QUICK TAKE: #Leafs 6, #FlaPanthers 3

By Bill Whitehead

Game 3 of Florida’s 4-game road trip saw the Cats (21-25-7) travel to the Air Canada Centre to face Toronto, who was 7-1-1 – the hottest team in the NHL – over their last nine games. Goalie Tim Thomas got the night off as Scott Clemmensen, who beat Toronto 3-1 in the ACC on Dec. 17, was between the pipes. Jimmy Hayes was one of the scratches as were two surprise ones – Erik Gudbranson and Tomas Fleischmann.

First period

Nick Bjugstad, who had the game-winner in the shootout in Detroit to open the road swing, continued his strong play after Drew Shore chipped out a pass to Scottie Upshall. Bjugstad just outworked Nazem Kadri across the blue line, took the sweet pass from Upshall and flipped a shot over Toronto goalie Jonathan Bernier at 1:39 for his 12th goal. Basically, Bjugstad showed Kadri what 6-foot-6 gets you in a 50-50 battle.

Scott Gomez, in for injured Aleksander Barkov, stole a puck from Cody Franson along the boards and passed it over to Brad Boyes, who was streaking through the center of Florida’s offensive zone. Boyes quickly passed it to Sean Bergenheim on the 2-on-1 advantage against Toronto defenseman Tim Gleason. Bergenheim beat Bernier for his 13th marker.

Kadri and Franson redeemed themselves at 16:49 after the defenseman banged home a shot from way out. Kadri kept the puck alive behind Clemmensen by outworking Brian Campbell. The period ended with Florida holding a 2-1 edge on the scoreboard and an 11-9 shot advantage.

The good: Bjugstad, the Bergenheim-Gomez-Boyes line, the faceoff circle (went 12 of 24) for the Panthers, who played a good first period on the road.

The bad: The power play went 0-for-2 and continued to prevent the Panthers from stretching a 1-0 lead at the time into a 2-goal advantage.

Second period

Not much good happened as Clemmensen gave up goals to Mason Raymond and James van Riemsdyk in the first minute of play. The Raymond goal, his 14th, was a soft one as Clemmensen whiffed on the shot from the left circle. Again, the Panthers had the better scoring chances but couldn’t cash in and trailed 3-2 after 40 minutes.

Third period

Struggling Nikolai Kulemin’s eighth goal at 4:00 put Florida down 4-2, and Clemmensen gave up another terrible goal when Joffrey Lupul beat him on the short side with a quick shot for a power-play goal. Dmitry Kulikov scored on a blast from the point with 5:31 left past Bernier, but Florida limped out with their second consecutive bad loss in three nights.

FINAL

Toronto 6

Florida 3

Quick take:

The offense for Florida (21-26-7) seemed to be on the right track with the early goals by Bjugstad and Bergenheim, but the power play was garbage as usual and the Cats couldn’t capitalize or take advantage of numerous chances against a not-so-stellar Leafs D. Clemmensen was simply the worst Panther on the ice and gave Florida no chance to win, allowing three bad goals and failing to make big stops that starting goalie Tim Thomas often makes to keep games close.

 

This was one of those games the Panthers haven’t had too often this year: An offensive fast start with a 2-0 lead, then blowing it with poor goaltending and a suddenly non-existent offensive attack. It was a win that slipped away for a team that desperately needs every point.

On to Columbus to finish a road trip that was so promising to start and has transformed into utter disappointment…

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CAT-QUICK GAMER: #FlaPanthers rally past #RedWings, 5-4, in Shootout

By Bill Whitehead

Nick Bjugstad and Tim Thomas finished off all the hard work the Florida Panthers did in the third period on Sunday.

The Panthers rallied by scoring two goals in the game’s final six minutes, and Bjugstad tallied the game-winner in the shootout’s only goal as Thomas slammed the door on all three Detroit shots, leading Florida to a wild 5-4 victory over the Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena.

With Aleksander Barkov missing his second game due to a lower-body injury, interim coach Peter Horachek called on Bjugstad, who was 1-for-3 in his career in the shootout, to go first against Red Wings goalie Jonas Gustavsson after Thomas denied Tomas Tatar.

Bjugstad drove in hard and flipped a high shot over Gustavsson’s glove for a 1-0 edge. Thomas then showed his glove skills against Daniel Alfredsson and Patrick Eaves, making glove saves against all to secure the win in his home state of Michigan.

The win lifted Thomas’s record to 6-2 in the shootout, while the Panthers improved to 7-5. Detroit, who now has 11 overtime/shootout losses, fell to 3-8 in the shootout. The Red Wings also dropped to 9-11-8 at home.

“We were fortunate that a lot of guys came up big. Timmy came up big in the shootout, too. I was a little nervous. I’d never gone first in the shootout  before,” Bjugstad said on the broadcast after the game.

Down 3-1 starting the third period, Florida (21-24-7) cut it to a 1-goal deficit when Jesse Winchester scored a greasy goal, his seventh, by poking a loose puck past Gustavsson at 9:12. But all the momentum was lost when Detroit (23-18-11) got an answer from Tatar four minutes later.

The Panthers, starting a 4-game road trip, mounted their comeback from there.

Tomas Fleischmann, mired in an awful slump, held the puck, weaved into the slot and fired a shot that ricocheted off Gustavsson. Drew Shore flipped the puck into the open net for his fourth goal with 5:32 remaining. Brad Boyes completed the comeback with a shorthanded goal when he fired one from the right circle, beating Gustavsson on the far side, with his 13th goal with 3:46 left in regulation.

