Jagr Signing a Top Priority for #FlaPanthers

By Bill Whitehead

Okay, so there are two weeks left in the season, the Florida Panthers are vying for the final wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference, Dan Ellis has just backstopped the biggest win of the year on the road against another playoff contender, and coach Gerard Gallant said the best player on the ice for Florida in that win was Jaromir Jagr?

Yeah, was one or all three of those part of your September predictions for a club that finished with the second-worst points total in the NHL last year?

The crazy ride gets crazier in Boston in what will again be “the biggest game of the year” and another “Game 7,” but for just a moment, let’s look at what the 43-year-old Jagr has done in 14 games with Florida and how he figures in to future plans in South Florida.

First, let’s go back to the afternoon of Feb. 26. I learned of the Jagr deal, with Florida sending back second- and third-round picks to the Devils, by text. While leaving Starbucks, my phone simply popped up with “Jagr to Panthers.” That was it. No details, no terms, not even the other side of the deal with what New Jersey was getting. It was a venti java-spewing moment, but fortunately I hadn’t started the consumption process.

The fallout of the Jagr trade orchestrated by Florida GM Dale Tallon may be the other memorable moment from that day. Hockey pundits and web sites had their instant analyses ready for rollout, and most viewed the Jagr acquisition as pure desperation by Florida, who was trailing Boston in the wildcard hunt by two points. As a letter grade, many doled out the Panthers a Bart Simpson-like “D” rating, while some called Jagr a borderline retired player who would just fade away into the South Florida sunset like most Floridians past their prime. By most, the trade was a stinker.

Fourteen games later, those same naysayers are writing different stories. Jagr has 12 points (4-8) in those games. The Panthers have been in the thick of every one of them, and easily could have beaten the Stars, Rangers, Canadiens and Lightning with a bounce here or there. Florida has made its share of mistakes but has played with or clearly outplayed most clubs during the brief Jagr Era in Sunrise.

Which brings us to this: How brief will that era be?

Tallon caught plenty of flak for the Dave Bolland signing, much of it is warranted. Now, talks between the Panthers and Jagr’s camp have begun. A potential Jagr deal is Dale’s do-over, a mulligan the golfing Tallon would enjoy swinging at in light of the Bolland criticism. However, the reality is that Jagr, a UFA who is making $3.5 million this season, can just walk after these next two weeks.

But I don’t think that happens.

I’ve arrived early to the BB&T Center press box a couple of times the last month, looked through binoculars and watched a lone Panther get on the ice and skate around, working his way through pre-game preparation. Each time it has been the grizzled, gray-stubbled Jagr.

Now that the love affair with the Hamburglar has cooled as Ottawa goalie Andrew Hammond has come back to earth after an incredible run, Jagr’s resurgence and Florida’s last-ditch run at a wildcard berth may be the best story in hockey.

Jagr scoring two goals only added to the narrative on Sunday in Canada’s capital. Both were pure goal scorer’s markers – the first a clever shot on the short side against the play’s flow after cutting back against Sens defenseman Mark Methot, the other an incredible wraparound that left ex-Cat Craig Anderson way out of position and the Senators blue line helpless. The latter goal was the kind that happens to the Cats, not the type they net.

With every clang of the crossbar and potential goal that has rolled off a stick in front of a gaping net, Florida fans have clamored louder and repeatedly for a legit finisher to join the Panthers. Well, he’s here. Jagr, now with 720 career goals, is obviously not the player he was 10 years ago, but he’s also obviously more worthy of the minutes he’s getting with Florida than he did with New Jersey. His points pace would be 70 for a season, and let’s not forget that Nick Bjugstad topped the Panthers last season with an NHL team record-low 38 points.

Jagr’s line consisting of center left winger Jonathan Huberdeau and center Aleksander Barkov has produced 13 goals and 25 assists since 68 has arrived. The top line is the centerpiece of a promising young team that many view as a Cup contender for years to come.

