Florida Loses Lead Late, Falls 2-1 to Rangers in Shootout

By Bill Whitehead

SUNRISE – Florida’s Tim Thomas and Brad Boyes put themselves in position to be the stars for the Panthers in their New Year’s clash, but the New York Rangers put a damper on the festivities to close out 2013.

Before 16,083 fans at the BB&T Center, New York scored late to tie it and won the shootout 1-0 to earn a 2-1 win over the Panthers in what could only be described as a disappointing loss to the home team.

“It was a hard-fought 65-minute game and they won the shootout. You just have to move on from that. Timmy played pretty well,” interim head coach Peter Horachek said.

Thomas, making his 400th career start, did play well in his return from an eight-game absence due to a groin injury. He made 30 saves on the Rangers, including four in overtime, and put the Panthers (15-20-6) in position to hold a two-game winning streak heading in to 2014.

“I felt really good for a first game back,” said Thomas. “It was one of those nights where if I could see it I could save it. I thought we were going to hang on until the end there, but that’s hockey.

“We’re picking up some momentum and doing some good things. We’re a much better hockey team than we were in October. If we keep making strides, that’s the direction you want to head in.”

However, Dan Girardi blasted a shot from inside the left circle after Tomas Kopecky left the ice after simply dropping his stick while trying to get the puck. Girardi’s third goal on the pass from Derek Stepan with just 2:10 left in regulation sent the game to overtime and left Florida a bit deflated.

“There are different theories to that. It’s a little bit surprising that he would go there. A lot of teams would say go get your stick and hold the ice, but I don’t think that was a great time when the puck was behind the net because if you leave that area obviously there’s a big area open,” said Horachek.

The turning point for Florida occurred when Brad Richards went off for four minutes after high-sticking Nick Bjugstad and drawing blood at 7:47 of the third period. Florida, though, could only muster one shot and generated very little time in front of Lundqvist, rarely coming away with much zone time, which bothered Horachek.

“We don’t relate it to how many shots we had. I’m relating it to puck possession, and they block a lot of shots. I’d say it’s more about how much possession time we had which would be the disappointing part,” Horachek said.

“Whether it’s on the power play or the other 61 minutes of the game…we want to win on the power play, on the 5-on-5. We just want to win. I’m not going to say ‘You’re supposed to win it on the power play.’ You’re supposed to win.”

New York (20-19-2) netted the only goal of the shootout when Richards beat Thomas high on the stick side in the third round after the goaltender had denied Mats Zuccarello and Stepan. Florida failed to score in the shootout as Lundqvist denied Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and Boyes.

The productive line of Boyes, Barkov and Sean Bergenheim – the B Line – had an impressive shift midway in the second period that gave Florida a 1-0 lead. Bergenheim came up short of the red line but sent the puck along the boards and past the Florida bench. Girardi was the first to the puck, but the defenseman flipped it right to Barkov behind the visitor’s net. Barkov fed Boyes, who made a move that opened up Lundqvist and beat him 5-hole at 9:18 for his 10th goal.

New York coach Alain Vigneault had nothing but praise for the Panthers following the game.

“That team is playing real well. They’re playing fast. They’ve got a real strong transition game. I had watched their game against Montreal and we had talked about it prior to the game tonight (that) we had to take away some of that transition,” the first-year Rangers coach said.

“I thought we did a pretty good job of doing that. We stuck with our process, stuck with our game and we were finally able to put one past him with a little bit more than two minutes left.”

NOTES: Florida tied a franchise record for most points in December with 17; it’s the fourth time the Panthers have done turned the feat…Boyes scored for just the second time in his last 18 games…Barkov holds a four-game point streak, the longest of his career…D Dylan Olsen recorded seven hits and five blocked shots…Florida hosts Nashville Saturday night to close out the five-game homestand then embarks for three roads tests – Montreal (1-6, Mon.), Buffalo (1-9) and New Jersey (1-11)…Thomas recorded his 11,000th NHL save against Winnipeg on Dec. 5. He entered the game 14th among NHL goalies with 11,024 saves…Entering the game, Florida had posted their 15 wins against teams with a combined record of 271-165-63.

