#FlaPanthers: Coaching Change Inevitable

By BILL WHITEHEAD

We’ve been told for a long time that a picture is worth a thousand words. With that in mind, the images that we saw Sunday night about 10:00 must be worth at least 100,000 words.

Or maybe something closer to epic proportions, somewhere in the neighborhood of War and Peace.

There was Gerard Gallant, bags in hand, grabbing his own cab. One Carolina Hurricanes employee was assisting him, which accentuated the matter even more.

In his time of departure from the Florida Panthers and lowest point within the organization, Gallant’s sole help was a worker from a former Southeast Division rival.

In the high stakes game of Optics, which is enormous these days (Google “National Election” images), the Panthers came off looking terrible on a Sunday night.

Worse than the worst segment ever of 60 Minutes. Or if you’re over 45, the most woeful melodramatic episode ever of Murder, She Wrote.

Rumors had been swirling like a furiously forming funnel cloud that Gallant’s days in Florida could be coming to a close. A 3- or 4-game losing streak might just be Gallant’s last straw, but one loss? One particularly bad loss to a mediocre  Hurricanes team that is extremely young and played most of the game without its top center?

Seems extreme, no?

Unabashedly, I admit to liking the Panthers. I’ve covered them since Pete DeBoer’s first season, and my duties have expanded greatly in that time beyond anything I had ever imagined.

When they lose, it stings some. Hey, prosperity’s a good thing, and business is better for everyone when the Cats are winning like last season, breaking records and being the lead NHL story on occasion.

When my wife saw me sulking a bit and asked, “Is someone upset because his team lost?”, my eight-year-old son — the real hockey fan in the house — looked over his shoulder from his computer hockey game and set the record straight.

“Everyone gets upset when their team loses,” he said simply.

Apparently that goes for Florida’s management, too. And it literally is their team.

That said, Sunday night won’t go down as one of the better moments for the Florida Panthers.

Gallant was a great guy to work with. Even when angry or perturbed by something, that grin seemed to widen and those teeth flashed as he prepared to deliver the reasons why. He didn’t single out players often, but he didn’t cover up the mistakes that were made either.

He’s appreciated around the league, and the perception of him is a good, strong one. The media likes him, and he’s viewed as a good hockey guy.

If you’re setting the scene at home, management will be playing the role of the Big Bad Wolf in this story, folks.

But the bottom line is this: There was a gulf that existed between Gallant and management. Gallant bristled at some of the decisions made by the brass, but their final one that concerned him was inevitable.

It could have happened last night or in Chicago or Detroit later in the week, but it was coming. That funnel cloud finally formed over Gallant, and he couldn’t escape it.

The growing discontent between Gallant and management would never go away.

Now it’s on ownership, though, and they’re just as culpable as Gallant.

They secured the future by making long-term decisions and locking up the core. That’s great. But with over $5 million left in salary cap, they failed to address the present state of secondary scoring, which has usually been a problem for the Panthers as long I’ve been here.

Particularly of issue is the third line and the team’s offense, which ranks in the NHL’s lower half in almost every significant category.

Some players on the third line are rookies, castoffs, borderline AHLers or some with marginal skills that should be playing on the fourth line. With Nick Bjugstad out, Gallant tinkered with that line incessantly, trying to make something out of it and establishing some consistency, but he couldn’t.

While spitballing some hot stove talk in July, a colleague and I often talked about many possible free-agent acquisitions. Two that came up frequently were Austrians Michael Grabner and Thomas Vanek.

An energetic player like the former 30-goal Michael Grabner or proven scorer like Vanek were both available on the cheap to shore up the third line, even before Bjugstad’s late preseason injury.

Both wingers are having standout years. Grabner has 12 goals and is his usual reliable self on the PK, and he’s a ridiculous plus-20 for the Rangers. Vanek has been nicked up a bit but is almost a point a game for Detroit.

The Rangers paid less than $2 million per Grabner, Detroit slightly more for Vanek. Meanwhile, the Panthers still have a hole at wing.

