Florida Panthers: The NHL’s Joy Luck Club

Panthers Roberto Luongo makes 32 saves and Jussi Jokinen scores 2 goals in the 4-1 win over the Maple Leafs on Thursday.

You can picture a member of the analytics consortium tucking a napkin into the top of his shirt as he sits down, serrated steak knife and fork in hand, and prepares to carve up the feel-good Florida Panthers for being luckier than they are good.

Expect to hear the word unsustainable more than once in advance of the Panthers’ entrance into this spring’s playoffs, but it won’t come from anyone associated with Sunrise’s finest.

If you adhere to Jay-Z logic — “Men lie, women lie, numbers don’t” — then the Atlantic Division leaders are primed for a downfall, eventually.

The Panthers rank second overall in PDO (1.016), hockey’s way of putting math to puck luck, and own the NHL’s sixth-best shooting percentage (9.66 per cent). Here’s a head-scratcher: Florida ranks ninth in goals per game (2.75) but a measly 27th in shots per game (28.4).

How in the good name of James Corsi do you explain this, Gerard Gallant?

“Good shooters,” the Panthers head coach says. “To me, it’s not a big deal. I don’t really care about the number of shots you get in a game; it’s about the quality of chances you get in a game. Our guys are good goal scorers. We’ve got some young skill on our team.”

Thursday night in Toronto, it was Florida’s Czech and Finnish imports (the old skill) who were blessed with the luck o’ the Irish, not the former St. Pats. The Panthers were outshot by the Maple Leafs 33-32 and won 4-1, due to two fluke Jussi Jokinen goals and two empty-net gimmes.

One of those empty-netters tipped off Jaromir Jagr‘s stick before it reached the centre line and cruised all the way in, padding a legend’s stats.

“I score a lot of goals, so some of them are very lucky,” Jagr shrugged. “I don’t complain.”

Wise at age 44, Jagr is shooting less frequently than in his glory days but from closer range. As a result he leads all NHL shooters (100 shot minimum) in accuracy this season, striking gold on 19.4 per cent of his attempts. Linemate Aleksander Barkov (16.3 per cent)  ranks 11th overall.

“I definitely wouldn’t call it luck. I know our first line is a real puck possession team, and the looks they’re getting are real quality looks,” says Vincent Trocheck, one of five other Panthers scoring on more than 13 per cent of his shots. “It’s just capitalizing on chances. When you get a chance, capitalize on it, and shooting percentages will go up.”

Gallant agrees: “It’s not about looking at the shot clock and getting outshot 20-35. It doesn’t make a difference to me. It’s about quality.”

Yes, the Leafs outshot the Panthers Thursday, but ask anyone at the game who dominated play, and it wasn’t even close. Puck battles, cycling, passing… Florida was far superior to the eye.

“The Panthers move the puck around a lot in the offensive zone,” says Panthers analyst Denis Potvin. “There’s no question that they’d like to see them shoot the puck a little more. But right now, look at the shooting percentage.”

In Florida’s 40 wins this season, the Panthers outshot their opponents just 20 times. And we’re not talking a few extra pucks resulting from a late push. The Cats have won games in which they’ve been outshot by 16 (Jan. 7 vs. Ottawa), 17 (Dec. 3 vs. Nashville), 18 (Dec. 17 vs. the Islanders), 19 (Nov. 16 vs. Tampa Bay and Feb. 2 vs. Washington) and 20 (Jan. 2 vs. the Rangers).

Credit a zoned-in Roberto Luongo, definitely. But there’s more to this discrepancy.

“Overall, they’d like to be in the 35 to 40 [shot] range every game, but it doesn’t work that way,” Potvin explains. “In probably 30 of the games they’ve played, they’ve taken an early lead. When you’re leading by one or two goals, you tend to want to protect the lead as much as you want to add to it.

“Playing with a lead, you tend to get a less frenetic attack. But I think they manage their game very well.”

Jagr says the team has learned from Monday’s 3-2 defeat to the Islanders. The Panthers took a two-goal lead into the third period and tried to defend too much. The Isles stormed back and scored three in the third.

“Even on the island, we felt like we played very good hockey. Something happened in the last 10 minutes,” Jagr says. “We needed to learn from that. [The win against the Leafs] was the other way around. We had some lucky bounces.”

The beneficiary of those bounces was Jokinen. The human four-leaf clover was giddy as a leprechaun post-game.

“We don’t have this holiday in Finland, but it’s a very nice holiday. Hopefully I have many more games on St. Patty’s Day if I have luck like that,” says Jokinen, wearing the team’s Spacey in Space hoodie.

Kevin Spacey is flying to Sunrise, where he’ll drop the puck at the Panthers game Saturday. He’ll be watching a happy/good/lucky team.

“It’ll be fun to see him and have him around,” Jokinen says. “Hopefully he’ll bring us a little more luck. I don’t know if you can be any luckier than this.”

IMG_3223