#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

#FlaPanthers, Bolts Battle for Top Spot

Well, the Florida Panthers’ visit to Habsland turned out to be so much better than their visit to NYC, huh? You know, that Monday night fiasco that quickly turned into the Brooklyn Disaster.

As bad as Monday’s inexplicable 3-2 loss was to the Islanders was — and it was right up there as worst of the year, maybe because of its terrible timing with the postseason looming — the Cats’ bounceback 4-1 win over the Montreal Canadiens was a 60-minute effort. Granted it came against a Habs team that resembled an AHL club, but, really, who cares at this point about the circumstances surrounding any of these games?

Did anyone really feel sorry for a rag-tag Florida (39-22-9) group that scratched Derek MacKenzie, Erik Gudbranson and Jussi Jokinen? Gudbranson’s absence was no surprise as he was seen limping around the dressing room following the loss in Brooklyn, but Jokinen’s ailment is just another in a slew of injuries and was a surprise. However, for Florida to compete at top level and succeed, key contributors 17, 44 and 36 need to be in the lineup. This is especially important in the pursuit of the Atlantic Division.

Just as Super Tuesday resulted in a four-candidate field being reduced to three on the Republican side, mainly because of the Sunshine State no less, I’ve said for weeks that I feel the three-team race in the Atlantic will eventually be trimmed to two. Florida and Tampa appear to have an easier path to achieving the divisional title as compared to the Boston Bruins.

Take Boston’s upcoming slate of games into consideration — and I write this as they lead San Jose 2-1 in the second period. Yet after that it gets no easier for Boston in its last 11 to end the season. Back-to-back games in Anaheim and Los Angeles at the end of the week, then traveling to face the Rangers next Wednesday. Florida rolls into Beantown the next night on a Bruins’ back-to-back. However, the real kicker is Boston going to St. Louis and Chicago to start April. The penultimate game is home against Detroit, who is fading and scrounging to hold onto the final wild-card spot.

In total, Boston faces seven playoff teams in its final 11 contests. The Bruins will face five of those seven teams currently holding a playoff spot away from TD Garden. The Bs have been the NHL’s best on the road, but that’s a tall task ahead of them.

I expect Florida and Tampa to reap the benefits of that, meaning the Atlantic winner would play Pittsburgh right now and the divisional runner-up would host Boston if the Bruins slip to third in the division. That will be a tough matchup for either Florida or Tampa.

In short, I just don’t think the Cats and Bolts meet in the first round.

But we still have a few weeks to figure that out.

EMPTY-NETTER: Jonathan Huberdeau was given the A on his No. 11 sweater as he returned home to Quebec. The Saint-Jerome native showed he was worthy from the get-go, engaging in some rough stuff right away and eventually leaving a mark on the game when he slid a beautiful pass over to Sasha Barkov for the game’s final goal. It was Huberdeau’s 35th assist, second on the team to Jokinen. Interestingly, the Montreal fans seemed to cheer loudly when the primary assist from one of their hometown lads was announced in French.

Say what you will about Montreal fans — they dress funny, they’re cocky bordering on arrogant, they feel entitled because of their rich history — but one thing is also worthy of mention: They are passionate about their hockey. That passion often translates into appreciation, which is why they cheered for their homey Huberdeau after he helped bury his childhood favorite team.

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

 

 

Dale Gets It Done, Adds Quality

There was plenty of chatter in the press box Thursday during Florida’s win over Arizona, and Friday night was full of tweets discussing trade possibilities as the last full weekend before the trade deadline was about to get underway.

Then Saturday arrived. By the time the Panthers had dropped a disappointing 4-3 shootout loss in Columbus, the club had three new acquisitions — forwards Jiri Hudler and Teddy Purcell plus defenseman Jakub Kindl.

GM Dale Tallon gave up a second-round pick this year and a fourth-round pick in 2018 to Calgary to acquire the versatile Hudler. He gave up a third-round pick this year for Purcell. Florida traded a sixth-round pick in 2017 and took some cash back in getting Kindl, a 29-year-old former first-round pick (No. 19 overall) in 2005.

Hudler, a 31-goal scorer last season and possessing valuable playoff experience, said he had watched Florida a few times on TV and said it looked like they had fun playing together.

“I didn’t know where I would end up. I’m really excited and really happy to go to a young team like that and especially the way the play, and they’re in first place. It’s really exciting for me,” said the 32-year-old Hudler, who has 10 goals and 25 assists in 53 games for Calgary this season.

As for playing with fellow Czech Republic native Jaromir Jagr, Hudler laughed and said, “You’re lucky to have him near you. You call him old guy, but I think he’s younger than anybody else on that team. I know Jags for a long time. Obviously, growing up he was one of my favorite players. He’s a living legend. I played with him a couple of times on the national team. He’s having a great season.

“The team, when I watch some games, they look great. They have fun playing hockey and they play hard. They’ve got a good group going on there.”

As a member of the Lightning from 2009 to 2014, Purcell was a gnat to the Panthers. The right winger won’t get to wear No. 16 with the Panthers, but he said the Cats have a good puzzle and that his goal is to come in and be a nice piece of it.

“Being out west, I didn’t get to see them a whole lot,” said Purcell, a 30-year-old Newfoundland native who will slot in at right wing for Florida. “I think they caught everyone’s attention when they went on that run. That was obviously eye-opening around the league, and people were following that very close. They can burn you with their chances and they’re pretty tight defensively, and they have a pretty solid goalie back there.

