#FlaPanthers Let One Slip Away

By Bill Whitehead

SUNRISE —Well, that didn’t go as planned.

In a scene Florida fans have watched much this year, the Panthers (31-15-6) let one slip away in a huge way Saturday, squandering a two-goal lead in the final 10:45 and falling to the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-2 in overtime on a skillful game-winner from Sidney Crosby to Kris Letang.

To say it was disappointing to most of the 20,295 in attendance is an understatement as enormous as the red-clad crowd.

After Sasha Barkov dashed down the ice and retrieved a slick pass from Jussi Jokinen and scored Florida’s third shorthanded goal of the season — a dazzling backhander that beat goalie Jeff Zatkoff 5-hole — the Cats seemed to be in good shape. It appeared all they needed to do was sit back, pack it in, grab puck possession and send it down the ice.

It’s textbook play and what they’ve been doing since Thanksgiving. It’s what fans have come to expect.

But Crosby and Letang changed the outcome almost singlehandedly, hooking up for the first goal on a one-timer by Letang from the bottom of the left circle, then Letang shoveling in the final marker on the power play after a dish from Crosby. Twice now the Pens have beaten Florida in overtime with the man-advantage.

The sudden loss tainted some of Florida’s better numbers on the year.

Florida slipped to 14-3-6 in one-goal games and 26-3-4 when they score first. The Panthers are now 19-2-2 when leading after one period and 22-2-4 when ahead after two periods. And they are now 22-7-4 against the Eastern Conference.

Those stats aren’t the new Twitter algorithm. They’re the numbers — a calculation of hard work in a systematic approach — that illustrate the Panthers are a top hockey club in the NHL.

If Florida had found a way to hold on to the two-goal margin, they would’ve won for the 12th time in their last 13 home games, dating all the way back to early December, with the only loss being to Edmonton in which they were more interested in owning the score with Matt Hendricks than owning the contest’s final score.

Those are the bad numbers — well, the numbers are fine, they just could’ve been finer.

The good number? One, the amount of points they added to their Atlantic Division-leading season.

Unlike the 2011-12 Florida club that won the Southeast Division by grabbing the dreaded loser points in overtime and shootout losses, the current pack of Cats has won games in regulation. A lot of them. Because of that they can afford to lose a game and — voila! — grab that loser point. At this point (there’s that word again), the idea is to keep banking points.

They aren’t chasing a playoff berth and don’t require two points every night; they’re holding one and padding a first-place lead. And they’ve been there for a while. Keep adding points, mostly two at a time but occasionally one, and they’ll be hosting Game 1 of a first-round playoff series in April.

Honestly, a Florida win, say, 2-1, wouldn’t have been the most artful one of the season, and many would’ve said, “Yeah, they won, but…”. The Panthers had 20 shots in the first periods, but as Crosby, Zatkoff and Pens coach Mike Sullivan said, they weren’t high-quality scoring chances. All of the Pens interviewed seemed to think the shots were misleading, and they ended up 42-35 anyway.

Both teams took way too many penalties, too. Pittsburgh’s overtime power play resulting from Jokinen’s hooking penalty proved to be what is painfully obvious: The 4-on-3 is the true death sentence in the NHL. Rarely do teams kill it off. Too much ice, lack of possession and the long change are brutal to overcome.

On the good side, I posed a question to Crosby about facing Florida this time as compared to the club he saw in Pittsburgh way back on Oct. 20 in the Panthers’ sixth game of the year.

“I thought they possessed the puck,” Crosby said. “It took us a while to climb our way back (in shots). They’re a really deep team. They’ve got a lot of different ways they can beat you. Their D is active, make good plays and come up the ice. Their strong on the puck down low and have good goaltending.

“It’s not a fluke why they’re doing well.”

And, because they’ve been doing well, a non-fluke divisional leader can come away with one point on a night when two seemed so near.

Let’s just not make it a habit.

