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Jonathan Huberdeau has no idea how he wound up on Panthers’ penalty kill, but he loves it

·4 min read

Jonathan Huberdeau doesn’t totally understand how he wound up playing on the penalty kill for the Florida Panthers. He could count on two hands the number of games he was on the ice for a kill last year and most of those appearances only lasted a few seconds. He’s an All-Star, but it wasn’t part of his game and it hasn’t been since 2016.

It wasn’t even really supposed to be part of the plan this year, either. In the first game of the season, the Panthers committed nine penalties, which meant Huberdeau logged 3:58 of short-handed time on ice — more than he did in four of his first eight full NHL seasons — because Joel Quenneville liked the idea of keeping Huberdeau and Sam Bennett on the ice together for as much time as possible.

“I don’t know,” Huberdeau said with a laugh Thursday when asked how he ended up on the penalty kill. “I love it, actually. ... I take some pride in that.”

On Saturday, the decision paid off in all the ways Quenneville hoped it would. The star left wing scored a short-handed, game-winning goal in the third period to beat the Philadelphia Flyers, 4-2, and keep Florida (5-0-0) unbeaten heading into a meeting with the Arizona Coyotes (0-4-1) at 7 p.m. on Monday at FLA Live Arena in Sunrise.

Huberdeau was on the ice for 2:22 on the penalty kill and the Panthers didn’t allow a goal while outshooting the Flyers and generating more scoring chances. So far this season, Huberdeau has played 14:22 on the kill — already the third most short-handed time on ice in his career — and hasn’t been on the ice for an opposing goal. Florida now has the sixth best net penalty-kill percentage — which factors in short-handed goals — in the NHL.

Last season, the Panthers ranked in the bottom half of the league in net penalty-kill percentage.

“Our penalty killing last year needed to improve,” Quenneville said Tuesday. “We’re giving everybody a chance.”

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In the Panthers’ season-opening win against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Oct. 14, Quenneville sent Aleksander Barkov and Anton Lundell out as his top penalty-killing forward tandem, then went with Huberdeau and Bennett as his second duo.

Ever since Florida traded for Bennett in April, he and Huberdeau have formed one of the team’s most reliable pairings. In 20 regular-season and playoff games, Huberdeau and Bennett have put up a plus-15 across more than 200 minutes of 5-on-5 action, while the Panthers have generated 61.8 percent of the scoring chances and put 48 more shots on goal.

“It keeps your top guys in the game,” Quenneville said. “We started with him and Benny on the second rotation, and I think they’re getting comfortable with one another. They’re a threat to score on a turnover, but I still think they’re pressuring points, they’re aware of when it’s time to go take away passing and seams in the defensive zone. It’s still a work in progress, but we like the combo and to have guys out there that are killing that can score, as well.”

The short-handed breakthrough also coincided with a needed breakthrough for their second line. The line — which features Huberdeau at left wing, Bennett at center and Owen Tippett at right wing — was mostly outplayed in three of Florida’s first four games, but it produced three scoring chances and a goal Saturday at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.

Down the stretch of last season, it was the Panthers’ most reliable line and Florida managed to rocket out to the best start in the NHL despite getting relatively little from the group. As good as Florida has been, there’s another level it can get to.

“It’s good to see,” Tippett said Saturday. “Obviously, I think our line was a little slow out of the gates — I think all of us will say that — but I think this was a good kind of mark for us to build off of.”

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