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Panthers beat Canadiens behind Barkov, Clemmensen

By Bill Whitehead

SUNRISE, Fla. – Aleksander Barkov scored a goal and was instrumental in the game-winner as the Florida Panthers snapped a three-game losing streak with a  4-1 win over Montreal in front of 19,891 at the BB&T Center on Sunday.

With the game tied 1-1 after goals by Florida’s Dmitry Kulikov and Montreal’s Brandon Prust, Brian Campbell scored the go-ahead goal in the second period with Barkov creating havoc in front of Canadiens goaltender Peter Budaj. Campbell’s fifth goal gave Florida (15-20-5) the lead it would never relinquish.

“I asked them before the game to play a whole complete game,” said Florida coach Peter Horachek. “We need to play 60 minutes and start the game well. A 60-minute effort is what I asked for and I think we got that.”

Florida grabbed a 1-0 lead 6:10 into the first period in a 4-on-4 situation when Tomas Fleischmann chipped a puck out of the Panthers’ zone to himself, skated down the right side and cut back through the slot. Dmitry Kulikov then slapped in a pass from Fleischmann that beat Montreal goalie Peter Budaj, playing in place of Carey Price, who beat the Lightning 2-1 in a shootout in Tampa on Saturday. Kulikov’s goal was his second of the season, the first coming against Chicago on Oct. 22.

The Canadiens had a goal waved off later when Brian Gionta was called for a high-stick infraction. Gionta continued the play, passing the puck from just beyond the blue line to a streaking Rene Bourque, who tapped in the pass past Florida netminder Scott Clemmensen.

Montreal (23-14-3) had a second goal waved off in the third period when Alex Galchenyuk made contact with Clemmensen before Danny Briere netted the marker.

“It’s really frustrating,” said Montreal coach Michel Therrien. “The first goal that they refused, Brian Gionta said it never touched the stick. The second goal, it was clearly a crosscheck by them against Galchenyuk. So it’s one of those nights. It’s frustrating. It’s a frustrating night, but honestly we didn’t have the same jump and intensity as last night.”

Added Gionta, who said he didn’t touch the puck, “It’s deflating, but that’s not why we lost. We didn’t play a good all-around game. They deserved to win. We didn’t have the effort we needed. We got outbattled a lot and lost a lot of pucks. They seemed to have more speed in the neutral zone and we couldn’t contain that.”

Budaj felt Galchenyuk was pushed into Clemmensen, but the Florida goalie insisted the officials made the right call.

“I think it was a good call. I was in the crease and the guy came in behind me, and kind of pushed me out. I think I went my first 11 years without getting a goal called back on me. This is my 13th year pro and last year I had one and already a couple this year,” Clemmensen said.

Prust spun from the low slot and sent a shot that seemed to be going wide of Clemmensen, but the puck banged off the Iowa native’s stick and in at 2:56 for his fourth goal.

Florida took control the remaining 16 minutes and outshot the Habs 11-5 in the period.

After Campbell’s shot bounced high off Budaj, the puck fell into a scrum led by Barkov. The Finnish rookie was originally credited with the goal, but it was awarded to Campbell during the intermission as the puck bounced off Budaj instead of Barkov.

“We match up well against them. We’re desperate when we play them. It’s only two games we’ve played them. If we play like that we can be a good team in this league,” said Campbell, who was unaware he had the goal until told of it in post-game interviews.

Barkov scored for good almost 10 minutes later in a play started by linemate Brad Boyes, who collected the puck in front of Florida’s bench and reversed the action. Boyes passed to Tom Gilbert (two assists), and the defenseman sent the puck to Barkov, who deflected it beyond Budaj for his seventh goal, eighteenth point and a 3-1 Florida lead.

Sean Bergenheim backhanded in an empty-net goal with 17 seconds left for the final tally – his fourth in the last three games. Clemmensen stopped 21 shots in running his record to 5-4-1 this year and 8-1 all-time against Montreal.

