Upshall a Standout in Better Play by Panthers

By Bill Whitehead

In what could only be considered a fitting moment Monday night, Scottie Upshall didn’t really address his recent renaissance and fantastic play after Florida’s 3-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers in a game where Sean Bergenheim (two goals) and Tim Thomas (38 saves) were battling over No.1 star consideration. Instead, the 30-year-old Upshall took the time to discuss what was clearly more important to him.

The team.

“There’s a confidence growing within our group. Our goaltending has been outstanding, and Tim’s keeping us in these games. We had a couple of new kids in the lineup that played well. Bergenheim’s back and he’s playing the style of hockey he played in the playoffs. That’s going to help us out huge. I think collectively we’re feeling more comfortable playing tight games against good teams. That’s a good team over there,” said the winger, referencing his former club he played with from 2006 to 2009.

Upshall’s team-first attitude isn’t a surprise. He’s a tremendously likable person, and the day GM Dale Tallon signed him in 2011, TSN joked that the Alberta native acts as if he’s never had a bad day in his life. He’s also a player who when healthy is an asset to any team. And he’s talented, though he often somehow gets grounded by a team, gets hurt or doesn’t fit into their system, and is soon dealt away. On his fifth team since 2006, Upshall found himself in former coach Kevin Dineen’s doghouse this season, and the winger, who has one more year left on a contract that will pay him $3.5 million next season, appeared as a prime candidate to be traded away as Florida seemed to fritter away its season.

Good thing that didn’t happen.

Upshall has been simply dynamic the past month and has undergone a rebirth. In his last 14 games, Upshall has five goals and seven assists, but analyzing his play goes much deeper than scoresheets and box scores. If anything extraordinary or noteworthy has happened lately, it’s a good chance No.19 is involved in it in some way. On the power play Monday, he threw himself head first on a 50-50 puck to chip it into the corner and keep the play alive. He’s repeatedly agitated opposing defenders and goalies, getting in the way, stabbing at loose pucks and bringing emotion to a club that relies on a little something extra to make up for what it might lack in skill.

Late in the game and with the Flyers pushing to tie the 2-1 game, Upshall took over and helped salt away the victory. He gathered a faceoff in front of Philly goalie Steve Mason and rocked the netminder with a hard shot from a sharp angle that banged off his mask. After Brad Boyes stole the puck behind the net from defenseman Erik Gustafsson, Upshall tapped his stick on the ice, asking for the puck. Boyes delivered, and Upshall patiently waited and delivered his own crisp pass – one that Erik Gudbranson banged home with the help of a tricky bounce over Mason.

If you didn’t know what Upshall’s game was all about, you saw it in that moment and the next few. He celebrated with the spirit of a prep player who had just helped his team claim a state title, hugging his teammates and enthusiastically high-fiving the bench. When he sat down, he put his arm around Aleksander Barkov and patted him on the head, encouraging the Finnish rookie who had screened Mason.

“It was a big game, and personally, I played in Philly and I wanted to get this win for us. I knew Gudbranson had it, and it was a big shot for him. He’s a good young player, and gaining confidence like that is going to help him,” Upshall said.

Again crediting his teammates for their outstanding play. Again bringing the enthusiasm that’s needed on a team that needs a little boost every night. Again playing with the extra energy and tenacity of a family dog who’s been cooped up inside and finally gets to go outside and run in a giant yard. Again with the little things that don’t appear in the highlights but that coaches salivate over.

Again and again and again.

That’s Scottie Upshall and that’s the reason he’s been wearing the “A” on his sweater lately.

And he’s well worth holding on to now.

PRICELESS MOMENT: Gudbranson broke a huge drought without a goal when he gave Florida a 2-goal cushion in the last five minutes of the win over Philadelphia. After that media scrum ended, I grabbed a few moments with Gudbranson, who was more than happy to talk about getting back on the scoresheet.

The Ottawa native, who was paired with former World Junior Championship and Under-18 teammate Dylan Olsen, had a great reaction when Sun-Sentinel beat writer Harvey Fialkov asked Gudbranson if he knew how long it had been since he had scored a goal.

“No, I don’t even want to know,” Gudbranson replied.

“On the button…,” Fialkov said.

“You mean it was a hundred? Oh, come on, no,” Gudbranson said, genuinely surprised and putting his hand over his mouth.