“They’re so talented,” Jagr said of his linemates after the 4-2 win over Ottawa. “They’re going to surprise the league in two years. They may win the Cup.”

Tallon needs to make sure that Jagr is here for that.

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

#FlaPanthers “stay in the moment,” beat Bruins 2-1, gain a point

By Bill Whitehead

SUNRISE –After Florida’s 2-1 Saturday night shootout win over Boston courtesy of Roberto Luongo and Brandon Pirri, Panthers captain Willie Mitchell was asked what the young Panthers could possibly learn from the enormous moment at the BB&T Center.

Frankly, there hadn’t been a moment like that since April 26, 2012, when Adam Henrique broke the hearts of the entire arena.

Mitchell’s advice to his young teammates was clear: “We believe in here that if we stay in the present and take care of what’s ahead of us, we’ll be there until the end. You just try to stay in the moment.”

And after a slow start by the Panthers – the first 15 minutes were very nervy ones by the home team – there were plenty of moments.

The Cats settled in and battled the Bruins, desperately chipping away at a 5-point wildcard deficit in a game that was like a heavyweight match. In the second and third periods, the physical play reached a crescendo with the Panthers doing the majority of the smacking.

“You’re playing Boston,” said defenseman Erik Gudbranson. “That’s what they bring game in and game out. There wasn’t much space out there, that’s for sure. We didn’t have much time with the puck; you had to move your feet to open up a spot. You needed to be physical to create opportunities. Our forwards did a really good job of that in the second half of the second and the third. We really got physical, created those holes and created opportunities for us.”

The two expressions I heard most often in the Florida dressing room post-game from Gudbranson , Luongo and Pirri were the lack of space on the ice and the playoff-style energy to the contest. Gudbranson said the Panthers didn’t designate a must-get number of points in the three tilts versus the Bruins, the first of which went to Florida in a single-point gain.

“Our playoffs started a long time ago. Knowing where we are in the standing in relation to Boston, it had to be tonight. It was a physical affair all night long. They brought it, we brought it. We’re really happy to come out on the top end,” Gudbranson said.

“At this point of the season, you’re going shift by shift, trying to match the intensity of your linemates and teammates, and trying to keep that strong momentum going forward.”

Luongo said the crowd’s enthusiasm was palpable. He easily stopped Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand before Pirri slowly skated in and 5-holed Tuukka Rask.

“It was a playoff game, playoff intensity,” Luongo said. “You could feel it. There was not a lot of room on the ice. We’re happy we got the win; you’d have liked to have got it in regulation, obviously, but we’ll take the two points and move on here.”

In his second start since returning from injury, Luongo said he had no history on Boston center Ryan Spooner, the Bruins’ last chance at prolonging the game. Florida improved to 8-10 in shootouts  while Boston slipped to 3-9.

“I didn’t know what he was going to do,” Luongo said. “Once he went to the backhand, I tried to close the 5-hole and get a glove on it. He wasn’t able to get it high enough to get it over my shoulder, which was nice. Whenever you’re involved in those (playoff) types of games, the crowd goes along with it and it brings the energy in the building.”

Luongo has seen Pirri’s game-winning move on Rask, too. The Finnish goalie stopped Pirri in a 2-on-1 in overtime, then Pirri’s last blast of the 5-minute session whistled by the near post off a pass from Aleksander Barkov.

“Rask made one huge save on him, and (Pirri) missed on another, but Pirri’s so good and patient with the puck in the shootout. I see it in practice every day. It’s a tough move to stop,” Luongo said.

Pirri laugh and added of his molasses-like approach in the shootout: “I give Lu fits with that. It takes too long and wastes time.”

It wasn’t a perfect night for Florida. In fact, the scenario that played out was maybe third-best in the pecking order. Ottawa won over Toronto – whom the Senators play two more times – and Boston gained a point.