“I’ve heard a lot of good things. They’re a fun team to watch, and I’ve heard good things about the coach, too. It’s going to be a pretty exciting stretch for me heading down there.”

And the prospect of possibly facing his old Tampa teammates in the Stanley Cup playoffs?

“That would be a lot of a fun. I still have a lot of good friends on that team. I’d like to get to hate them for a couple of weeks and get to play them in the Sunshine State. That would be great,” Purcell said.

Tallon traded for Jerred Smithson and Wojtek Wolski in 2012, both key players down the stretch as the Panthers won the Southeast Division but lost to the Devils in the quarterfinals. Adding Saturday’s three pieces is a giant step up in quality from the trades four years ago.

“We needed a presence on the blue line and felt we needed three good scoring lines. Now it gives us three wonderful scoring lines and a fourth line that will be invigorated,” said Tallon, who reiterated on two occasions that ownership gave him the go-ahead to get the deals done at whatever cost.

“Overall, we thought we needed to add more depth on all our forward lines to give us more options. These guys are really good hockey players who’ve had success everywhere they’ve been. We’re very fortunate to get these deals done.

“I’m pretty satisfied with the depth of our team now. We needed some scoring and playmaking ability on the wings. I think we achieved that today. We got a good playmaker, passer and point man on the power play in Kindl. Right now we’ve got good positional depth.”

Tallon said it would take a pretty big deal to add more in the next two days but said he was pleased with how the trades played out.

“I was hoping (the trades) wouldn’t affect our roster,” said Tallon, who said he “dipped his toe in the water on Ladd” possibility.

“The goal always for us is not to give up a first-rounder or top prospects, and we achieved that.”

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

 

Little Things are Big to the #FlaPanthers

SUNRISE — Clearly, finishing off this Atlantic Division race with Boston, Tampa Bay and Detroit won’t be easy. In fact, nothing has been easy this entire six-game homestand, which saw a couple of awful losses, three significant injuries and some spotty overall play at times.

But that’s life in the ultra-competitive Atlantic, where keeping up with the Joneses — in this case the Bruins, Bolts and Wings — is a daily chore. The Panthers sat by this week and watched their lead shrink.

Florida lost two brutal games against St. Louis and Nashville, plus saw Brandon Pirri, Quinton Howden and Jonathan Huberdeau go down to injury. Can’t say confidence was too high going into the final four games at the BB&T Center.

However, as they seemingly have all year, the Panthers responded in the next four games, grabbing seven points of a possible eight to end the home stretch on a high note. Couple that with the fact that Florida finished with the same points lead — five — that it did when it started on Feb. 12 and you’ve got the makings of successful stint in Sunrise.

Not bad considering how this all began against the Blues and Predators.

“It was good. It was a good finish to the homestand,” said Florida coach Gerard Gallant, whose club moved to 77 points after increasing its record to 35-18-7 with a 3-2 win over Arizona on Thursday. “We lost the first two games and weren’t too happy about it. We got back and had three wins and an overtime loss in the next four.

“It’s a good way to finish and we’re a good road team.”

Little things played a big role in the win for Florida, a game in which Gallant said there was “no flow.” The Panthers head out to Columbus and then Minnesota over the weekend for games with 3:00 start-times.

Jussi Jokinen, who was angry over a high stick that left him bleeding butt wasn’t called in the first period, kept the puck in the offensive zone but was leveled by Martin Hanzal in the third. Jokinen’s puck push sent it to Jaromir Jagr, who slipped it back to Aleksander Barkov for his second goal, the ultimate game-winner, and a 3-1 lead.

Earlier in the second, Logan Shaw and finally Barkov won a tough battle in the low slot with Zbynek Michalek and Klas Dahlbeck, with Sasha scoring his 17th goal and sixth in his last six contests — along with a six-game stint sidelined with an injury.

Brian Campbell got a stick on Antoine Vermette’s potential game-tying goal and Roberto Luongo denied him in the game’s final minute. Erik Gudbranson then tied up Shane Doan in front of the crease to send the puck away from Luongo. Derek MacKenzie, Vincent Trocheck and Jussi Jokinen all won faceoffs, which didn’t happen much for the Cats as they lost 59 percent of the draws.

All the game’s little things — all those sticks getting in the way, blocked shots, taking hits to keep a puck in the offensive zone and securing faceoffs when they mattered the most — added up to two huge points to end a homestand that started so poorly but ended so well.

EMPTY-NETTER: Center Nick Bjugstad, one of the three I cast my vote to for the three stars of the game, had his best showing since returning from his injury and was a problem all night for the Coyotes. He drove to the net hard and cut through the Arizona defense seemingly at ease at times, slicing his way through a blue line that features silky skating Olive Ekman-Larsson. However, Bjugstad blew past and got the best of OEL and Michael Stone to draw a pair of penalties.

He laughed when I brought up the subject of whether or not he should have received a penalty shot, especially on OEL’s hooking infraction.

“Yeah, I thought I should have,” said Bjugstad, whose smile stretched like his 6-6 frame. “I was wondering and asking someone on the bench what was the stipulation for getting a penalty shot. I felt good and just need to keep going from here.”

A big boost from Big Nick and a return to his physical dominance will go a long way to improving Florida’s offense on this road trip and in the remaining 22 regular-season games.

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

#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