Thanksgiving Feast Highlights Panthers’ Week

By Bill Whitehead

I write this at the beginning of every Thanksgiving week, but I’ll do it again: The annual Thanksgiving Feast of Panthers hockey will go quite a ways toward defining Florida’s season and determining its direction.

Always eagerly anticipated, the Thanksgiving games have had interesting outcomes the past five seasons. Last year, of course, we all starved as there was no feast at all due to the lockout. Two years ago in Florida’s division-winning campaign, the Panthers went 3-0-1 on a 4-game homestand beginning with a 3-2 win over Pittsburgh. In Pete DeBoer’s last season in 2010-11, Florida was 0-3-0 and scored just three goals in the losses. Festive Florida fans watched DeBoer’s Panthers go 0-1-2 in 2009-10 after posting a 1-0-2 holiday record the previous year in DeBoer’s first season. In total, Florida is 4-4-5 over the last five years with two coaches.

Two weeks into this season Florida would have relished the chance to play any of the teams it faces this week. Philadelphia was so disjointed as the season opened that the organization fired coach Peter Laviolette after an 0-3-0 start, replacing him with Craig Berube. The Flyers won its first game under Berube, a 2-1 win over Florida in a contest where the Panthers outplayed Philadelphia for much of the game but still lost. It was also significant because of goaltender Tim Thomas getting injured on the Flyers’ game-winning goal by Braydon Coburn.

Much has changed since that night. Florida stumbled for most of the time, and coach Kevin Dineen was fired less than a month later. The Panthers have played better of late under new bench boss Peter Horachek, but it pales in comparison to what the Flyers have done. Philly is 10-7-2 since the first meeting with Florida and currently occupies the 10th spot in the Eastern Conference standings – a far cry from when Laviolette was behind the bench.

Plenty has changed for Wednesday’s opponent, the Rangers, too. The Blueshirts have had a renaissance of sorts similar to the Flyers, regaining their winning form at 12-11-0 after a similar slow start and sitting eighth in the standings. Questions surround Michael Del Zotto – new coach Alain Vigneault seems to have lost faith in him – and a trade involving the 23-year-old defenseman appears inevitable, but the Rangers have received a boost from the return of big scorer Rick Nash.

The Penguins, Florida’s opponent next Saturday, are a likely lock for the playoffs, yet the Panthers’ best performance – at least the most offensively productive – was against the Pens in a 6-3 home-opening win on Oct. 11, which stood as Florida’s only win until one month later. This Saturday night’s game should cap off a good week of hockey and be played in front of an enthusiastic crowd at BB&T with Crosby, Malkin and company in town. Maybe Malkin won’t get sunburn like last April in Sunrise and get scratched – okay, it was officially an “upper body injury,” wink, wink.

Regardless, it’s three games against three quality clubs coming to South Florida. The Panthers have played much better under Horachek and need to keep any momentum they have and make it translate into two points each game night this week. It’s got to start Monday night in a payback game against the Flyers.
Time for the Cats to start feasting.

LOOSE PUCKS: D Dylan Olsen was called up by Florida, but Mike Weaver is available to play Monday against Philadelphia. Acquired with F Jimmy Hayes from Chicago in the Kris Versteeg trade, Olsen has played in 28 NHL games and recorded one assist and six PIMs. A native of Calgary, the 22-year-old first-round pick from 2009 will don the No. 4 worn previously by former defensemen Keaton Ellerby and Jay Bouwmeester…According to a story in The New York Times, U.S. Olympic team general manager David Poile and his staff have included Tim Thomas as one of six candidates who could be in goal in Sochi in February. Joining Thomas for consideration are Jonathan Quick, Ryan Miller, Cory Schneider, Jimmy Howard and Ben Bishop…The three opponents this week have a combined record of 37-30-2.

SOUNDING OFF: “We’ve had a little bit of a slide lately. Take away that Florida game and we’ve played some good hockey.” – Canucks defenseman Kevin Bieksa on Hockey Night in Canada during first-intermission interview of Chicago-Vancouver game

Panthers face Struggling Canucks, Sedins

By Bill Whitehead

There’s a storm brewing in British Columbia. And it’s one that will have the Florida Panthers seeing double.