As always, there were many near misses for the Cats, too, most noticeably Dave Bolland failing on a tap-in. The center had a chance to quiet the belly-aching over his acquisition, and his assist on Jimmy Hayes’ tally in the first was a beautiful backhanded pass. But he came up short on Rask’s doorstep in his efforts to be the game’s No. 1 star. ESPN had that save in its top 10 plays, but the result was more about Bolland whiffing than Rask stonewalling.

Still, it was perhaps the best night of the year in Sunrise. A dramatic win over a tough opponent whom Florida has struggled against, all in the thick of a playoff race and played out in a front of a loud crowd.

“We’re a good group in here, and we know where we are. There’s a very, very strong belief in here that we’re going to make the playoffs and go far in the playoffs once we get there. We’re just going to continue the way we’re going and stay strong,” Gudranson said.

Florida did just that. They held strong, put pressure on Boston and won a game that felt like the postseason all over again — just with no Henrique ending.

They stayed in what amounted to a very important moment.

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

 

#FlaPanthers Frustrate #NHLJets as Jagr Line Rolls On

By Bill Whitehead

SUNRISE – While working the Winnipeg dressing room for the AP following Thursday night’s 4-2 win by Florida, allowing the Panthers to keep pace with Boston, I couldn’t help but hear one word tossed about repeatedly by Jets coach Paul Maurice’s club.

Frustration.

“I think frustrating is the word,” said Winnipeg’s Drew Stafford, who scored a goal to tie the game at 2-2 in the third period. “Now is the time we need every point possible. We just need to figure out a way to turn this thing around.”

While Stafford, acquired from Buffalo in the Evander Kane trade, was frustrated by his new team’s shortcomings, much of them on the ice, some in the standings, a good portion of that all came back to Florida.

“They were real stingy in the way they played. The shots were pretty low. There weren’t too many quality chances. They got a couple of breaks on their goals. We just need to show a little more desperation, a little more urgency,” Stafford said.

Standout Winnipeg defenseman Jacob Trouba said, “They’re a good team and play a good game…They were fast and are a big team; they were good in the neutral zone, and I think we kind of lost our speed toward the end there. I mean, it’s a little frustrating, but that’s how it goes.”

And as for goaltender Michael Hutchinson, who started his season so strongly but has allowed seven goals in his last two starts?

“I felt good,” said Hutchinson, who is now part of an apparent growing goaltending problem in Manitoba. “I thought I made some big saves during the course of the game. They didn’t throw many easy saves at me all night. Whenever they shot, they were either shooting for a deflection or it was a good scoring chance.”

What wasn’t frustrating for Florida (30-23-14) were the good moments that happened – and there were many.

The club played from out front or was tied the entire 60 minutes, and didn’t get taken to overtime after relinquishing a late lead against a playoff-caliber team it has been pounded by before. Derek MacKenzie, moved to wing upon Dave Bolland’s return as a fourth-line center, played perhaps his best game as a Panther, and the chemistry between the two resulted in a “Goal of the Year” nominee. Goalie Dan Ellis was good again, which is an observation absolutely no Florida fan was saying one year ago. Florida special teams were excellent, too, killing off both Winnipeg power plays and capitalizing on one of their own three when Brad Boyes went into the blue paint and created real frustration for Hutchinson and unfortunate defenseman Adam Pardy, who own-goaled his goalie.

Then there’s that Jonathan Huberdeau-Aleksander Barkov-Jaromir Jagr line.

At 43, Jagr showed that his experience and perhaps tutelage is paying off big dividends. He should have drawn a penalty in the first penalty when he was grabbed behind the net and had his stick held while clearly having the best chance at getting a loose puck behind Hutchinson. He did draw a holding penalty from Tobias Enstrom in the second period after Boyes’ man-advantage goal 1:42 earlier, giving the Panthers a chance to go up 3-1.

“He might be old, but he’s really good,” said Huberdeau, who recorded two assists. “He’s so good on the ice. We’re all playing simple. He really helps us. He has so many guys on him so it opens us for us.”