One of these seasoned vets could have brought production to a line that had gaping holes on both wings and kept Bjugstad in the middle, but management hope a youngster would step up.

It was a gamble that hasn’t paid off.

Grabs or Vanek would have helped offensively and pushed players getting third-line minutes to  the fourth line, too, making it more productive in the process.

I didn’t want Gallant necessarily, but I grew to like him. No one asked me, but I had my sights on Guy Boucher and his Mad Scientist approach to coaching.

Boucher took the Lightning to within one goal of the Stanley Cup Final with a goalie tandem of Dwayne Roloson, Dan Ellis (remember him?) and Mike Smith. Think about that for a minute.

Now Boucher is in Ottawa, the Senators are in second in the Atlantic Division and GM Tom Rowe is the Panthers’ new bench boss.

It’s quite an ascendancy from Rowe’s stint in the AHL to Florida’s front office and now to the bench, albeit in an interim role. The onus will be on him to get the team, which is likely a little ticked off at losing Gallant, back on task of chasing Montreal,  Ottawa and Tampa for a divisional spot.

Last night was a lot about Gallant — those images, again, were bad and will be played out too much for anyone’s liking — and the players will always have to own up to their play on the ice.

But now with Rowe coaching the team, this is mostly about the brass, less on the players and not on Gallant at all.

It’s on management now.

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

#FlaPanthers Riding Homegrown Momentum

BY BILL WHITEHEAD

It sounds like an ad for an upcoming ESPN 30 for 30, but what if I told you the Florida Panthers would lose to Toronto on their road trip and it would be a success?

However, if I added that the Cats went 3-1-0 on the trip and took points from Eastern Conference foes and divisional rivals along the way, then it gets much more believable.

Toronto, while having plenty of skilled forwards, isn’t a playoff team. This is a rebuilding year for the Leafs and their batch of young talent up front to get a lot of experience, setting up their future. And their 6-1 win over Florida was an aberration on this trip.

Maybe it was James Reimer back home against his former team or Toronto already having beaten Florida once or a generally crummy Cats’ effort, but the Leafs blew out the visitors for some reason.

But enough of that miserable night.

The stars shined for Florida (10-8-1) in their three wins that changed their Facebook team status from “Middling Mediocrity” to “Playoff Contender.”Aaron Ekblad’s shattered-stick game-winner, Roberto Luongo’s stone wall and Sasha Barkov’s shootout dazzler all will appear in highlight packages when the final touches are put on this season.

Everyone chipped in on those three wins, though.

Barkov’s play has improved dramatically, while linemates Jaromir Jagr and Jonathan Marchessault picked it up as the top line played like one. Vincent Trocheck had strong games on the trip, and the third and fourth lines continue to be fun to watch. The bottom six will  get more talented when someone gets moved down when Nick Bjugstad returns, likely Tuesday.

The defense has been better as well but still needs to establish consistency.

The Rangers’ two goals were on a bad line change and a fluke deflection off a skate. In addition to Ekblad, Mark Pysyk was outstanding in New York, and Keith Yandle fired the blast that gave Florida life against his former team.

And the goaltending must continue to play like it did in three of the four games if Florida has playoff dreams.

While it’s early in the season, probably too early to think playoffs, the standings are there for a reason and are what they are — a slotting of the teams through the one-quarter point of the season.

With 21 points in 19 games, Florida is on pace for roughly 91 points, and that average wouldn’t be good enough to get it done right now. Last week, due to Eastern Conference teams beating up on the West, the cut line appeared to be 101 points, but that will change, especially as injuries mount.

On the plus side, Florida’s start is better than last year’s 103-point season that ended with an Atlantic Division title. Those Panthers opened with an 8-8-3 mark and 19 points, but of course were eventually buoyed by a 12-game winning streak.

