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.