By Bill Whitehead
If ever an NHL team needed a win, it was the Florida Panthers in Saturday night’s game against the Minnesota Wild, a thorn in the Cats’ side during their previous meetings. For the majority of the game, the two clubs, who are almost a mirror-image of each other in terms of style of play, struggled to find offense. The Wild, the league leader in fewest shots allowed per game, had the better of the offensive chances, but someone kept stopping them.
Florida’s best chances came early from Kris Versteeg, who had a pair of opportunities in the first period, the best being a breakaway off a steal by Scottie Upshall. Versteeg, however, was turned away by Minnesota goalie Josh Harding. Florida found itself in a 1-0 hole after a shot by Jonas Brodin was inadvertently deflected by Jesse Winchester and past goalie Tim Thomas.
Thomas, however, turned out to be the story of the night.
While the Panthers (3-6-0) were desperately trying to find offense and eventually did on a tip-in by rookie Sasha Barkov, the 39-year-old goalie was keeping Florida in the game and giving them a chance. Thomas was never better than in fighting off a pair of Minnesota 5-on-3s and a point-blank chance by Zach Parise as overtime ended, with Thomas sliding across his crease and making a pad save to go to a shootout. Thomas then denied Parise and Mikko Koivu, the Wild’s 1-on-1 whizzes, while Jonathan Huberdeau and Brad Boyes made deft moves to beat Hardin for a hard-earned and much-needed two points.
In my season preview, I wrote that the acquisition of Thomas would have some reverberations. First, it brought some excitement to a club that sat on its wallet in free agency and made just a couple of low-profile transactions. General manager Dale Tallon said he wasn’t going to spend money in July and would wait to August when he could get a better deal on the remaining FAs, and that’s what he did. But when Thomas was brought in on a tryout and eventually won the starting job, it added more legitimacy to a team many of the so-called experts had picked to finish dead last in the league.
I also wrote – and still believe, despite his early injury which brought up the age issue again – that Thomas will flat out steal a few wins with some highlight-reel saves for the Panthers. Tim will win some games outright like in Dallas, where he was good but not spectacular. He will also lose some like in St. Louis, where the Panthers never had a chance. It’s that middle ground of close games, ones when the Panthers may not seem to have much of a shot, where his talent and experience will make a difference: Those games where a sprawling or sliding save here or there keeps Florida right in the mix of a tie game or close in a 1-goal contest. Suddenly, Florida getting no points for losing in regulation becomes one or two points for carrying a contest into overtime. The Panthers know all about getting those bonus points, which propelled them to the Southeast Division crown two years ago.
He made a big stop Saturday with 3:36 remaining in regulation when he got a piece of a blast by Mikael Granlund with his blocker, and the puck caromed off the crossbar. His brilliant stop of Parise in the dying seconds of overtime sent the game to a shootout. In the extra session, he denied Parise and Koivu, two shootout wizards who are successful nearly 50 percent of the time. In all, 30 saves, the game’s first star and the chief reason Florida was able to get its third win.
I felt Thomas would steal 5-8 games for Florida this year.
Saturday night was No. 1.