Right now Florida’s 21 points has them tied with New Jersey for the second wild-card spot. That’s right, wild-card. That was a little unthinkable about 10 p.m. in Toronto on Thursday night when everyone, including yours truly, was griping about the Cats’ lack of effort against an inferior opponent.

Wins in Ottawa and Madison Square Garden changed that mood.

This Meow Momentum wasn’t found in Canada like something from a Roots store or from inside a Tim Horton’s on a cold morning. The Cats may be playing through a good stretch, but it all started at the BB&T Center two Saturdays ago.

That rally against Jack Capuano’s Islanders and behind Denis Malgin’s game-winning chip past Jaroslav Halak is the seed of what we’re seeing.

It was just nurtured then sprouted in Canada over the period of a week.

It may seem like the Panthers are returning to Sunrise with plenty of momentum, but they actually left the 954 with it.

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

The #FlaPanthers after 5 games

BY BILL WHITEHEAD

Five games or so is really a small sample to figure out how good a team is in an 82-game season. It’s safe to say the Edmonton Oilers (5-1-0) and Vancouver Canucks (4-1-1), who are atop the Pacific Division, are better than expected, but likely for different reasons. The Oilers are so deep with offensive talent they’re playing 2011 No. 1 overall Ryan Nugent-Hopkins as their third line center. Vancouver? Who knows. They were expected to be pretty bad and in a youth rebuild.

But it’s really the Florida Panthers we’re concerned about. At 3-1-1 and embarking on their first real road trip, not a day-trip up I-75, here’s what we can glean so far from this version of the Cats:

STAYING HERE — Denis Malgin and Shane Harper. A few people griped a bit when the 19-year-old Swiss forward and the 27-year-old Californian broke camp with the team, but the lesson the pair has taught is this: Let’s give them a chance before we ship them out to Springfield.

Malgin was a big unknown coming in. With Lawson Crouse and Rocco Grimaldi out of the picture, more talk centered around Kyle Rau, Juho Lammikko, Jayce Hawryluk and even Dryden Hunt, a curious potential “diamond in the rough” signing, among the forwards who were looking to impress. However, Malgin tore it up in rookie camp and showed he belonged with the big club in the preseason.

He still belongs.

Much like Tampa’s 20-year-old Brayden Point, Malgin battles size issues as both are a couple of inches short of six feet. Yet what they’re not short of is talent and determination — you know, those immeasurables — that have put both players on teams that most feel should be in the playoffs. Though he hasn’t beaten an NHL goalie yet, Malgin has outworked defenders and won battles that have led to goals, again showing that the staff’s decision to bring him up was the right call.

I tweeted Saturday night that Malgin was “clearly the most electrifying player who has never scored a goal,” but I think that changes and I’m going to go ahead and call my shot Babe Ruth-style: Malgin scores against Pittsburgh.

Maybe it’s because Malgin sounds like Malkin. Or because Malgin wears No. 62 like the Penguins’ Carl Hagelin, who was instrumental in their Cup run last year. Whatever. I’ll take any off-the-wall connection at all I can use, but it’s time for Malgin to score.

The well-traveled Harper nearly made the club out of camp last year, but that honor went to Connor Brickley. Now it’s Harper’s turn, and the former ECHLer is making the most of it. Unlike most from that league, Harper can flat out score — he’s done it everywhere he’s played.

His finish from nice assists from Greg McKegg and Alex Petrovic on 2-on-1s Saturday are skillful scores we don’t see often from NHL  fourth lines. But again, Harper has scored at all levels, so don’t be surprised when he shoots more often and it happens again.

Quite a few players have bounced in and out of Florida’s bottom six in the past year — some have been dealt, some demoted, some just outright handed their walking papers. Malgin and Harper appear to be good candidates to stay here all year, putting pressure on young players to step up their game if they want to get the call and likely keeping Shawn Thornton out of the lineup.

The lineup decision gets tougher when Nick Bjugstad returns in the near future and Jonathan Huberdeau in early 2017, too.

MUST SEE STs — The Florida Panthers’ special teams have always been interesting to watch and often a work in progress. That’s still the case this year.