Game 3 of Florida’s 5-game road swing takes place in Vancouver on Tuesday (10 p.m., ET), and after watching the Canucks lose 2-1 in regulation Sunday night against the visiting Dallas Stars, I can only conclude that the Panthers (5-12-4) and interim coach Peter Horachek had better be prepared for what’s in store for them. Or in storm for them.

It will be a typically talented group of Canucks (11-8-3) awaiting Florida at Rogers Arena, but factor in a bit of an edge bordering on rage as well. That’s what happens when you’re talented and expect to win, plus have a fiery new coach who regularly rages, but haven’t been winning. Vancouver has dropped four straight games, managing just one goal in each of the losses.

The problem lately has been what has ordinarily been double-trouble for Vancouver’s opponents – the Sedin twins. Henrik entered the Dallas game without a goal in 10 straight, while Daniel hadn’t found the net in his last five. Henrik finally got on the scoresheet with a power-play goal in the third period, but it wasn’t enough against the stalwart goaltending of Kari Lehtonen. Beaten by the Panthers on opening night in Big D, the Finnish netminder has been especially thrifty on the road, with an 8-1 mark and a GAA right at 2.00. He weathered 20 shots in the second period as Vancouver brought the heat, but Lehtonen stopped them all then and 42 for the game. Dallas took over in the third period and controlled play to win its sixth straight on the road, tying the mark set by Colorado from Oct. 8 to Nov. 1.

Vancouver pressed for most of the game and had some bad luck, too. Henrik scored a goal in the second period, but it was waved off due to a call of goalie interference on his twin. Coach John Tortorella was irate, and he had every right to be over the bad call. Even Lehtonen didn’t think there was interference on the play. It was the type of play that could be reversed in the future if the NHL decides to employ the NFL’s challenge policy.

Tim Thomas will likely get the call in net for Florida. Thomas, of course, was spectacular in 2011 when he shut down the Canucks to help lead the Boston Bruins to a Stanley Cup championship. With a nice rest since beating Colorado Saturday night and considering his past play against the Canucks, it only makes sense to see him in goal Tuesday night.

Whether it’s Thomas or backup Scott Clemmensen, Florida’s starting goaltender should expect a constant barrage from this desperate Vancouver bunch. Through two periods Sunday, the Canucks held a 33-13 advantage in shots, much of it coming from the first power play unit of the Sedins, Ryan Kesler, Kevin Bieksa and Alexander Edler. Vancouver likes to employ Daniel Sedin in the slot, passing back and forth to him, and he’ll slide down in front of the crease to create traffic if nothing opens up. So the No. 1 key to the game will be Florida staying out of the penalty box. No. 2 would probably be cleaning up second-chance opportunities because the Canucks love to create problems around the crease. Let’s just say they like to have a riotous time out front and leave it at that.

On the other end of the ice, Florida will either see an old friend in Roberto Luongo or backup Eddie Lack in goal. The Swedish Lack is 2-2 and has played twice this month, but my guess is Luongo will get the nod against his old team, especially with Vancouver sorely needing a win and riding that winless streak. Tortorella and company received a scare in the first minute against Dallas when Luongo was plastered by Tyler Seguin after the forward received a shove from Dan Hamhuis, but Luongo was fine.

The Cats had better don their foul-weather gear and be ready for the storm that’s about to come in the Northwest.

VANCOUVER: BY THE NUMBERS

Record: 11-8-3 (9th, Western Conference)

Last 10: 4-4-2

Goals per game: 2.50 (20th)

Goals against per: 2.54 (15th)

Power play %: 11.6 (27th)

Penalty kill %: 89.0 (1st)

Shootouts: 1-2

DID YOU KNOW?: Florida’s five wins have all been against teams with winning records who currently hold a combined mark of 65-29-8. Four of those teams are from the Western Conference.

With Versteeg Out, the Question is “Who’s Next?”

By Bill Whitehead

I called it a night early on Thursday. After a long day of work, I shut it down about 9:30, which, of course, means I awoke seven hours later. I immediately checked my email and discovered that veteran winger Kris Versteeg had been traded by Florida to Chicago. I saw the other names involved, made a kind of “meh” sound, rolled over and shut my eyes again.

That’s what Versteeg had come to mean to the Panthers, at least in my book: Not worth losing any sleep over.

