By Bill Whitehead
A strange feeling came over me Tuesday night after Florida dropped yet another winnable game, springing out to a 2-0 lead before falling 4-2 to the Ottawa Senators at a sparsely filled BB&T Center. That feeling was a sense of ending. It was closure somehow found in another game that should’ve been a win on home ice but turned into a loss and left Florida 1-3-0 on its 5-game homestand. Really, home clubs staked to a 2-goal lead in the first half of the first period have plenty to play for and more often than not find themselves winning, but that wasn’t to be against the Sens.
What was that sense of ending on my part? Playoff chances? Those were likely sealed early in the season after Florida went into a serious nosedive after beating Dallas on Opening Night and the team soon lost goalie Tim Thomas to injury. Respectability? Not sure there’s a whole lot left after “Florida Panthers” began trending on Twitter Tuesday night. Guessing it had nothing to do with goals by Jonathan Huberdeau and Brian Campbell or another assist by Scottie Upshall and maybe more with those Barry Manilow-themed promos.
I think what closed shop and called it a day was optimism and confidence in this hockey club, at least from my perspective. Hell, maybe from the players, too. Did anyone truly have confidence in Florida after Soup put them up 2-0 by zipping a laser beam that beat former Panthers’ netminder and genuine good guy Craig Anderson? Did anyone dare presume Florida could play even — EVEN — with Ottawa over the final 51:38 and skate away with a 2-goal win and two points? Florida appeared to have Andy on the ropes early and hung in there for the most part despite committing eight minor penalties, including three by Upshall. As Ottawa popped shot after shot on Thomas, everyone knew Thomas would have to stand on his head and be a miracle worker in goal to get Florida any points at all.
As expected, Florida (7-16-5) couldn’t hold the 2-goal lead it set in the first 8:22 of the game. Now the team is left to battle with Winnipeg (13-12-4), who hasn’t played since drubbing the Rangers 5-2 in Madison Square Garden on Monday. Jets head coach Claude Noel, an interesting guy who doesn’t give the status quo quote and keeps you on your toes, was in attendance Tuesday and scouting the Panthers. He surely must be salivating over the chance for his Jets — featuring former Cats Olli Jokinen, Michael Frolik, Keaton Ellerby and James Wright — to put together another strong game and get a 2-game winning streak in order before heading to Tampa Saturday.
The Cats need a confidence builder, not just for them but for the fans as well. They say you have to have faith, but outside of a handful of players on the team – and it starts with Upshall, Thomas and Nick Bjugstad – that faithful feeling is fleeting. Thomas has been steady in net, but not much exciting has happened after that. Defenseman Dmitry Kulikov has rightfully found himself in interim coach Peter Horachek’s doghouse. Rookie Aleksander Barkov needs to start scoring goals and thinking shoot-first instead of pass, Huberdeau needs to net a few more and not have “sophomore jinx” mentioned near his name at season’s end, and the defense as a whole must improve to regain some of that respectability that has slipped away. And speaking of coaching, some of the bloom on Horachek has suddenly wilted. The team is again playing hard in spurts like it did under Kevin Dineen, and production hasn’t been good at either end of the ice. Of course, the results have been unacceptable.
And because the losses are unacceptable and we’re only 28 games into the season, I can’t believe GM Dale Tallon will sit through 54 more games and do nothing– possibly with performances like Tuesday night…or last Saturday…or last Wednesday looming on the horizon. The next miserable outing like Tuesday’s could be on Thursday. Would anyone be shocked by nothing more than a flyover by the Cats against the Jets? Not me anymore. If I know how Tallon does business, someone will be out the door here soon. Dmitry Kulikov, who is making rookie mistakes appears to show no progress, and Tomas Fleischmann, the team’s leading scorer the last two seasons and who has some value, might be good starting points for a trade or two.
Surely there must be something to like about this team right now, right? Something to get us all excited. Tell me where I’m wrong – leave a comment or contact me on Twitter. And take the poll below and tell me what the most glaring problem is.