First, the good: The penalty kill has been excellent through five games.

The PK is a major asset on a couple of fronts. First, it’s been non-existent much of the time because Florida has shown its discipline by being down a man only 11 times, a 90.9% clip that ranks ninth in the NHL.

The power play is a different story — so far.

Only twice in 18 opportunities (11.1%) has Florida scored on the PP, which is hard to fathom considering there’s a 750-goal scorer and two of the game’s best young centers on the ice.

“So far” is the key here. The PP has only reaped benefits for Jaromir Jagr and Aaron Ekblad, but it has shown signs of life. Look for Reilly Smith, Vincent Trocheck, Jonathan Marchessault and Keith Yandle to start tallying goals with the man-advantage. Florida ices too much offensive talent to sit tied for 23rd in the PP.

Both special teams must improve into the top half of the NHL in order to have long-term success and make a deep run.

A TOUGH ONE — Like most, you probably feel the Cats gave away a point in the final seconds in Tampa in a game they deserved to win last week. In actuality it’s a three-point swing: the one Florida didn’t get for the win and the two the Bolts got instead of a regulation loss.

Making it worse is that the points transfer happened with a divisional opponent. And if Montreal stays hot and is for real and Florida and Tampa Bay fight but come up in second and third in the Atlantic, those three points could determine home-ice advantage in a Citrus Showdown in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

But it’s a long season, one in which Florida will surely come out victorious in a game or two when they shouldn’t have. It’s a tough, tough season, too.

How tough?

Look at Trocheck’s face in the season’s first week. A pair of scabbed over wounds on each cheek, the Pittsburgh native wears black and blue instead of black and gold right now.But Trocheck won battles, scored a greasy goal and lobbied for a high-sticking call Saturday night after one of the abrasions was re-opened and bubbled blood.

Trocheck’s counenance is a canvas showing the determination and grind that comes with a grueling NHL campaign, with scabs, scratches and scar tissue the paint that splatters the canvas. Meanwhile, bruises, muscle pulls, dental issues and lingering body pain will define the days.

And it’s not even Halloween yet.

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

A Peek at the Crystal Ball: #FlaPanthers, 2016-17

BY BILL WHITEHEAD

SUNRISE — The 2016-17 season hasn’t even started yet for the Florida Panthers, yet I feel like the Cats are already struggling to hang on somewhat.

The major injury to Jonathan Huberdeau (out 3-4 months) and the minor one to Nick Bjugstad (out a month) have given the club its fair share of bad news and we haven’t even dropped the puck yet. The setbacks have some of the prognosticators frowning on the new-look Panthers — both in their attire and the players on the ice — but the pundits were going to choose Tampa Bay to regain the Atlantic Division, regardless of coach Gerard Gallant and his staff being without Bjugstad and Huberdeau.

Good teams rally in times of crisis, though, and this group of Cats should be up to the task of solidly securing a playoff berth. To do that, their primary scorers must do their jobs plus have secondary scoring and improve the power play.

Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon has a slogan: “Try Not to Suck.” The Panthers don’t have to adopt that motto, however. There’s should simply be “Just Be Better.”

Here are a few reasons they could be better, plus a prediction:

BREAKOUT PLAYER: Jonathan Marchessault. If you looked at Tampa’s roster and its crop of UFAs and RFAs on July 1, the two names that jumped off the screen at you were Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov. Most had Stammer pegged for Toronto while Kucherov couldn’t hammer a deal. Florida never had a shot at 91, though I’m confounded as to why the Panthers didn’t offer-sheet Kucherov, the 23-year-old Russian right winger who is a deadly sniper. Let’s face it, the Cats will need a top RW shortly, and six years or so of Huberdeau-Barkov-Kucherov is enough to make you salivate.

But the third name on that list — and the most obtainable one — was Marchessault, who was looking for minutes and a better opportunity with his minutes limited on Florida’s west coast.

