By Bill Whitehead
Did the Florida Panthers’ season seem over after that 1-5 start? The joy of opening night’s 5-1 win — from Huberdeau to Upshall to Kovalev to Campbell to Theodore in front of a packed BB&T Center — seemed like a spring memory, a leftover from last year’s season-ending win over the same Carolina Hurricanes that clinched the Southeast Division title.
A five-game losing streak will do that to you: Make you move out of the present and into the past. And forget all those shootout losses from last year. These punchless Panthers couldn’t even get to the extra session over five games. Some in the press box even joked that their assignments might shift to other sports if Florida’s play stayed so dreadful.
However, the 6-3 home win over Winnipeg was a season-saver. Then the road trip began. A Buffalo team losing on Super Bowl Sunday was not big news, but it was to Florida fans. The last-second loss in Winnipeg was a little discouraging, but the Panthers had points in three consecutive games. The shootout win — make that, the easy shootout win — in Philadelphia was a preview of future sessions, where Jonathan Huberdeau and Peter Mueller can show off their skills. So that was seven points in four games — a striking improvement from what was mostly a bad January.
Things didn’t go so well in the nation’s capital. In fact, that poor performance could have been skipped altogether. The club should have just kept coming south from Philly and back to sunny Florida. Really, the only chance Saturday night in Washington was if that brutal storm that postponed Tampa Bay’s game in Boston would also have shut down the Verizon Center.
The Jan. 31 home win over Winnipeg may have saved the season, but the four-game road trip put the Panthers (4-6-1) right in the thick of the NHL’s most competitive division — the Southeast, where merely five points separated the suddenly not-so-electric first-place Lightning (6-5-0) and the underachieving, cellar-dwelling Washington Capitals (3-8-1) as of Sunday’s games.
If I’m filling out a report card and handing out a grade, I’d have to say that taking the extra point in Winnipeg would have made the road swing worthy of an A. It would have been the stuff Principal’s Lists are made of.
Five out of eight possible points on the road trip gets a solid B, though.
ONCE BITTEN — There was no hockey fun at all in D.C. on Saturday night, and I missed all of the late drama in the Toronto-Montreal game that was occurring while the Cats were being shellacked. The Leafs pounding the home Habs 6-0 was bad enough, but when Mikhail Grabovski bit Max Pacioretty’s arm, the fierce rivalry was turned up a notch.
McGruff the Crime Dog’s got nothing on Mikhail Grabovski:
To no one’s surprise, the lines of demarcation regarding the incident were drawn geographically above the 49th parallel. Most of the comments from Quebec regarded Grabovski as the new Alex Burrows, a villainous Belarusian forward who had disrespected the sport and crossed hockey’s own boundaries. Meanwhile, folks in Ontario offered in English that the Toronto center was just protecting himself. They reasoned that Pacioretty was the aggressor and should have expected any form of retaliation.
Advice from someone who’s been in a fight: If you’re in one and going face-to-face with your opponent, don’t stick your hand in his mouth. Worse yet, if you’ve wrapped up your adversary from behind and you continue to be aggressive with him, pulling or twisting the head area, don’t be surprised if he bites you if that’s the only way he can extricate himself from such a tight spot.
Grabovski received no supplemental discipline from the league Monday afternoon, nor should he have. He’s not Alex Burrows and his actions won’t likely spawn a slew of copycat biters. But if it does, just describe future bitings as being “Mikhailed” or “Grabovskied,” whichever rolls off the tongue better.