Earnhardt’s Theory Shows Up in Cats’ Win in Ottawa

By Bill Whitehead

About 15 years ago at Daytona International Speedway, I heard the late great Dale Earnhardt tell a throng of us media types what the difference was between a winning team and a second-tier one. What Earnhardt was basically doing was laying out the blueprint for champions and describing how some teams routinely come up short. Hey, a seven-time champ was talking, so it was well worth the listen to get his perspective.

The salient point of Earnhardt’s theory – and when he held court, he truly was running the show – was that it’s easy to earn championship points when you have a car capable of running in the top five. It’s even easier to hoist a trophy as a race winner, but those days pretty much speak for themselves – a great driver and a super-fast car leaving the competition in the mirrors and racing to the checkers. However, he went on to say that it’s really not what winners do on those memorable days, it’s how they perform in races when they don’t have their best equipment. The true gains, he acknowledged, were when he took a car that should have finished 20th or worse and clawed his way into the top 10, turning a potentially disastrous, championship-ruining day into a respectable one.

Earnhardt was saying it all comes down to how a driver, team or players perform when they don’t have their A game.

Despite riding a 4-game winning streak as the puck dropped in Ottawa against a reeling bunch of Senators, Florida didn’t have their A game early. Florida failed on early offensive chances to beat ex-Cat Craig Anderson, who has struggled like every netminder has for Ottawa. Florida’s defense also put hot goalie Scott Clemmensen in a perilous predicament or two when the Sens put together a couple of 2-on-1 rushes, but Clemmensen was up to the task. When the first 20 minutes were over, Florida had been outshot 14-9, something that hasn’t happened to them often lately.

Though they weren’t playing at the level they did against Washington, Montreal and Toronto, Florida kept grinding. Aleksander Barkov tipped in a shot from Tom Gilbert for the second period’s only goal, and when the horn sounded, Cats’ fans had to like their chances of being tied with the Senators and Anderson (who came in 10-1-1 against his old team) in Ottawa, where the Sens have owned Florida lately.

Florida (14-17-5) took over in the third period, and while I’m sure many will point to Ottawa having playing in New Jersey the night before, the Panthers deserve all the credit and then some because they really had to earn it. They killed off a tripping penalty by Erik Gudbranson, then found themselves on the power play when Jean-Gabriel Pageau high-sticked Dylan Olsen with 4:30 left to play. One of the great mysteries of the game was how Pageau didn’t get a double-minor when Olsen was clearly cut on the forehead and the defenseman went up to the referee to show him. The end result: Gilbert bailed out Florida’s anemic power-play with a blast past Anderson, and Kopecky later put the game away with the club’s first shorty this season.

Simply, the Panthers fought and fought all night in Canada’s capital – through the fatigue of a weary road trip in bitter cold, against failed opportunities, against an overturned goal and a missed penalty by Ottawa that would have sealed a win with another goal or at least taken more time off the board. Despite all of that, the Panthers won their fifth straight, have taken seven out of eight, and certainly arrived in brutally freezing Winnipeg with the warmth of confidence to rely on.

They overcame and persevered in Ottawa.

That’s what Earnhardt was describing and what the Cats were able to do.

The Florida Panthers: The Art of Regaining Respectability

By Bill Whitehead

During Florida’s first intermission break in Toronto, I ventured over to the Buffalo broadcast of the Sabres’ game against Winnipeg, whom the Panthers play Friday night to end the Cats’ 4-game Canadian road swing. While showing the clip of Tomas Fleischmann’s roof shot past James Reimer in the first period, the announcer wrapped it up by saying the Cats were “trying to get back to some form of respectability.”

I know what Rodney Dangerfield would’ve said to that statement, but I’ll just say, hey, this organization is always being slighted.

While an argument could be made that it’s ironic that Buffalo, owned by deep-pocketed Terry Pegula, was critical of Florida, the better story is the play of these Panthers, who at 3-11-4 were pretty much left for dead following a 4-3 Sunday loss to the Rangers in Madison Square on Nov. 10. Two months later, this story has taken a serious turn for the better and has made everyone in the NHL take notice. Eventually those folks in Buffalo will figure it out or look at the standings and see the team that had been one spot above them in the standings is now two notches ahead, and if they do a little math they’ll discern that the Panthers, now 13-17-5, are four points behind eighth-place Carolina.