Jagr, in the final year of a deal that is paying him $3.5 million this season, has clearly made an impression on the former Calder Trophy winner and the 19-year-old Barkov. The puck-possessing Jagr appears to be the match that has sparked Huberdeau, who struggled mightily last year, and the pass-oriented Barkov, who brilliantly beat Hutchinson for the game-winner by using blueliner Mark Stuart as a screen on a wicked shot that rang off the inside of the left post.

“We’re all pretty strong on the boards,” Jagr said of his linemates. “It’s in our advantage once we’re in the offensive zone and are cycle skating. It’s up to us. (Barkov’s) shot was good.

“He’s a passer first. It doesn’t matter what you tell him, he’s going to pass first. But he had no other option — nobody was close to him — so he shot it. He has a good shot, so it’s good for him. Once we started skated again – not everybody’s young, but we have a young team. Once we skated and played offensive zone…we can beat anybody.”

So on a great night all around for the Panthers against a tough opponent who had thrashed (sorry about that) them 8-2 in Winnipeg, Jagr assessed his new teammates by simply saying, “We can beat anybody.”

If Thursday night was a preview of what lies ahead for Florida’s future, then one more year of Jagr in Panther red might ease some of the team’s own frustration.

Scoring.

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

#FlaPanthers notes: Kulikov, Shootouts and Playoffs

By Bill Whitehead

Monday’s suspension of Florida defenseman Dmitry Kulikov was warranted. It’s the kind of dangerous hit the NHL is trying to get away from and put in its past like the era without visors and immovable steel goals that were anchored into the ice.

But don’t kid yourself into thinking there isn’t another name than had an impact on Kulikov receiving a 4-game suspension without pay. And that name?

Tyler Seguin.

If Kulikov’s blow below the waist would have been to the leg of Shawn Horcoff or Travis Moen or almost any other Dallas Star, there’s no way Kulikov would have been hit as hard and received the punishment he did.

But Kulikov hit the Stars’ star.

Seguin, a 29-goal scorer and an exciting point per game player, is one of the league’s stars, and let’s face it, the NHL protects its big names. Kulikov, who has no history of dirty play, was also a bit of a victim of the media on the night after the hit.

During intermission of Saturday night’s Toronto-Montreal tilt, the majority of the Sportsnet crew chose to vilify Kulikov, whose rebound from last year’s terrible play on the back end is one of the Panthers’ best stories this season. His presence was missed in the St. Louis game, though the performance by call-up Shane O’Brien, a steady Alex Petrovic and an increasingly impressive Steve Kampfer became better after a sketchy first period against the physical Blues.

I suggested Sunday night that the Russian defenseman would get five games, then maybe get a game or two reduction. My reasoning for it being as harsh was this: Seguin, the Sportsnet team’s over-the-top persecution of Kulikov, Florida’s tenuous relationship with the NHL’s Department of Player Safety, and, well, Seguin. And Seguin.

But here are some names of players who were scofflaws when it came to dishing out hits that were clearly over-the-line against Cats yet received no suspensions: Anton Volchenkov, Jaroslav Spacek, Mike Richards, Radko Gudas, Rick Nash and Keith Yandle. Surely there are some offenders I’m leaving out.

Kulikov deserved a suspension because the NHL is trying to put that type of dangerous play in the past, like the hit by Brad Marchand on Sami Salo – very similar contact. It’s unfortunate what happened to Seguin, which hurts the Stars’ playoff hopes.

The NHL, though, carried the punishment a couple of games too far.

 

GOING WITH YOUR GUT: Florida coach Gerard Gallant has made it known he plays a hunch at times and goes with a gut feeling, but his Sunday shootout decisions have left many puzzled, myself included.

If you want to find the origin of the recent stretch of misery, look no further than the game against the Nashville Predators. The talk after the game was, hey, playoff teams don’t blow 2-goal leads in the third period at home and make matters worse by losing in the shootout. However, that’s exactly what Florida did.