A huge favorite of the Bolts and coach Jon Cooper, Marchessault should have the breakout year this season that some have predicted. In Lightning games I watched, he and teammate Vladislav Namestnikov were always a problem for the opposition, using their speed and skill to create scoring chances where none seemed to exist.

That kind of production is why he’s on the top line now at left wing in place of Huberdeau. I expect him to get time on the power play, exceed expectations and be the acquisition I thought he would.

In Season 3 of The Walking Dead, the Governor reunites Merle and Daryl, unveiling the latter to the former, saying to Merle, “You wanted your brother, now you got him.” Well, Marchy wanted more minutes.

Now he’s got them.

MUST-DO-WELL PLAYER: James Reimer. With starter Roberto Luongo coming off hip surgery, Reimer will play an enormous role in spelling Florida’s 37-year-old starting netminder.

The choice of Reimer was a solid one. Jhonas Enroth was another possibility, but the 28-year-old Reimer was signed to a 5-year/$17 million contract and will have plenty of chances to get starts here and there and show what he can do.

Like Marchessault, a great opportunity exists for him with the Cats.

O CAPTAIN! MY CAPTAIN: Derek MacKenzie. From the start, I thought D-Mac displayed the traits necessary — most notably his leadership qualities — to earn the C on his new Florida sweater.

Did he play enough to warrant it? The top six definitely plays more.

Is he high-profile enough? Luongo, Jagr, Barkov and Ekblad are the familiar faces.

Does he score enough? He was tied for 11th with Kulikov in team points with 17.

All of those questions could start with “No” as an answer, but MacKenzie brings more to each 60 minutes than just stats. He’s a tireless worker, excellent penalty killer, gritty as my wife’s homemade soaps and shows the leadership every player in the room looks up to.

Hey, Jagr said it was an easy, perfect choice. That’s good enough for me.

THE SEASON: 43-28-10 (96 points). The early injury bug will be important for Florida to overcome. Don’t expect a 12-game winning streak, but an offensive improvement on the blue line should create more goals, and newcomer Keith Yandle should be a force quarterbacking the power play.

Tampa will win the Atlantic while Florida will finish second, then host Montreal in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, where Quebec native Luongo will shut down the Habs and send Florida to the second round.

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

 

#FlaPanthers draft moments, plus tonight’s pick

BY BILL WHITEHEAD

Sadly really, this piece doesn’t have the dateline “BUFFALO, N.Y.” leading it, but that’s the result of having other sports in full swing as the summer unfolds. Ever since the Florida Panthers’ brass decided to draft Jonathan Huberdeau five years ago, I’ve usually spent this week in the summer away from the oppressive South Florida heat and at the host site of the NHL Draft.

Until tonight.

For the just the second time since 2011, I won’t be at the draft as teams make deals on the floor of an arena and shape their future. I missed the draft two years ago in New Jersey – aka, The Barkov Draft – but that one was a real mess anyway, with too much back and forth from Newark to NYC. A bad experience other than snagging Barkov, of course – a brilliant move by Dale Tallon as the lure of Seth Jones and Jonathan Drouin hung in the Jersey air.

The draft has been extremely rewarding to the Florida Panthers in the eight years I’ve been covering the team, but that’s usually what happens when your club is floundering. This year is similar to 2012, though, when the Cats actually drafted after the Chicago Blackhawks in Pittsburgh and selected Michael Matheson. I make the Chicago reference because I really had my eye on Teuvo Teravainen at that draft, and he’s been in the news lately.

There are a lot of those moments, though, in the time I’ve covered the draft.

I chatted with a friend as I rode the Light Rail in the Twin Cities, hoping Rocco Grimaldi would be available early in the second round after Florida chose Huberdeau the previous night. Grimaldi was there – the consensus was he was another first-rounder who just happened to be in the second round – and Tallon pounced when the 33rd selection came up.

Yesterday, he was traded, ending the Rocco Era in Sunrise.