**Follow Bill on Twitter @BillWhiteheadFL and in newspapers at TCPalm.com

#FlaPanthers Rough Up #Blackhawks

By Bill Whitehead

SUNRISE — In a battle of first-place teams Friday night at BB&T Center, the Florida Panthers, atop the Atlantic Division by a single point before the puck dropped, decided on an interesting approach in facing the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.

They decided to get physical.  “Let’s get physical” ala Olivia Newton-John. The “Pow!”, “Bam!” and “Zow!” of the old Batman series from the 1960s starring the incredibly great, talented Adam West.

A 4-0 thorough whipping of Chicago later, spurred on by a pair of goals by the defense, 27 saves by Roberto Luongo, strong play on all four lines and a complete team effort, and the Florida Panthers (27-15-5) suddenly don’t look like the team that lost to a mediocre Edmonton club on Monday.

Much of it came from the physical nature of Florida, who will never be mistaken for the punishing L.A. Kings, but who can bring the lumber and lay the wood when they need to.

Such as defenseman Erik Gudbranson’s smash of Finnish forward Teuvo Teravainen in the second and oversleeping left winger Richard Panik in the third. Plus Alex Petrovic’s bout with edgy Blackhawk Andrew Desjardins.

Florida outhit and bruised the Blackhawks 27-18, including a game-high five each by Gudbranson and Petrovic.

“Yeah, that (Gudranson hit) was a good hit, that was a good hit,” said Shawn Thornton, whose blind backhander in the third period nearly beat Chicago’s Scott Darling for a goal that would surely have brought the house down.

“Petro stepping up. We’re not an overly physical team, but we genuinely really like each other in this locker room and we have each other’s back. That stuff’s never been a concern in here, win or lose.”

After his post-game treatment, I caught Gudbranson, who ranked his hit right up there with his blow on Taylor Hall in Edmonton in terms of being his season’s best. As Teravainen entered the offensive end with the puck from the right side in front of Chicago’s bench, Gudbranson leveled the 5-foot-11 No. 86, who went head over heels covered in a swirl of curvy 8s and 6s on his white sweater.

“That’s kind of what I mold my game after,” said Gudbranson when I made the reference to the Kings. “I really enjoy hitting, almost as much as scoring, and I haven’t done much of that. I make my name known that way.

“The ref came up to me afterward and said it was absolutely textbook. I got him through the shoulders, and his head was down and I caught him off-guard. (That hit) or Hall right now. The Hall one was definitely harder. This one was a little more exciting to see him flying through the air.

“We’ve got a lot of skill on this team, but I don’t think at any point we’ve let ourselves get pushed around. If the game gets physical, that’s fine. That’s hockey, and guys are ready to step up.”

Even Luongo joined the fray in the second, roughing Desjardins after the Blackhawks’ left winger ventured into the crease following Luongo’s 14th save.

“There was a little bit of a spear after the whistle and I wasn’t too happy about it,” said Luongo, who authored his 72nd career shutout. “That’s stuff that happens during the game. I really don’t want to go down 4-on-4 in that situation, but I was a little upset with myself there and lost control.”

It’s a skill game at times, but on a night when Florida did almost everything right, was clearly by far the better team through 60 minutes and caught the champs on the second game of a back-to-back, the Panthers brought the hits and let the Blackhawks know they were there.

Old-time hockey style.

**Follow Bill on Twitter @BillWhiteheadFL and in newspapers at TCPalm.com

 

#FlaPanthers Do’s and Don’ts in Western Canada

By Bill Whitehead

After a pair of games in eastern Canada, the Florida Panthers (25-12-4) take to the other end of the Great White North with a 9:30 game against the suddenly better Edmonton Oilers (17-22-3). Florida will be trying to extend their NHL season-long 11-game winning streak against the Oilers, who are 8-2-0 in their last 10 against the Cats.

After watching the Oilers lose Saturday night’s game against Tampa Bay in a game they completely dominated – Tampa had all the puck luck in the world, scoring three goals in the third on shots that all bounced off Oilers — I’ve come up with a couple of areas Florida should focus on in an effort to get to a dozen consecutive wins.