But what was perplexing was not so much Gallant’s decision to trot out the four shooters he did – Brandon Pirri, Brad Boyes, Nick Bjugstad and Dave Bolland – but the three sharpshooters he didn’t use at all. That would be Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov and Jussi Jokinen. You can make a case for the first three of Pirri, Boyes and Bjugstad, but not Bolland over Huby, Barky or Jussi. Ever.

There was more.

In the 5-round shootout against St. Louis, he failed to call on No. 16 to go out there and win it. Instead he slipped in Jimmy Hayes, a brutish net-front presence who isn’t exactly Phil Kessel-like in his one-on-one skills. Shootouts are about dazzling dangles and dipsy-do. That’s not Hayes’ game. Barkov, who beat Pittsburgh with perhaps the shootout goal of the year, must be wondering what he has to do to crack the top five in future shootouts.

Every Florida 5-rounder should have some combination of Huberdeau, Bjugstad, Boyes, Barkov and Jokinen starting it.

Every. Single. Time.

 

WATCH OUT BELOW: Florida’s focus since the turn of the year has been the Boston Bruins, New York Rangers and Washington Capitals, who linger above the playoff cut line. However, the club just below the Panthers – the Philadelphia Flyers — have made a serious push and trail Florida by just two points with the Cats having a game in hand. Philly (24-22-10) has transformed from sellers to potential buyers as the deadline approaches, buoyed mainly by their current 7-1-3 run. The Flyers open a 3-game home stretch with Columbus tonight then Buffalo on Thursday, so they could put even more pressure on Florida.

As for the Panthers (24-19-12), tonight’s game against a wreck of a Toronto team is not a must win, it’s a must-must win. Very musty. Double musty. The Maple Leafs (23-29-5) have been in a disastrous freefall since the Panthers’ 6-4 victory spurred by a 4-goal third period on Dec. 28, and we’re currently in Day 3 of the Leaf Rebuild that has already seen Cody Franson and Mike Santorelli leave Leaf Nation. Tonight Toronto will play fast as they did in Sunrise, has ex-Cat Olli Jokinen on the roster and called up prospect Brandon Kozun from the the AHL Marlies.

But the Leafs are damaged goods at this point, and anything less than two points tonight will be a huge letdown and leave the #OneUnderTheSun crowd quite upset – which they should be. Florida blew extra points against Nashville and St. Louis and really wasted strong goaltending efforts in their last three contests against Minnesota, Dallas and St. Louis, coming away with just one point.

Yet as Cats’ broadcaster Steve Goldstein said post-game on Sunday, we’re talking the possibility of Florida Panthers playoff hockey as the trade deadline nears. Florida looks now more like buyers instead of sellers, and fans are studying the standings, out-of-town scoreboard and upcoming schedules as if they were cramming for finals.

No one saw that one coming in September.

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

#FlaPanthers Go for Spectacular Road Trip in Winnipeg

By Bill Whitehead

When the last shift had been skated at Edmonton’s Rexall Place and the Florida Panthers had completed yet another win, an observation came up: “So this is what a really successful road trip feels like.” Florida is 4-1-0 on its current road swing that started in the East and then moved on to Western Canada.

Most of the banter in the BB&T press box before the 6-game cross-country trek began centered on the notion that seven or eight points out of Florida (20-11-9) in some difficult places to play would be a fine trip and allow the Cats to keep their position in the wildcard chase. After the 4-2 victory over the Oilers and with one more contest remaining, I tweeted this:

tweet

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now the Panthers have the chance to transform “excellent” into “spectacular” – if they can win Tuesday night in a very tough MTS Centre in Winnipeg to finish the trip. It’s a game I circled as the toughest of the six.