Florida also made the 64th pick that day. We interviewed the young forward, who naturally had South Florida ties (they all do, it seems, though it’s usually through retired grandparents), liked what he had to say and went on our way. As I walked away, a scout said to me, “Keep your eye on him, he’ll be a good one.”

Yeah, he was probably right. Vincent Trocheck has been better than good; he’s been outstanding. And Kyle Rau, chosen at No. 91 that day, has a great chance to do with this team what Grimaldi couldn’t.

The same anticipation of watching these new prospects become a part of the organization and develop moved to Pittsburgh, where Matheson joined the fray. And from the Barkov Draft, second-round pick Ian McCoshen, who recently signed an ELC, could make an impression at rookie camp with bottom-pairing spots on the blue line up for grabs.

Florida chose the big prize in 2014, getting love from Philadelphia in the form of star defenseman Aaron Ekblad. I stayed up late that Friday night wondering who Florida would choose with the second pick on the next day when Round 2 began. Buffalo had the first pick, and the anticipation of the second round is indescribable because clubs selecting early have those “fallers” like Grimaldi just sitting there waiting to hear their names called.

Brendan Lemieux, goalie Thatcher Demko and Ivan Barbashev were the hot names, and I was keen on the latter, despite Tallon rarely selecting high-profile Russian players. I chatted with friends on Twitter about who to take, and most agreed on Barbashev but didn’t think Tallon would do it.

The next day Tallon followed up on a promise he made to Jayce Hawryluk, taking him and leaving us in the media with a great interview. Like Demko, who was a media darling in the prospect interviews, Hawryluk was very open and immediately likable. He talked about his village of a hometown and the hotly contested pick-up games he played with his older brothers, aggravating matches that often left him frustrated but determined to win the next time.

It was obvious to see that while this kid’s pest-like quality will likely lead to him being disliked by opposing teams and fans in the NHL, maybe to a Brad Marchand-like degree, Panthers jerseys sporting his name will be prominent at BB&T Center at some point. Especially if he keeps developing like he did these last few seasons in Brandon.

In fact, when speaking of that anticipation that comes with prospects maturing, are there two more we’re eagerly awaiting to see make it than Hawryluk and last year’s first-round Lawson Crouse?

As for tonight, I won’t fib and pretend I know too much about this draft. Like in Pittsburgh, there’s a tad less excitement when Florida picks this late; however, that’s the price of progress and success. But that old anticipation and anxiety will surface when the Cats’ selection comes up.

If I had two longshots, I’d go with Val-d’Or power forward Julien Gauthier or Wisconsin Badgers center Luke Kunin, both dynamic offensive players but who likely won’t be around if the Panthers stay at No. 23. Either would be excellent additions. Since draft analysis usually deals in hyperbolic comparisons, Gauthier reminds some of Rick Nash while Kunin is a Dylan Larkin clone.

So here we go: “With the 23rd pick, the Florida Panthers select…Alex DeBrincat, from the OHL’s Erie Otters.”

Russian-born Vitali Abramov, also a right winger like the American DeBrincat, is super skillful and dazzling at times, but it’s hard to pass on a player like DeBrincat, who has produced consecutive 50-goal seasons.

The 5-foot-7 winger has scored 102 goals in his last two seasons. USA Today hockey writer Kevin Allen said he “might be the niftiest goal scorer in the draft.” He’s feisty, tenacious and a good skater, and oddly, most don’t mention his size as a liability. He outskates and outworks much bigger players, and he just scores and scores and scores.

Did I mention those back-to-back 50-goal seasons?

DeBrincat.

Scores.

Goals.

That would have me anticipating even more – despite not being in Buffalo.

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

Keeing the Faith, #FlaPanthers style

By BILL WHITEHEAD

SUNRISE, Fla. —  Growing up in eastern North Carolina during those formative, single-digit years of my youth, I spent my Sundays in a stuffy, hot Baptist church with wood pews that weren’t much of an improvement, from a comfort standpoint at least, over the trees they came from. Nor was there any hockey with Doc Emrick or John Forslund to get through those lazy afternoons.

