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.

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