While it would be easy to knock Versteeg and his play – creative and with a sizzling finishing touch when it’s good; turnover-prone, pointless and usually featuring a lot of senseless overskating when it’s bad – the now 2-time Blackhawk played an important role in Florida’s Southeast Division-winning team two years ago. And forget about “loser points” and qualifying what happened in that division. Florida won that banner and earned it, and it will hang in BB&T Center (and the future names of the building) forever. As bad as that division was, someone still had to win it. Plus, imagine the disappointment Panthers’ fans would’ve endured if the club had blown it that last home game against Carolina after holding the division lead for so long?

Again, I’m happy with that banner. And it wouldn’t have been possible, simply no if, ands or buts whatsoever, without Steeger. He played on a top line with center Stephen Weiss and fellow winger Tomas Fleischmann on a line that was the most productive in the NHL the first third of the season and terrorized opposing defenses.

When Florida Panthers GM Dale Tallon finally made his appearance on Friday morning’s conference call with the media, he sounded like a frustrated man – a man who has tried and tried to find answers with scoring, defense and goaltending but come up empty every time. Well, most every time.

He sounded like a man at his wit’s end. His head coach of 2-plus years? Fired. A club picked last by most of the pundits and playing like it? Yep, got that. The blueprint for success firmly on schedule and up to speed? Well, not so fast…

There have been successes along the way this season. Jesse Winchester has been the best Panther on the ice most of the year, and former Bruins Brad Boyes and Tim Thomas have played well. Scottie Upshall has stepped up his game, and Nick Bjugstad’s progress and standout play means his time in San Antonio is officially over. I hope he visited the Alamo because he’s not going back during hockey season.

Friday’s brief conference call centered around Versteeg, but it was really much more about Tallon and the Panthers’ future than it was about the crooning winger. We all wish Steeger well – he was a solid interview and gave it back at you at times – but he’s gone. That’s it. Most red-clad fans will now focus on the development of Jimmy Hayes and Dylan Olsen rather than Versteeg. He’s in the past – a valuable part of the past, mind you, but relegated to memory status like an ex. An ex you think fondly of, but still an ex. I’ll remember this overtime winner against Carolina in a Sunday matinee game:

Now, it’s on Tallon. Sure, he signed Versteeg to that contract and the organization will eat half of the remaining contract, which doesn’t appear so great, but that deal also helped raise that banner that’s hanging in the rafters. He couldn’t have anticipated the forward’s hip and knee injuries, which have hampered Versteeg for two seasons, limited his production and devalued him immensely. And Tallon has other deals out there worse than this one. But this was all he was going to get for Versteeg: an AHLish forward with some promise and a late first-round defenseman, both with imposing builds and in the bigger, stronger, tougher mold Tallon wants.

“We’ve got to turn this this around. I only know one way to do it. I want to win now, too,” Tallon replied when asked about how the fans feel.

Now, to a degree, Tallon is on the clock. He has traded out his first player during a dismal season, and it’s a popular Panther. The frustration is seemingly growing, he doesn’t have much value in players he probably wants to get rid of, and there’s likely way too much of a bad season remaining, one filled with way too many 1-goal losses and “what ifs.” Whatever magic he possesses needs to be conjured to fix this mess somehow by dealing players, dipping down to San Antonio for Trocheck or Shore, or packaging some kind of deal that will make this team better.

Tallon’s reason for trading Versteeg was simple: It’s a performance-based business where results mean you either stay or go, and Kris wasn’t getting it done at all and was just basically filling a spot someone else could be playing. Now the onus is on Tallon to work the phones even harder and keep the Panthers from transforming into the league’s laughingstock.

Or he will go down trying.

Cats’ Weekend of Losses Not a Lost Weekend

By Bill Whitehead

 

I’m a fan of older movies. If a Hitchcock flick comes on, there’s a good chance I’m going to record it for later. I particularly enjoy The Lost Weekend by director Billy Wilder, and I couldn’t help but think of that 4-time Academy Award-winning picture as the Florida Panthers skated to two losses over the weekend. The movie centers on the failures of a drunken writer in New York City, and the Panthers have been adrift in a similar fashion of late, dropping nine straight.

 

But if this past weekend is any indication of how the rest of this season is going to play out, maybe things will improve soon.