A glance at the Eastern Conference standings also shows how hot the Panthers have been of late. From sixth-place Detroit on back — basically the group the Cats are fighting with for a playoff spot — no club has as many wins in its last 10 games than Florida, who is 6-4-0 after winning four straight and six of its last seven. Slumping Detroit is 3-5-2, Toronto is 3-7-0, Carolina and Philadelphia are 5-3-2, Ottawa is 4-4-2, the Rangers and Devils are 4-5-1, and Columbus is 5-4-1. That’s sixth through 13th in the conference, with the Cats bringing the heat from the bottom.

On the current road trip, the Panthers have enshrouded Canada like some bitter Siberian cold front. Florida dispatched of its neighbor to the north’s most heralded team on Sunday (Montreal) and did the same to its most beloved (Toronto) on Tuesday, but it all started after Florida lost to the Senators 4-2 last month. They were the better team in both of those games just as they were against Washington at BB&T Center last Friday when the Cats beat the Caps in the shootout’s tenth round. Really, the Caps should be thrilled they came out of that affair with a point.

How have the Cats done it? First, with good goaltending, as Scott Clemmensen has been a more than ample replacement for Tim Thomas, who has now been injured three separate lengthy times (a concern?). And with a defense that has been responsible in front of its goaltender and done a fantastic job with breakout passes and blocking shots. Then there’s the offense, which has been spearheaded by the B Line – Bergenheim, Barkov and Boyes – and supported by standout play from everyone in home red and road white, alphabetically from Barch to Weaver and every Panther in between. They’ve also done it lately without arguably its best young offensive player (Jonathan Huberdeau), its grittiest (Jesse Winchester) and its starting goalie (Thomas). Interim coach Peter Horachek and his coaching staff deserve plenty of credit, too, because something has definitely gotten through to the team since the staff took over — and it’s working.

We’ve listened to the excuses all year long after a Cats’ victory: “We weren’t prepared for the Panthers” or “We underestimated Florida.” We heard it in Vancouver and Detroit, plus countless others. That excuse is starting to lose its punch. In the NHL, a hockey club had better be prepared to battle for at least 60 minutes, maybe more, and no team should be lightly regarded. And if teams really find it necessary to play the Underestimation Game, maybe they should start with Buffalo and its fat bankroll in the East and Edmonton and its team of No. 1 picks out West. Those two are much better candidates than the Panthers.

And as for “trying to get back to some form of respectability”?

The Cats have moved well beyond that point.

Surprising Offense a Bright Spot for Dylan Olsen

By Bill Whitehead

Late in Florida’s 3-2 shootout win over Washington Friday night, I turned to press box seat mate Erin Brown (@rinkside on Twitter) and made a pretty accurate but not so fresh observation about a certain Panther on the ice. “You know,” I said, watching the Panthers’ blueliners skate, “there’s a whole lot to like about Dylan Olsen’s game.”

That assessment comes after watching Olsen for just nine games with the Panthers following his trade along with fellow former Blackhawk Jimmy Hayes, also playing impressively, for Kris Versteeg. Later while all of the media was drawn to the forward side of the room because of the 10-round epic shootout, I kept peering over to the defensive side where Olsen was nowhere to be found. After talking to Jonathan Huberdeau about his Barkov-like move and listening to Tomas Kopecky describe his game-winning shot that beat Washington’s Philipp Grubauer, I finally saw Olsen and headed over.

Olsen, who has seven points (3 goals, 4 assists), is known as a defensive-oriented defenseman, but you wouldn’t have known it early in second period. After Huberdeau and Nick Bjugstad kept the puck in the Caps’ end, Kopecky took a pass from the Calder winner and had his shot from the slot deflected by Alex Ovechkin. Olsen corralled the puck and fired the game’s first goal past Grubauer from a bad angle near the bottom of the left circle.