Don’t run-and-gun: Edmonton is young and talented, icing highly skilled forwards, some who were No. 1 overall or lottery selections. That youth likes to get out and go to demonstrate their abilities. Florida doesn’t need to get caught up in matching the fast pace of the game and should just take the opportunities presented. Hey, I’ll take Jonathan Huberdeau or Sasha Barkov against Cam Talbot or Anders Nilsson in a breakaway all day over Taylor Hall against Roberto Luongo or Al Montoya, but the Panthers don’t need to play at Edmonton’s pace.

Stay within the system: Coach Gerard Gallant has utilized a tight defensive system that clogs up the neutral zone, creates traffic in the shooting lanes on attempted shots and allows breakouts to get possible odd-man rushes. If Florida can demonstrate their system works better than first-year Edmonton coach Todd McLellan’s, the young Oilers and Barkov-like Leon Draisaitl (by far my favorite non-Cat player from the 2014 draft) may become frustrated and slip into some bad habits. This could lead to breakdowns and offensive chances.

Don’t get caught up in the streak: The team and Gallant have handled the winning streak and its attention like true pros instead of newcomers being fawned over as media darlings – actually, like they’ve acted like they’ve been here before. That said, there’s no reason to press and gamble against Edmonton. A look at the standings says Florida is five points ahead of second-place Detroit in the Atlantic, and for once Florida isn’t chasing the divisional leader. Going to overtime in Rexall Place against a Western Conference club and being assured of at least one point in the standings isn’t the worst thing in the long run.

EMPTY-NETTER: Florida immediately treks to Vancouver for a game Monday night against the Canucks. I watched all of the Vancouver’s game Saturday against Tampa – an overtime loss to the Canucks – and this version of Luongo’s old club isn’t that special. The Sedin twins didn’t stand out in the loss to the Bolts, and none of the veterans, including winger Radim Vrbata (who may be a rental target for a playoff team, maybe in South Florida), stood out at all.

What Vancouver does have is a nice young core. Jake Virtanen has exceptional speed and flair to his game, and Bo Horvat is fun to watch, too. Also, former Panther goalie Jacob Markstrom, once thought to be the netminder of Florida’s future, played a strong game against Tampa (aside from his flopping effort on Nikita Kucherov’s game-winner), though it would be hard to picture him as Vancouver’s future No. 1.

Staggeringly, Vancouver has scored two goals or less in 26 of their 42 games, not exactly the high-flying numbers put up by the team over the last decade or so. Florida’s defense could be the difference.

It will be a hard test in British Columbia, but don’t be confused into thinking this is the Vancouver that Luongo suited up for.

**Follow Bill on Twitter @BillWhiteheadFL and in newspapers at TCPalm.com

#FlaPanthers Worthy of All the Attention

By Bill Whitehead

When the club you’re covering is riding an 11-game winning streak and has suddenly become the media darling in a sport that’s not headquartered in the U.S., there’s plenty to write about. Puh-lenty. Here are just a few Florida Panthers storylines scribes could flesh out today:

A franchise-record/NLH-high winning streak, a franchise-record road winning streak, a 17-3-0 run in their last 20, winning without their top goal scorer for most of the streak, 21-3-2 when scoring first, 15-2-0 when leading after the first period, 13-5-2 when being outshot, trailing for just 14:02 during the run, 5-1 in shootouts, allowing just 32 goals in their last 20 games, sweeping a six-game homestand, leading the NHL in defense, surging to the top of the Atlantic Division and leading by five points, watching them lead NHL On the Fly then being ticked off when they don’t, getting All-Star selections, any Panthers player, even the coach.

Whew.

It’s dizzying what a person can sit down and write about these days with this club. For once, the Florida stories from the second half of this season won’t be about which player to trade to a contender, calling up some hot prospects or analyzing the upcoming draft.

Actually, a couple of observations stand out over the last couple of games Florida has won – winning ugly, the defense and the top line.

