has outplayed Barkov by the numbers in the past six games, posting two goals and two assists.
“He’s earned his opportunity,” Quenneville said of Saarela following Monday’s game.
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The real beauty for the Panthers is how little they gave up to take a roll of the dice with Saarela (sending away defenseman Ian McCoshen) and Driedger (signed as a minor-league free agent in July of 2018).
Beyond Driedger and Saarela, MacKenzie Weegar is another player who has made surprisingly major contributions lately.
Weegar, who started the season ranked fifth among Panthers defensemen, has a career-high seven goals this season, including two in his past three games. He also led the Panthers in blocks on Monday, with five.
As a team, the Panthers blocked 23 shots, including nine in the final five minutes.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen shot-blocking as good as it was [on Monday],” Driedger told the media. “We had guys laying their bodies on the line. It was incredible.”