Our fire-and-brimstone preacher’s message was a monotonous but stern one, drilled over and over like some backwoods mantra, but hey, here we are some four decades later and it still applies to a certain extent.

The message in that church that leaped out, cat-like from the doldrum of that sermon that had me zoning out as a youngster, rings true for Florida Panthers fans after the first two games of the club’s Eastern Conference quarterfinal series against the New York Islanders.

Keep the faith.

It isn’t easy to stay calm, be positive and look forward when a game like Thursday night’s 5-4 loss unfolds. It isn’t easy to be a fan at all — especially of team that is making just its fourth postseason appearance in the organization’s history.

With all the pressure of a great season, a strong home crowd and suddenly becoming Canada’s darling in the playoffs in the absence of any teams from above the border qualifying for the postseason, Florida simply made too many mistakes against a skillful New York team to earn the Game 1 W.

Slipping up like that only added to the pressure and anxiety of Friday.

Did that two-goal lead in the last 20 minutes — honestly, the middle third of the final period seemingly took 45 minutes to play and was constantly somewhere between the 8-minute and 10-minute mark — ever feel comfortable? As fans of this team, did you ever feel safe and keep the faith that Florida would hold on to the advantage and knot this series at 1-1?

Probably not.

That little seed of doubt  in the back of your brain from bad Panther teams of the past likely started to throb and sprout a few roots. Would it become full-blown and blossom into something horrible if New York tied it 2-2 with Thomas Greiss on the bench, forcing overtime with the series and potential 2-0 deficit hanging in the balance?

Even when Jussi Jokinen’s backhander toward New York’s empty net skittered just wide and there were less that 15 seconds left in the game, no level of comfort ever appeared.

That’s where the keeping the faith part  comes in.

Unlike former Florida teams, even the last playoff one in the 2011-12 season, these current Cats have a different makeup and mentality. The work is hard like back then, but more talent, skilled depth and better goalkeeping abound. And it’s not just one top line making a difference like the Versteeg-Weiss-Fleischmann line did early four years ago; it’s three solid lines that can score.

In fact, Florida’s No. 1 line hasn’t scored a goal.

But Dmitry Kulikov has — and did with his empty-netter — to end all the drama and stifle the rising doubt that often comes when confronting faith.

His goal to make it 3-1 was simply the kernel of that sermon: Whenever you doubt faith, something comes along to get you back on track. As the line from The Godfather goes, “Just when I thought I was out…they pull me back in.”

However, the biggest aberration so far was the blowing of leads in the Game 1 loss, which forced the Panthers to look at themselves and their defensive game, reset a bit and, well, keep the faith in and get back to doing what they have done all year in the organization’s most successful season ever.

“The goals we gave (up) in Game 1 were great A++ chances that … we can’t do that,” said defenseman Brian Campbell. “Tonight, there was nothing as over-the-top as in Game 1. We did a lot of good things in Game 1; we just made bad, bad mistakes.”

Now the tide has turned. Instead of being down 2-0 to New York, Florida will take the momentum to the Barclays Center. Sure, the Islanders stole the home-ice edge, but the Cats have won plenty of times on Long Island, and that building isn’t the most intimidating.

If Florida can manage to snag just one of the two games up there, the series returns to South Florida next Friday just like it was in Game 1 — all even and with the Panthers having the advantage of maybe two more games at BB&T Center.

Just keep the faith.

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

#FlaPanthers Step Up Big Time on Road

If Florida Panthers head coach Gerard Gallant drew up a script to play out over the last week — a pivotal seven days in the club’s quest to return to the playoffs — it surely wouldn’t have unfolded the way it did.

The home loss to Detroit on what was unofficially Kevin Spacey Night was a downer and uncharacteristic of the Cats. Blowing a two-goal lead had happened just three games prior against the Islanders. Doing it again on a night that had so much emotion and a franchise-record crowd of 20,817 was a complete surprise. The result in Madison Square Garden wasn’t any better.