If this were, say, the 2011-12 season – the last playoff run – I think it would be a pretty fair assumption to say that Florida would not have beaten either Minnesota or Ottawa in their last two games. These Panthers, the owners of that 11-game streak, brought what amounted to their C or C- game in both of those.

After Jaromir Jagr scored in the first minute against Minnesota, Florida was shut down for most of the game until Jagr unleashed a shot from his heyday in the 90s for his 132nd game-winner, an NHL record, to make a winner out of a strong Al Montoya.

Same with Ottawa. The Panthers scored two quick ones, looked wide awake and appeared ready to blow the Senators right out of the Canada’s capital, yet the Cats had to hang on at the end like they did against the Wild. In fact, Florida had just 16 shots against an Ottawa team that allows 33 per game, most in the league, in a building Florida doesn’t win in often.

Four years ago Florida probably would’ve been taken to overtime after a late goal and perhaps lost in a shootout in both games; the 2011-12 team was 6-11 in shootouts and had 18 overtime losses, earning important “loser points” as they’ve become known as. And that’s no knock on those Cats, who won the Southeast Division. It’s just who they were.

However, the current Panthers improved to 16-2-2 when leading after two periods and 13-3-4 in one-goal games: They hold on to late leads and generally don’t let tight contests go to overtime, and that’s all about coach Gerard Gallant’s defensive system.

Defensively, the Cats have stonewalled opponents. What Roberto Luongo did to Kyle Turris on three occasions and once to Mika Zibanejad was almost a criminal act in Canada. File it under “Goal Theft.” Alex Petrovic’s glitch aside – those plays are going to happen, especially with youngsters – the blue line has been rock solid while the forwards have battled, too.

The top line is simply better, as well.

Sasha Barkov with the third goal on a flip past sprawling good guy Craig Anderson provided a comfort zone. In fact, getting the puck in the hands of Jagr, Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau is always a fine option. Stephen Weiss, Kris Versteeg and Tomas Fleischmann comprised a very good first line; the current one is a great top line consisting of three elite offensive players who can bail Florida out even when they aren’t clicking on all cylinders.

And as for winning ugly when you’re not at your best and somehow boarding the team bus with two points when you were likely driving away with none?

That’s what playoff teams do.

**Follow Bill on Twitter @BillWhiteheadFL and in newspapers at TCPalm.com

Dale’s Deal Done, what’s up next for #FlaPanthers?

By Bill Whitehead

With the ink just drying on the contracts of GM Dale Tallon, new assistant GM Tom Rowe and coach Gerard Gallant, the suddenly second-place Florida Panthers (21-12-4) can turn their attentions to the play on the ice and try to finish this season’s second half as strongly as the first.

So what’s next on the agenda?

The suggestion and subsequent answer might put to rest the biggest fear of Florida fans, who’ve watched numerous odd-man rushes by the Panthers and man-advantages produce nothing more than an extra pass or whiff on a shot or…an extra pass. Really, overpassing and poor shooting have doomed the Panthers’ offense for the longest time (Billy Joel at BB&T Center reference).

So add some scoring.

A December to Remember has transformed the Panthers, who were in sixth place in the Atlantic at 9-9-4 in late November and 16 points behind Montreal, into what clearly looks like a playoff team. Even without last year’s top goal scorer Nick Bjugstad, the Panthers have reeled off a 13-3-0 sizzling streak that has had them perched atop the division on two occasions.

There are two approaches to take here.

First, Tallon could leave the club as is – you know, the old “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it” method. One key would be getting Bjugstad healthy and back in the lineup, and that looks imminent. You might see him against his home state Minnesota Wild on Sunday.

And while fans may not want this – and their complaints are loud ones – the club wants to work Dave Bolland back into the mix in a fourth-line role with Derek MacKenzie and either Quinton Howden, Connor Brickley or Shawn Thornton. The Panthers are paying Bolland all that cash for production, and they really want it in the playoffs.

The other option – and the one I’m all for – is adding on like on Amazon.

