By Bill Whitehead
After offseason acquisition Peter Mueller scored the second equalizing goal in a third period last Thursday night that saw Florida blitz its way to a 6-3 win over Winnipeg, the word came down that the goal, his third consecutive game netting one, matched a career-best effort.
The goal was one that relied on pure skill with the hands and stick, and equally impressive was its importance and timeliness. Florida had evened it at 2-2 with the Jets when Kris Versteeg scored his first of the season, but Winnipeg’s Tobias Enstrom gave the visitors the lead four minutes later.
Mueller then had a chance that he wouldn’t let slip away.
Filip Kuba’s shot from the high slot clipped Marcel Goc and flew into the glove of Winnipeg goaltender Ondrej Pavelec, who had it in the webbing but lost control then watched it plop down right in front of Mueller. The long-haired Minnesota native grabbed the puck, put it on his forehand and roofed it over the sprawled Pavelec for a 3-3 lead to shift momentum back to Florida.
If it had been baseball, Pavelec would have been charged with an error — E-31 if you’re scoring by his jersey number. The Czech goalie is one of the best in the game, so it was shocking to see the puck just bounce out of the leather like that. Last season Pavelec was one of the few players irascible Jets coach Claude Noel could count on each night, routinely putting in a strong effort while Winnipeg struggled to score more than one or two goals during one nasty stretch of games in the middle of the season.
Mueller, 24, saw it as a moment to put Florida, who was 1-5 and the losers of five straight at the time, back in the game and regain momentum. He also knew it wouldn’t be easy, even with the 6-foot-3 Pavelec laying out.
“He’s a solid goaltender and an all-star,” said Mueller, who added a fourth straight game with a goal, another momentum-builder late in the second period, in a 4-3 win over Buffalo on Sunday.
“I’m sure he doesn’t do something like that too many times, but I’m just happy I got to capitalize on that opportunity and put it past him. He’s a big boy and was covering most of the net, so I just had to get it up quick and it found the back of the net.
“It was definitely a back and forth game. You get some momentum and ‘bam,’ they put one in. We bounced back great. Flash made a great play to get Steeger going and that’s what the story was for the third period. The biggest thing was staying composed and sticking to the game plan. There was no quit tonight.”
If you’re a fan of the Florida Panthers, the skill of the Minnesota native is something new and exciting. For years, the Florida faithful have seen a game-tying loose puck on the doorstep only to watch any number of less skilled Panthers flail away, either stuffing a harmless shot into the logo on the goalie’s jersey or losing it off his stick entirely and not even registering a shot on goal. Now with Mueller, plus teammates Jonathan Huberdeau and Alex Kovalev, Florida has players who will make opposing goalies work harder, particularly in shootouts.
If Mueller hadn’t scored in that situation with 8:40 left in the game, who knows what would have happened as Florida chased the tying goal. Would the club have eventually scored? Maybe. But if not and Winnipeg added another, coach Kevin Dineen and company would have likely been toting a cumbersome six-game losing streak to Buffalo.
The talented Mueller didn’t let that happen, though.