However, as they have done all year, these Cats found a way to roll with it and land on their feet. In fact, resiliency may be the team’s best attribute, making what happened in Brooklyn and home against Detroit more of an aberration than anything else. More often than not, those late leads have been safe.

Washington, Los Angeles, Chicago and everyone else slip up occasionally. It’s going to happen over 82 games. Doesn’t mean fans have to accept it, but the good fortune is having another game on the schedule. And the sooner the better to get that stinging loss off your mind.

Which leads us to the good news. You know, the part where the resiliency steps in and saves the week, season and playoff hopes.

It’s also the stretch — just a two-game one — where Vincent Trocheck stepped up and displayed his value and leadership, the top line started clicking and Roberto Luongo demonstrated that he’s still an elite goalie.

There’s definitely a Panthers Team MVP piece down the road, and Trocheck is one of four or five guys a case could be made for. On a two-game losing streak and playing in the House of Horrors that is TD Waterhouse in Boston, then in Tampa Saturday, the Panthers could have folded after trailing early in both. Trocheck provided the spark, though, scoring on a pair of top-shelf laser beams to change the direction in both contests. Plus, his grittiness–whether it’s playing while being high-sticked and without a few teeth, blocking a shot or diving to clear a puck–is unrivaled on the team.

The top line gained some life, too, showing signs of life in Boston and ending with Jonathan Huberdeau skating in for an empty-net goal by way of Sasha Barkov. That carried over against the Bolts when Huberdeau and Jaromir Jagr scored on fantastic shots. Luongo, meanwhile, was far better than Tuukka Rask and Andrei Vasilevskiy, though the Russian goalie really had no chance on goals by Trocheck, Jagr, Huberdeau and Jiri Hudler.

As Miami Hurricane wide receiver Santana Moss said following a win in the Orange Bowl over Florida State: “Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games.”

Florida’s performance in Boston and Tampa after a couple of tough losses and with first place in the Atlantic Division hanging in the balance?

Big time.

EMPTY NETTER: Minnesota Twins pitcher Phil Hughes (@PJHughes45) likely became a Lightning fan during his tenure with the New York Yankees, who train in Tampa in the spring. Hughes is a passionate fan and was taking in his first Bolts game this year Saturday. To get into the spirit, avid fan Hughes took it upon himself to fire a few feeble attempts at Aaron Ekblad and Jagr, two players with more awards already and a future Hall of Fame induction ahead of one of them, and who are undeniably better on the ice than he is on the mound.

 

 

While Hughes’ night started out like a giddy teenager tweeting for the first time, I learned the day after Florida thrashed his Bolts 5-2 while at Mets spring training through my New York media colleagues, one in particular who covered the righty when he wore pinstripes, that Hughes is by far one of the most approachable, nicest guys in sports.

So in summary, Phil Hughes is a bad tweeter, lousy rabbit’s foot for the Bolts, complimentary No. 3 starter (83-69, 4.33), but all-around good guy and one of the most likable blokes we sportswriters cover. Having never spoken with or covered Hughes, I’ll take my fellow scribe’s word on it.

And Hughes is a huge hockey fan, just like Keegan Bradley, the No. 98th ranked golfer in the world, is of the Panthers. Phil’s profile even reads “Way too big of a Lightning fan for my own good.”

His tweeting Saturday night was the “for my own good” part.

Sure, Hughes cheers for the enemy, so he’s misguided. Plus he called out two professional athletes better than him — one a certain Hall of Famer — but he was a decent sport at the end of a tough evening for him. Hughes drove up from Fort Myers the night before his start against the Yankees, his former club, in Tampa on Sunday just to watch his hockey team for the only time this season, then the Bolts get blown out of their own barn in the biggest game of the year so far by their in-state rivals who have now beaten them four out of five games.

Hughes’ hockey passion is what we like.

For that he gets a little bit of a pass, but it just barely touches the black of the plate.

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