The Winnipeg Jets, the Cats’ former divisional foe, are returning from a 3-game Western swing of their own, having lost to Arizona and splitting shootouts with Los Angeles and Anaheim. Winnipeg collected three points of six and currently occupies the first wildcard berth in the Western Conference with a 21-14-8 mark.

And speaking of the Jets, here’s an admission: I watch them. A lot. After they left Florida’s division and conference, I was still drawn to them for some reason. And having no genuine allegiance to any other club in the West, I viewed them similarly as I did when they were in the Eastern Conference, just without the dislike naturally reserved for divisional rivals.

That said, a Florida win would indeed move the excellent to the spectacular because, frankly, the Panthers haven’t historically pulled off big stretches of road wins, dispatching of opponents from city to city and leaving crowds mostly silent when the goal scorers and stars of the game are announced. Florida has left four of five home crowds filing out quietly, likely complaining about their team but confessing, “You know, that’s a pretty good Florida team.”

So what are the Panthers facing in Winnipeg, the Slurpee Capital of the World?

For starters, they’re facing a healthier squadron of Jets than were available a few weeks ago. Winnipeg has been hit hard by injuries, predominantly on the blue line. Standout young defenseman Jacob Trouba (upper body) is out until next month, while Grant Clitsome (back surgery) is gone for the season. Mark Stuart, Toby Enstrom and Zach Bogosian have all recently returned. Imagine Florida being without five of their six blueliners at one time.

Also on the injury front, electrifying winger Evander Kane – expected to be out until February with a lower-body injury – missed just five games and scored against Anaheim in his return. Dustin Byfuglien is as imposing and dynamic as ever, and Blake Wheeler is a personal favorite who leads in assists (21) and sets up top goal scorers Andrew Ladd and Bryan Little, with 16 each. Former Panther Michael Frolik, who will be a UFA this offseason, is having a strong year as well and has found a role with Winnipeg just as he did in Chicago.

Goalie Ondrej Pavelec, from the same hometown as Frolik, has always been an obstacle for Florida, but the Cats’ biggest concern likely will be 24-year-old upstart Michael Hutchinson, who was minding the net for the ECHL’s Ontario Reign last year. He’s grabbed the No. 1 goalie spot from Pavelec by going 11-4-2 with a 2.00 GAA and a .931 save percentage. With the Czech goalie having played in Anaheim on Sunday, the money’s on the right-handed catching Hutchinson to be in goal versus Florida, though one never really knows how Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice is going to shuffle his backstops.

Winnipeg is 21st on the power play, 10th on the penalty kill, 22nd in scoring, seventh in goals against and 24th in faceoffs. And we all know from those Southeast Division tilts that the MTS Centre is problematic: It’s a small barn, the crowd is often boisterous and the Jets feed off that energy with physical play. A 7-2 drubbing of the Cats there in April of 2013 comes to mind.

The Panthers will need a pretty spectacular effort to move “excellent” to “spectacular,” but they’ve been doing it this whole road trip and most of the season.

It’s just what these Cats do.

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

Ex-Cat Goc Sees Improvement in Young #FlaPanthers

By Bill Whitehead

SUNRISE – Pittsburgh Penguins center Marcel Goc isn’t surprised by the development of the Florida Panthers and the position they’re in.

“They played well against us (Saturday). They came hard at us with a strong forecheck, and every time they had a chance they threw the puck at the net. They tried to create trouble for us,” said the former Panther Monday following morning skate.

“But I see a few faces I don’t recognize from when I played (there).”

Goc will play in his first game back at BB&T Center after being traded Mar. 5 for third- and fifth-round picks. The German center said he isn’t shocked at how quickly Florida (14-9-8) has transformed from lottery team to a potential playoff club.

“Their young guys – Barky and Bjugstad – they play well, and they try to play them a lot so they get more confident,” Goc said. “What are they, 21, 22ss or something like that? I think they have a bright future ahead of them. They have more consistency from last year than they did in their first year, but that’s the case with everybody. They’re going to be a big part of this organization.

