By Bill Whitehead
After the Florida Panthers’ impressive open to the 2013-14 season last Thursday, a 4-2 win at Dallas, the Cats were called quite a few things by the media – much better, more positive adjectives than during the summer. The catchy catchword coined was “intriguing.” This group of Panthers, routinely picked 30th in season previews by most of the so-called experts, was now intriguing.
What made them intriguing? Effort. Marcel Goc’s hard work, two goals and 16-for-20 showing in the faceoff circle. Erik Gudbranson’s willingness to put health in the way of a laser slap shot that was headed toward an open net. A strong showing by Tim Thomas after a year layoff. And, of course, the Kid – Aleksander Barkov – who made history with his game-tying goal in the third period.
All of that was intriguing. What happened two nights later in St. Louis was anything but intriguing. More like perplexing and kind of reminiscent of last season.
Florida played a top quality club in the Blues, a team that’s a serious Stanley Cup contender, and what ensued was more than a complete letdown after the euphoria of the road win in Big D. When Florida played last time in St. Louis two years ago, the Blues did most of their damage with their bodies, literally pounding the Cats into submission in a 4-1 win. This time St. Louis did it on the scoreboard, thumping Florida 7-0 and leaving many to wonder if this year’s Cats were more like last year’s.
So much for “intriguing.”
To make it worse, the Panthers attended the Jacksonville Jaguars game against the St. Louis Rams the next day, pitting two of the worst teams in the NFL who set back football decades each week when they take the field, which posed the question: “Hadn’t the Panthers been through enough suffering in the Midwest?”
Well, on to the City of Brotherly Love. And please, no Tastykakes or PECO power play for this game.
The Opponent: The Flyers are 0-3 and a dangerous bunch, threatening to start the season 0-4 for the first time in club history. The team opened with losses to Toronto and Montreal before heading to Carolina for a Sunday matinee game against coach Peter Laviolette’s old team. As was the case in the first two games, the offense was anemic, and despite good goaltending from Steve Mason, Philly dropped a 2-1 decision as former Panther Radek Dvorak netted the game-winning goal. The Flyers have been outscored 9-3 in the three contests. To create even more unrest and uncertainty, the organization canned Laviolette Monday morning and named Craig Berube as its coach.
What to watch for: While the offense has been bad and Danny Briere is no longer a Flyer, Claude Giroux, Wayne Simmonds, Jakub Voracek, Scott Hartnell and newcomer Vinnie Lecavalier are offensive talents who will have to be accounted for. Third-year player Sean Couturier, taken in the same draft with Jonathan Huberdeau in Minnesota, continues to improve. Florida’s defense will have to been very good in front of its goaltender because the Flyers throw everything on goal, which can be productive (but hasn’t so far) but can also lead to odd-man rushes going back the other way. Laviolette wanted to rotate his goalies, meaning Ray Emery would likely have started against Florida, but that system may be scrapped with Berube in charge.
What Florida must do: The Cats have to improve on the power play, currently scoreless in 11 chances. Last year Florida had the No. 6 power play and allowed just one shorthanded goal. Expect Calder Trophy winner Huberdeau – who has a highlight or two, courtesy of departed Flyers goalie Ilya Bryzgalov – to have a breakout game and get his first goal or two of this season.
WHAT: Florida Panthers (1-1-0) at Philadelphia Flyers (0-3-0)
WHERE: Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia
WHEN: 7:00, Tuesday