If Tallon and the organization feel they have something special – and last month would indicate that may be the case – then why just settle for getting in the playoffs? Dale didn’t do it last time the Panthers were playoff bound. He added John Madden, Jerred Smithson and Wojtek Wolski, who all made contributions down the stretch and in the postseason.

The numbers say add. Florida is 16th in scoring at 2.60 goals per game, tied with Nashville and Calgary. On the back end, the defense has been stellar: The Cats are allowing just 2.24 per game – third in the league and a reflection of the strong play of Roberto Luongo and everyone in front of him buying in to Gallant’s system.

And if the organization feels it has something special, then add. Maybe bring in a scoring winger and instead of just getting into the playoffs they secure a better spot and get home-ice. Then maybe play not just one round like against New Jersey, maybe a couple.

Those playoff Cats that won the Southeast Division four years ago lost a league-high 18 games after regulation, cashing in on the loser point like it was a winning scratch-off ticket. The Panthers these days are 6-4 in overtime and 5-1 in shootouts. They don’t just get to the extra session, they win more often than not.

For starters, Tallon should look at Winnipeg, Columbus, Vancouver (Radim Vrbata played for Dale), Edmonton (glut of forwards now with Leon Draisaitl breaking out) and Anaheim to see if something can’t be worked out to bring in a 2nd line winger who can bury shots and boost scoring. Florida has the cap space and assets to do it.

Perhaps they should.

Tallon and company just have to figure out how special this team is.

**Follow Bill on Twitter @BillWhiteheadFL and in newspapers at TCPalm.com

#FlaPanthers Win Again, 2-0, in Carolina

By Bill Whitehead

RALEIGH, N.C. – If you’re a fan of The Walking Dead, the mention of the name Terminus conjures awful imagery, some of the most graphic in the popular series.

Without giving away any spoilers from Seasons 4 and 5 for those in the process of binge-watching during the holidays – “TWD at Christmas, you say? I’m all for that!” – let’s just say Terminus held the prospect of hope and forcefully snatched it away like Lucy with the football from the oncoming, place-kicking Charlie Brown.

This hockey barn known as PNC Arena has been a Terminus of sorts for the Panthers since the start of the 1999-00 season. Carolina held a 30-9-4 mark against the Cats before Friday night’s final meeting of the season in the Tar Heel State’s capital.

Back in the day, nothing good ever happened here. Bad play, mysterious diving that led to Carolina power plays and poor results were the characteristics of the Panthers’ play in my home state.

That all started to change during the 2011-12 season when Florida won two out of three in their Southeast Division-winning campaign. In fact, since then the Panthers have gone 4-4-0 in the building once known as the RBC Center.

Only defensemen Dmitry Kulikov, Erik Gudbranson and Brian Campbell – Florida’s three longest-tenured players – were around for that playoff season, but rumors of the Cats’ struggles in Carolina surely surfaced when the club pulled up near the North Carolina State Fairgrounds.

Not so much anymore, though. And let’s bump that record to 5-4-0 while we’re at it.

Willie Mitchell’s one-timer from the bottom of the right circle – yep, you read that right – off a slick pass from Jonathan Huberdeau, Roberto Luongo’s 70th career shutout and Reilly Smith’s empty-net goal with Carolina’s Cam Ward on the bench were all that was needed as the Panthers (17-12-4) ran their road record to 10-6-2 with a 2-0 win.

“We’re just playing good hockey right now,” said Gudbranson, part of a blue line that limited the Hurricanes, who had 26 goals in their last six games, to nothing on the scoreboard while Luongo was rock steady and made every stop when something did emerge.

“We’re coming to the rink with the same mindset and preparation every single game. There’s a confidence in this room, even in a tough game like that. Kind of a boring game, a chess match. We knew if we stuck with it that at the end of the day we’d come away with two points.”

By no means was this win pretty, but it was pretty effective.

Coach Gerard Gallant gave credit to Luongo for making 24 enormous saves against a team that had been finding the twine often.

“You never tell your team to play defensive hockey, but they didn’t have a lot in the tank and were a little tired. The puck was bouncing quite a bit, so there weren’t many offensive chances,” Gallant said of Florida, winners of their last eight of 10 on the road.