 

In Saturday’s matinee game against Ottawa and Sunday’s evening tilt versus the New York Rangers – the beginning of the Post-Dineen Era, also known as the Peter Horachek Era – the Panthers made some of the same mistakes they made under Dineen. Florida put goaltender Tim Thomas behind the eight ball early with some poor defensive play when defensemen Matt Gilroy and Dmitry Kulikov committed turnovers that led to two goals 19 seconds apart. The game in newly remodeled Madison Square Garden was a winnable one in which the Panthers snapped the Rangers’ 9-game streak of allowing two goals or less. Florida deserved a fate better than another 1-goal loss, its fifth in its last seven games, but this team right now can’t do enough to win or even put itself in position to win.

 

The weekend for Florida (3-11-4) did have some bright spots. In fact, the Panthers could look for inspiration in the Rangers, who started out 2-5-0 and have moved to 9-8-0 in its first season under coach Alain Vigneault.

 

The play of the Florida forwards has been improved for the most part. Scottie Upshall has been a whirling dervish since returning after Dineen scratched him. Upshall has repeatedly kept pucks alive, thrown his body around – potentially hazardous for him — and been a nuisance around the net for opposing goaltenders. The emergence of Nick Bjugstad has been the most pleasant surprise. Sidelined in camp with a concussion, the Minnesota native has demonstrated in the last week that he belongs in the NHL, not playing at San Antonio. He’s using his body to his advantage and keeping the puck away from defenders, plus winning faceoffs and being creative, which has been seriously lacking. Aleksander Barkov also got on the score sheet, and the forward play will certainly improve even more when Jesse Winchester, the Cats’ best player so far, returns from his 3-game suspension.

 

The pressure Florida applied in the first 10 minutes of the Ottawa game also was a new look. If you watch NHL Tonight and see highlights of where goals are being scored, the answer is obvious: Right in front, in close. When Florida beat Dallas in the season opener, the first three goals by Scott Gomez, Barkov and Marcel Goc were all scored on the edge of the blue paint. The combined distance of the three goals may have totaled 15 feet. Florida attacked the Rangers like that as well, outshooting the Blueshirts 10-3 to open the game despite the Panthers playing the day before. Brian Campbell’s second goal, a putback shot with his team trailing by two, looked similar to the Dallas goals. On a team without snipers, it’s mandatory for Florida to get in tight and try to clean up loose pucks.

 

It’s hard to get too excited over a pair of losses, but the team showed some fire under Horachek, and you’ve got to give the new coach a few practices to get his system in place. The positives overall were better, faster team play, finally scoring a power-play goal and having some players step up their play. One of the most glaring negatives is the mindless turnovers and mental lapses by Dmitry Kulikov, a talented defenseman who hasn’t shown much progress at all. Ultimately, the biggest negative is losing two more games and continuing to let the season slip into the abyss.

 

It was a weekend of losses for the Panthers, but it certainly wasn’t a lost weekend.

 

In fact, maybe they actually found a little something.

Panthers’ Buzz is Real, Puzzling, and Real Puzzling

By Bill Whitehead

I wish I had some explanation for what we’re seeing at Florida Panthers’ home games this season, but it seems to be inexplicable.

I’m talking about the Buzz.

In a number of games this year, Florida has started out as if they’re already trailing, jumping on the opponent for the early portion of the game and desperately acting as if they’re trying to get back in it. They did it against Buffalo, Tampa Bay and, most recently, a woeful Edmonton team. The Buzz is when Florida simply seems to have more jump in their step than the opposition, creating more puck possession and better scoring opportunities. Typically, they haven’t scored when the Buzz was in full force. A great first 20 minutes against Buffalo yielded just one goal despite 18 shots on goaltender Jhonas Enroth.

Some times, though, the Buzz does work like a charm late – and it results in scoring. It did against Boston, Chicago, Minnesota and, most recently, well, against that woeful Edmonton club. The Jesse Winchester-Nick Bjugstad-Scottie Upshall line turned into a terror in the last 10 minutes, solely because they were buzzing. Uppy’s first goal of the season was a beauty and cut the Oilers’ lead to 3-2. He stopped a clearing attempt by sliding, then banged home a pass from Winchester with 9:56 left. He tied it with just 57 seconds left in regulation when Marcel Goc’s pass went off the leg of Boyd Gordon. Upshall tossed toward goalie Devan Dubnyk what analyst Bill Lindsay called a Tim Wakefield-like knuckleball, though Billy could’ve gone old school with a Charlie Hough or even Wilbur Wood reference.

