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