“I worked on faceoffs with them a lot together. It’s funny taking them across from them now.”

Goc has three points (1-2) in his 30 games played with the Penguins this year.

MORE MUMPS – Pittsburgh, who has been saddled with a bout of the mumps, sent three more players home before the game against Florida. Centers Steve Downie and Brandon Sutter and goalie Thomas Greiss all flew back to Pittsburgh to undergo further testing.

Pittsburgh iced just 18 skaters at morning skate, with goaltending coach Mike Bales tending net opposite Marc-Andre Fleury. As of morning skate, the Penguins featured 11 forwards, seven defensemen and one goalie.

The Penguins called up goalie Jeff Zatkoff from Wilkes-Barre in the afternoon to back up Fleury. The AHL team last played Saturday and won’t playing again until this Saturday.

FEISTY FOLLOW-UP? – The two clubs combined for 76 penalty minutes Saturday night in Pittsburgh’s 3-1 home win, but Florida coach Gerard Gallant and players from both teams said they didn’t expect a flare-up in what should be Florida’s biggest home crowd of the season. The Panthers racked up 32 penalty minutes, the most accumulated since 37 against Toronto on April 10, 2014.

“What ‘tonight’?” Gallant answered when asked if Florida would miss Shawn Thornton’s toughness. “We’re playing the best team in the league, and I don’t think it’ll be about toughness tonight. It’s going to be about working hard, speed, competing and playing hard. You don’t see those games anymore.”

Emotional Florida winger Scottie Upshall, usually in the middle of the fray, received just two minutes for tripping Evgeni Malkin. Upshall and his teammates said staying penalty-free was more important than settling the score in a playoff-style matchup.

“We hope to stay out of the box. Penalties are going to hurt you. I actually like the 2-game series. I kind of think they’re fun. I like the way they lead up. It’s a little mini playoffs series, and guys really hone in on the little things,” Upshall said.

“We know that Pittsburgh’s a great team and if you give them power plays they’re going to win. We need to stay disciplined tonight and play hard. That (killing off six Pittsburgh power plays) isn’t going to happen in back-to-back games against those guys.”

Nick Bjugstad likes playing in the high-tension games where it gets a little chippy, and even had a few in college at Minnesota.

“It was more gritty than I expected it to be…That game was just more intense. This game might not be as intense, you just never really know. You never expect something like that last game, but they’re fun because everyone’s into it, everyone’s battling,” he said.

“We’d always get into it with North Dakota, but there’s no fighting so that changes (things).”

Added former Barrie Colts defenseman Aaron Ekblad: “Obviously, you want to keep calm and try to get the game back in your control. You want to find a calm center to your game and not take calculated risks.

The nose is just fine

The nose is just fine

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“I didn’t have many games like that in the OHL, maybe one or two a year. Usually against London or someone like that, but not even close to the caliber it is in the NHL.”

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

#FlaPanthers Ekblad Living Up to the Hype

By Bill Whitehead

It would probably be asking too much for Aaron Ekblad to wax too sentimentally over returning to Philadelphia, site of where he was drafted just six months ago. Ekblad went through all the fanfare then of being the likely No. 1 pick – visiting downtown, hitting Pat’s and Geno’s for cheesesteaks and taking batting practice at Citizens Bank Park.

But it’s unlikely the emotions of coming back to the City of Brotherly Love (it’s actually his second time back, having played in Florida’s 4-1 loss on Nov. 6) will faze the 18-year-old defenseman because, well, we’ve learned that not much affects Ekblad at all.

Not the media and fan attention, not the immediate success, not recently being named the third star for the first week of this month, and not being thrust into the Calder Memorial Trophy race for the season’s top rookie, likely led by Nashville’s 20-year-old Swede Filip Forsberg and his 12 goals, 18 assists and point-a-game pace.