The Buzz does exist. We see it almost every game, but at random points and not for any extended amount of time. Certainly not the majority of the game. Yet it’s there. You can see those 10-minute spurts where good things are happening on the ice for the guys in red and they look like a competitive team, but then it expires like Florida’s recent power plays.

Bottom line: Why does Florida often start with The Buzz and end with it? What causes it? What driving force suddenly springs alive in a player like Upshall, quickens his step and creates manic, positive play around the opposing goal? And more importantly, how does the team oddly transition from buzzing to mailing it in and just floating around out there for 20 or 30 minutes?

I don’t know those answers. However, Kevin Dineen had better be trying to find one or two of them and figure out a way to capture that Buzz in a bottle.

The B’s – Speaking of buzzing, Florida takes on the Bruins tonight, or as my younger son calls them, the B’s. The Panthers must be buzzing like a ticked off hive of angry worker bees tonight, and that’s what it will take – a workman-like effort – to get a win. See Shawn Matthias’s hard-working goal last year as Exhibit A on how hard Florida will need to work to win tonight. Here are some stats:

  • Florida is 32-32-6-5 all-time against Boston
  • The Cats begin a 3-game road trip; 8 of the next 9 are on the road
  • D Matt Gilroy played at Boston University, G Scott Clemmensen at Boston College
  • Two Florida draft picks, Michael Matheson and Ian McCoshen, play for BC
  • Florida is 3-8-4 while Boston is 8-5-1
  • Milan Lucic has 7 goals while David Krejci has 12 assists
  • Ex-Bruin Brad Boyes leads Florida with 5 goals, Tomas Fleischmann has 8 assists

The puck drops on Game 16 at 7 p.m. Watch on Fox Sports Florida or listen on 560 WQAM.

Also, there’s a watch party at Duffy’s in Plantation. It begins at 6 p.m.

Barch, Upshall Provide a Spark in Washington

By Bill Whitehead

Florida Panthers coach Kevin Dineen can take grief for a number of decisions when it comes to line juggling and such, but the third-year coach made a choice Saturday that worked wonders in the nation’s capital – inserting Krys Barch and Scottie Upshall back into the lineup after scratching them the night before against St. Louis. In that shutout loss, Dineen said only a handful of players gave quality effort.

Surely Dineen, whose seat must be getting a bit warmer, felt something needed to be done. Friday’s showing against the Blues was another anemic effort in a 6-game homestand (1-3-2) that was impotent, devoid of much energy and lacking production. He scratched Kris Versteeg, who has struggled mightily; Sean Bergenheim, recently in Dineen’s doghouse though scratched Saturday for rest; and Matt Gilroy, who was replaced by Ryan Whitney.

Barch and Upshall were both energetic and mixed it up in the third period. Barch made his presence known early in the period with a hard hit on Alexander Urbom but received a charging minor in the process, a terrible call considering Urbom had puck possession and the contact was clean. The hit seemed to fire up the Cats (3-8-3), who trailed 2-1 at the time.

Barch subsequently made news because of this:

Upshall sparked Florida and put the Panthers in good position with his clean but hard hit on Washington defenseman Steve Oleksy, who retaliated and drew a penalty. Less than a minute later and on its sixth power play – this time a 4-on-3 man advantage — the Panthers tied the game with some crafty passing behind the Washington cage that led to Brian Campbell connecting with Tomas Fleischmann, who tied the game against his former team with his third goal this season.

Versteeg, Bergenheim and Gilroy, and all the other Panthers for that matter, should take note because Barch and Upshall showed how to get in Dineen’s lineup: bust your butt as if you’re trying to make the team and don’t take a shift off. Barch was looking for anyone in Caps’ red to hit after his penalty, which figuratively lit up the Panthers much like he literally lit up Urbom. Upshall getting under Oleksy’s skin and goading him into a penalty led to the tying goal and eventually one point, which is more than Florida usually comes away with in that house of horrors in DC known as the Verizon Center.

Pay attention, Panthers, because Barch and Upshall illustrated how Dineen’s blueprint, not GM Dale Tallon’s, scores you some playing time.