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.