In fact, Ekblad’s fantastic story from heralded, can’t miss prospect to rookie blueliner who’s fitting right in should have added another chapter Tuesday in Florida’s epic, almost neverending 20-round shootout win over the Capitals. After Tom Wilson missed to open the top of the fifteenth round, Ekblad had a chance to win it, and while few have been able to deny the Ontario native this year, Washington goalie Braden Holtby managed the feat. No knock on fellow blueliner Dylan Olsen – one of five Cats shooters who kept victory possible — but if you were betting on which defenseman would be successful late in the shootout, the smart money would’ve been on Ekblad, not Olsen.

All of this credit goes to Florida GM Dale Tallon.

Tallon’s phone rang constantly with the proposal of deals in June when the Panthers’ brass was deciding on whom to take. Yet Tallon said the day before the draft he knew the name of the player he was drafting and felt confident that wouldn’t change over the next 24 hours. Of course, he wasn’t tipping his hand.

On the day of the draft, the rumors kept floating. Vancouver really wanted in, and defenseman Jason Garrison and the Canucks’ first-round pick at No. 6 (eventually Jake Virtanen) were involved. The Maple Leafs popped up in the conversation, too, and Toronto’s pick at No. 8 seemed like a prime spot with Tallon having praised the offensive wizardry of William Nylander and Nikolaj Ehlers, who were expected to be taken in that range. The Flyers, trying to incite the home crowd, also made pitches, one rumored to include Vincent Lecavalier among others. Heck, maybe even a Schenn or two could have been had in the right deal.

 

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Tallon, though, stuck to his guns and took the BPA – Best Player Available – and went with Ekblad. He did create a little drama by mentioning the Ontario Hockey League – the league of both Ekblad and Sam Bennett – but ultimately no one was shocked by the pick.

 

Now, 29 games and 18 points into Ekblad’s first season, not a soul in Florida would do anything differently at that draft if there were a do-over. No one would take ex-Cat and current Tampa Bay 30-year-old defenseman Jason Garrison and his 3-point, 13-assist performance in four more starts, plus the pick and other spare parts from Vancouver, over Ekblad. Lecavalier is 34 and played in just 16 games and has fewer goals than Ekblad. Brayden Schenn is on pace for a nice 20-plus goal season, but he and the Flyers’ pick at No. 17 wouldn’t have been worth it, so that would be a no as well. Nylander and Ehlers were chosen by Toronto and Winnipeg at eighth and ninth, respectively, but Ekblad’s contributing to Florida’s playoff push right now while those two are still working on their NHL futures.

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Ekblad’s been that good. Just ask his teammates.

“I call his stick a slingshot because (the shot’s) off so quick and pretty hard. He’s a good defenseman to have. He’s always getting pucks through and always making good plays,” Nick Bjugstad said recently after Ekblad’s 3-assist game against Buffalo.

Added Tomas Kopecky: “He’s such a smart player. He kind of reminds me of Nick Lidstrom. He’s so quick on that blue line, and every shot is getting through. For the guys standing in front (of the net), it’s so easy when you know that puck is going to arrive. They all get there.”

When Ekblad was reminded that he was among the league’s leading scoring defensemen, he put that all into perspective, too, saying, “Those guys are great players. I’m sure they’ll surpass me again. I don’t want to get too cocky or anything like that. I’m happy to be producing…our guys are making great plays and giving me that opportunity.”

Tallon praised Ekblad’s character and all-around game over the summer in Philadelphia. And the former Barrie Colts defenseman, as humbly as possible, assessed his game by saying he was solid in every phase of play. He reiterated this in every interview, whether it was the first time we talked to him or third or fourth.

In 2006 after a loss on Monday Night Football, Arizona Cardinals coach Dennis Green lashed out at the media after his club blew a lead to the Chicago Bears. Green yelled emphatically and repeatedly that the “Bears are what we thought they were.”

Aaron Ekblad definitely is who Dale Tallon thought he was and who we are learning he is.

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