The goal gave Olsen, a 2009 first-round draft pick (28th overall), a 5-game point streak, which is quite a surprise for a player who had two goals during his 69-game AHL career. Olsen has brought a physical, responsible defensive game and has stood out with partner Erik Gudbranson, whom he played with at the U18 tournament at Fargo in 2009 and in the World Junior Championships at Buffalo in 2011.

For a moment, forget about the deal with Chicago that current Panthers GM Dale Tallon made with his former organization. Olsen and Hayes have been exceptional with Florida in their brief time, while Chicago has Versteeg in their bottom six. The Panthers made out well in the deal, and the Blackhawks are super talented and won’t miss Olsen and Hayes — right now at least.

I finally made my way to Olsen and asked straightforwardly, “Should we have just expected this offense all along?”

“It’s kind of weird,” Olsen replied with a chuckle. “This has never happened to me before, having put up points like this. I guess you could call it kind of lucky, but it’s been going really well. The forwards are dominating down low and grinding out their players. Obviously, playing with Gudbranson and shutting down other teams’ top lines and playing well defensively is really contributing to our offensive success.

“The puck popped out, nobody was there, I figured take it to the net. Sure enough, nobody came out to block it or anything. I just saw an opening and put it on net.”

After watching NHL Tonight, I realized why Olsen wasn’t immediately available. He was doing an Arena Cam interview with anchor Kathryn Tappen for the late night wrap-up show. At one point before Olsen’s spot came on, a graphic popped up promoting the 22-year-old Calgary native: Coming Up…Dylan Olsen.

Good to see the kid getting the publicity for the contributions and impact he’s made with the Panthers.

Panthers Must Attack Caps’ Weaknesses

By Bill Whitehead

There is a little bit of trouble in DC. And by trouble, no, I don’t mean the federal budget vote in the House of Representatives, which passed without the line brawl that was expected by the talking heads at MSNBC, CNN and FoxNews. This problem has to do with the Washington Capitals, the district’s enigmatic but talented team that routinely comes up short despite having arguably the best player on the planet. But Alex Ovechkin – the Great 8, as it were – isn’t a goaltender, nor is he on the blue line. A couple of problems:

GOALTENDING: For years, this has been a sore subject for the Caps (17-12-2, 2nd in the Metropolitan Division), and this season has been no different. While the high-powered offense, ranked seventh in the NHL at 2.94 goals per game, has no problem pressuring opposing goalies and is third in the league on the power play, Washington backstops Braden Holtby, Philipp Grubauer and Michal Neuvirth have shown intermittent moments of brilliance overshadowed by lengthy lapses of sketchy play, allowing 2.84 per game (22nd) and failing to hold leads.

In the Caps’ 6-5 shootout win over Tampa Bay on Tuesday night, Holtby (13-9-1, 2.82 GAA, .920 %) was the latest to succumb to an all-out attack. The Lightning chased the starting goalie early, knocking Holtby out by scoring three times in the first 11 minutes. If you saw the game’s highlights, you saw Holtby in the Caps’ walkway to the dressing room, sans mask, stunned and looking like a disbelieving Kurt Cobain. Grubauer won the game by allowing just two more goals the rest of the way.

Florida’s first job in the first 10 minutes Friday is to test whoever is in goal for Washington. Holtby is riding no confidence whatsoever and is likely ripe for the picking. Grubauer is untested, only appearing in five career games in the NHL. Michal Neuvirth, who sprained his right ankle stepping on a puck in warmups, is in Hershey on a conditioning assignment. Grubauer will get the start against the Panthers, who will go with backup Scott Clemmensen due to the injury suffered by Tim Thomas at Thursday’s practice.

A manic Cats’ attack like the one that created the final power play near the end of regulation against Detroit would dictate the game’s tone against the inexperienced Grubauer.

MIKE GREEN: From just about whatever standpoint you take, the reality of Mike Green is this: the Washington defenseman has been disappointing. Whether injured and unavailable or committing defensive or mental errors, the 28-year-old Calgary native has drawn the ire of many Washington fans who have grown tired of his erratic play. Against Tampa Bay, the offensive-minded Green, who has one goal this year, received 18 penalty minutes, including a 10-minute misconduct, in the game’s first 11:42. The infractions led to a pair of Lightning power-play goals.

