For the first time in years, the Florida Panthers have a legitimate top line. It just might not be the one you're thinking of.
At the All-Star break, the Florida Panthers strong season looked to be on the verge of a full-blown collapse. During the month of January, the Panthers only managed to win two out of nine games and earn eight out of a possible 18 points. All the early season momentum and cushion they had in the standings had evaporated faster than a South Florida puddle in the middle of July. Injuries and the lackluster play of a slumping first line were starting to catch up to a team that had been playing some of its best hockey in more than a decade.
Just as the team seemed to be unraveling at the seams, coach Kevin Dineen managed to put together exactly what this team had been missing: a strong second line. Whether it was through sheer genius or pure dumb luck (it's always a little of both isn't it?) Dineen managed to capture lighting in a bottle by having Marcel Goc center a line between wingers Sean Bergenheim and Mikael Samuelsson. All three have missed significant time due to various injuries this season, but now that they are healthy they have been able to give the Panthers the added scoring depth they had sorely been missing.
As great as the Panthers start was, it was largely due to the torrid pace set by their top trio of Stephen Weiss, Kris Versteeg and Tomas Fleischmann. Yet, one line can only carry a team for so long, no matter how talented they are. The Panthers found this out the hard way as opposing coaches began to focus their defensive strategy against the Panthers top line. From January 5th against the New York Rangers to January 21st against the Winnipeg Jets- a period of eight games- the Panthers top line managed only six points combined. To put that even more into perspective, Flash didn't have a single point over that stretch and three of the points came from Versteeg in a single game against the Jets.
If the Panthers had any shot of saving their season, it was crucial that they find other sources of scoring, something that had been in the back of every Panthers fan's mind even when the top line was lighting it up. In the seven games since the All-Star break, the newly formed second line has been up to the task.
Since the All-Star break, the Panthers second line has exploded for 17 points in seven games. It's no coincidence then, that with the Panther's new found scoring depth, the team has been able to turn things around going 5-2 over that stretch. Not only has the second line's emergence been great for the team's playoff prospects, it has also visibly taken a world of pressure off the top line. The Weiss line has finally gotten hot again, producing nine points together over the Panthers past three games, all victories, including a dominant performance over the New York Islanders.
Yet, make no mistake about it, the Panthers recent stretch of solid play can all be traced back to the second line. Since being formed by coach Dineen, the line has shown instant chemistry. Goc is a vastly underrated two-way center and this season to go along with his 15 points, has won 51.3 percent of his faceoffs (although he always seems to win the important ones in the defensive zone) and is a plus- 3, while also possibly being Franz Kafka in a past life.
Samuelsson, even though he at times appears to be skating in cement, brings a calming presence to the line. He is not afraid to take time to make the extra pass or hold on to the puck for a second longer to make a smart play and his patience seems to permeate throughout the line. He is also a solid plus-3, with 16 points in 28 games.
However, the player that stands out most on the line is Sean Bergenheim. Whereas Goc and Samuelsson are calm and collected, Bergenheim is the ball of energy that really makes this line go. His speed and energy make him a player that other teams hate to play against and he seems to thrive off this.
When Bergenheim went down with his last injury, you could tell that the Panthers sorely missed his presence in the lineup. Compound his absence with the loss of Jack Skille and the Panthers were lacking that energy guy off the bench, willing to throw the body around and antagonize some of the other team's top guys. But there's a difference between Bergenheim and Skille; Bergie can score. Some criticized Dale Tallon in the offseason for overpaying Bergenheim simply for a solid playoff run, but if Bergie can stay healthy for the rest of the year and keep up his scoring (13 points in only 35 games) he might be a big reason the Panthers finally make the playoffs after a 10 year drought.
The Panthers finally appear to have regained their early season form. They are back to the puck possession style of play that made them so successful over the first few months of the season. Yet, the biggest factor in their reemergence is the added scoring depth from a streaking second line. Although with the way the Goc-Bergenheim-Samuelsson line is producing, the debate about who the first line on the Panthers actually is has gotten a lot more interesting.