“Those points tonight were big. We were 4-0 on the last (road) trip and lost the last game. We wanted to try and finish off this trip the right way.”

In a building that thankfully doesn’t hold the Terminus-like dread anymore.

EMPTY-NETTER: It was my first time back at PNC since April of 2008 when Chad LaRose’s hat trick led Carolina to a 6-2 win over Tampa, and it was nice to be back in the building. As much as Florida takes grief for its attendance, Carolina has been just as much in trouble throughout the season. However, Friday night’s crowd of 10,511 a week before Christmas wasn’t too bad for the Canes, whose foothold as the official hockey club of both Carolinas is tenuous at best, especially for a team that has a Stanley Cup championship under its belt.

**Follow Bill on Twitter @BillWhiteheadFL and in newspapers at TCPalm.com**

#FlaPanthers Put Together Textbook Win

By Bill Whitehead

It took a while for the Florida Panthers to get going — or even get the game to get started for that matter — on Thursday, but the Cats put together arguably their best performance of the season against one of the league’s best in the Washington Capitals, who had only lost five times in regulation all year.

From Jaromir Jagr’s record-tying goal in the game’s opening minute to Logan Shaw’s empty-netter, his second goal in as many games, the Cats put together a fantastic performance that focused on following a great game plan, not getting caught out of position and pouncing on any offensive opportunities they had against Caps backup goalie Phillipp Grubauer.

A few points worth considering from a convincing 4-1 win:

  • Team play. From the opening puck drop, Florida seemed faster and much better prepared than they did against Ottawa. Maybe it was  the lull of returning from that five-game road trip or just a poor game against a Sens bunch that has plenty of talented players. Whatever the reason, Florida (14-11-4) played out front the whole game, prevented scoring chances for the Caps and were simply the better team. Florida’s  blocking 16 Washington shots and winning 54 percent of face-offs were keys to getting a victory before starting a four-game road trip.
  • Jagr and Brandon Pirri. Hopefully, Florida fans can look forward to these two key scorers bringing their A game a little more often, especially with fellow netfinder Nick Bjugstad sidelined. Jagr’s goal was the net-presence factor Florida has been lacking; Pirri’s a howitzer that resembled the blasts he fired often last year during a 22-goal season. Florida really needs this pair to contribute nightly.
  • The blue line. With Steven Kampfer and Brian Campbell going out with injuries, the defensemen had to step up and did. Aaron Ekblad, Dmitry Kulikov, Erik Gudbranson and Willie Mitchell picked up the slack, were on the scoresheet some and kept one of the most skillful offenses silent until two minutes left in the game.
  • Skill, skill, skill…Jonathan Huberdeau’s slick saucer pass to Ekblad resulted in one of the best scoring plays of the year and gave Florida a 3-0 lead that left little drama in the contest. When your former Calder winner is leading a 2-on-1 break to your No. 1 overall pick/Calder winner from last year, well, you like your chances of changing the number on the scoreboard. A skill goal all the way around.
  • Good night for Al Montoya. In a rare start, Montoya was very good against the Caps and ran his record to a strong 4-1-1. With back-to-back games in New Jersey and Raleigh next week, the Big Cubano will be back in goal in one of those games. He can hope the defense in front of him only yields 20 shots again by playing a sound defensive game, blocking shots and turning clearings into breakouts and odd-man rushes.

In all, this win was simply as textbook as it gets.

EMPTY-NETTER: The NHL has gone out of its way to bring about more safety to the league, basically protecting the unprotected player along the boards. The five-minute boarding major and game misconduct the Caps’ Tom Wilson received was well deserved, but if the NHL wants to prove it is serious about player safety, it will sit Wilson for a game or two, sending a message to the edgy forward that a thuggish style of play won’t fly in the new NHL. There’s just no place for that hit in this wonderful game.

On to Boston!

Follow Bill on Twitter@BillWhiteheadFL and in Treasure Coast newspapers at TCPalm.com