Florida’s second job Friday should be to keep the pressure on No.52.  Hit him as often and as hard as possible, agitate and rattle him at every opportunity, and generally make his night in the BB&T Center a miserable one. Green doesn’t like the contact and is easily shaken up. A few hard hits should knock him off his feet – and maybe his game.

The Panthers had a pair of terrible, embarrassing trips to DC last year, losing 5-0 and 7-1. The Cats have won three of its last four games against a good Detroit team and a decent Winnipeg club. To make it four of five, the Panthers will have to establish some strong pressure early and create nice momentum at home.

I don’t know who wins the former Southeast Division rivals’ game Friday night, but the only thing I’d bet on is that red goal light activated like it was on an episode of Cops.

You’ve Heard This Story About the Panthers, Right?

By Bill Whitehead

Still in the early stages of a season that has gone totally wrong, I’ll share with you a story. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: “The Detroit Red Wings are looking for payback tonight against the Florida Panthers…”

Did anyone see that storyline coming? After a crummy start to the year despite a fantastic season-opening road win, the hits soon started coming. An embarrassing 7-0 loss in St. Louis. Standout goalie Tim Thomas, an anxiously anticipated bright spot, injured against Philadelphia. Over a month without a win in regulation following a strong 6-3 home-opening victory over Pittsburgh. Head coach Kevin Dineen fired.

And now the Red Wings are looking for a tasty bit of revenge against the Panthers? These Panthers, not the ones from two years ago that went to Detroit and earned a valuable point in a shootout loss on April Fool’s Day during a tenuous playoff push?

Yep, these Panthers. These Cats (9-17-5) who went up to the Motor City and beat the vaunted Red Wings, 2-1, in one of the club’s best efforts this year. Sure, the Red Wings were missing some key players including Pavel Datsyuk, who’s expected to return tonight when the two teams square off again at BB&T Center with starter Jimmy Howard in goal. Detroit is also an NHL-best 10-3-1 on the road.

A couple of fans suggested the Philadelphia and Colorado wins were more impressive, but teams just don’t generally go up to Hockeytown and walk away with two points, though opponents have done it more this year as Detroit’s 5-6-6 home record attests. I’d also point to the Vancouver road win as being one of the top efforts this year. Hey, the Canucks were lucky to get a point in the shootout loss after Florida peppered Roberto Luongo in the last minute as the home team was on its heels with the game tied.

So Florida has already beaten Detroit, the Red Wings are still nicked up quite a bit and Tim Thomas will be back in goal.
You may hear this “Detroit seeks revenge on Florida” story again.

WELL PLAYED: Interim coach Peter Horachek has already made his presence known behind the bench by changing Florida’s play during his brief tenure. Players are going to the net stronger and being more offensively aggressive than under Dineen. Somehow Scottie Upshall has transformed himself from being a player who was in Dineen’s doghouse to a consistent contributor, emotional leader and best offensive player. Nick Bjugstad’s emergence under Horachek has also been a pleasure to watch, as has the play of the Chicago duo – Jimmy Hayes and Dylan Olsen. The results aren’t always great and the team is remarkably inconsistent, but the vibe is better with these Cats.

Horachek’s most recent good move was resting workhouse goalie Tim Thomas Sunday night in Chicago after making 14 consecutive starts and beating Detroit a night earlier. The better chance to win on the 2-game road trip was in Detroit, who as previously mentioned has played poorly at home. Chicago, meanwhile, was riding a 3-game losing streak, likely wasn’t going to let it get to four and was 9-2-4 at home. Horachek decided to play his better goalie in the game he had a better chance of winning, which is kind of a no-brainer.

As for backup Scott Clemmensen, he struggled mightily against the Blackhawks, yielding early goals in all three periods. In fact, the first shot in each period seems to be the toughest for him. Clemmensen’s effort wouldn’t have earned the win if he had been between the pipes in Detroit Saturday night, but Thomas did and the Cats split the trip against two playoff teams, one being the reigning Stanley Cup champion.

Smart move by Horachek.