The Panthers’ greatest defensive problem of late, clearing the puck out of their own end, bit them again in the second period. Defenseman Ed Jovanovski’s pass to Shore turned in to a turnover and a goal by Gustav Nyquist. More Florida miscues led to Detroit goals by Daniel Alfredsson and Riley Sheahan, leaving Florida in a 3-1 hole with 20 minutes to play.

Sean Bergenheim gave Florida a 1-0 lead just 1:48 into the fourth meeting between the teams when he took a pass from Dmitry Kulikov, raced in and beat Gustavsson.

Defenseman Tom Gilbert kept the Panthers in the game in overtime when he made a sliding kick save of a shot by Danny DeKeyser toward an open net after Thomas moved way above the crease to stop the initial shot. Gilbert finished with two assists.

Florida travels to Boston for a game Tuesday against the Bruins.

QUICK TAKES: #FlaPanthers pound #Pens, 5-1

By Bill Whitehead

When this road trip popped up on the schedule, I thought Florida could come away with four points – win two and drop one, likely at Pittsburgh against the top team in the Eastern Conference.

Saturday’s dreadful showing in that House of Horrors in my home state left little optimism about the remainder of the trip. Pittsburgh had won 13 straight, and Sidney Crosby had scored a point in 17 straight games at Consol. With goaltender Tim Thomas out because of illness, the odds seemed slim.

I guess we never saw this one coming, huh?

Considering the level of the competition, Florida likely played their best game of the season in the 5-1 win over the Penguins. Drew Shore, who had so many breaks go against him last season, scored twice and set the tone. Dmitry Kulikov, who was rumored to be on the trading block last month, was aggressive and skated hard in on Marc-Andre Fleury a few times, and scored the third goal that gave the Panthers (19-23-7) a 3-0 lead.

Oddly, Jonathan Huberdeau, desperately in need of a goal, didn’t get screwed out of a goal when the War Room in Toronto likely set the season-high for time spent reviewing a goal. Shawn Matthias had that Matty Moment I’ve been waiting for and simply outskated Matt Niskanen for the final tally 12 seconds after Huberdeau’s.

Here are my multiple stars from tonight’s win, in no particular order:

  • Scott Clemmensen, 35 saves. Had little faith in Clem going in, but he was outstanding. In fact, I bet he would admit the only goal he allowed was a bad one, but it doesn’t matter because he made so many great saves and was solid.
  • Drew Shore, two goals. His goals left Cats’ fans more surprised than Fleury after the roof shot on the shorty. He gave Florida momentum it never let go.
  • Jesse Winchester, three assists, plus-4. For someone who hadn’t played since Dec. 15, Winchester was sharp and is a welcome addition as a hard worker.
  • Dmitry Kulikov, goal. He’s been a big disappointment for most of the year, but he played headstrong and with purpose tonight. Also had a lethal howitzer that went high over Fleury. Maybe he’ll turn this around and live up to the potential.
  • Marcel Goc, one assist, 67 percent in the circle. Sure, his helper on Kulikov’s goal was fine, but winning 2 of 3 faceoffs kept Pittsburgh off balance.

Others were great, too. Erik Gudbranson sliding to make a block was just courageous and shows what a tough kid he is, and Mike Weaver was a plus-5. The PK killed off all three Pens power plays, making it 28 straight and 42 of their last 43 on the road. More importantly, the team stayed within the game plan and didn’t stray from it once the Penguins cut the lead to 3-1. Pittsburgh never was able to put together that “Five Minutes of Hell” I expected.

Mike Weaver, who was a plus-5, tweeted this after the game:

weaver

The goal in Buffalo: Score on the power play, get a marker from Flash and play with the intensity from tonight that will help the Cats come away with two more points.

Which wouldn’t be the way it was expected to go down when this 3-game road trip started.

#FlaPanthers top #Isles 4-2 behind Upshall’s goal, assist

By Bill Whitehead

SUNRISE – The Florida Panthers figured out a way to beat the streaking New York Islanders on Tuesday night at BB&T Center.

Score fast and often.

Aleksander Barkov scored in the game’s first 32 seconds, and Drew Shore and Nick Bjugstad also added markers in the opening period as the Panthers beat New York 4-2 in front of 13,730.

Florida opened the game with a blistering first period, scoring a pair of goals with New York defenseman Brian Strait right in the mix.

Florida’s Sean Bergenheim wiped out a pair of Islanders in the first 25 seconds, leading to a Panthers 2-on-1 break led by Brad Boyes. With Strait the lone blueliner, Boyes passed to Barkov, who flipped it back to Boyes and quickly received a return pass. Barkov then netted his eighth goal past Islanders goalie Kevin Poulin at the 0:32 mark.

Shore slid a puck into Poulin’s crease 15 minutes later, and it caromed off Strait’s skate for Shore’s first goal of the year. In the period’s last minute of play, Scottie Upshall stole a breakout pass from Matt Donovan, kept it in the zone and sent it to Bjugstad. The Minnesota native then charged in and powered a shot to beat Poulin on his glove side for a 3-0 lead.

“We won the game,” said Florida interim coach Peter Horachek. “The guys did what they had to. They battled down to the very end and Timmy (Thomas) played his normal solid self, right? We rely on that. We got the points, we’re moving forward. We know that there’s things to correct and we’re happy that we had that 4-1 lead going in.

“We had a lot of chances on the road last week and they didn’t all go  in. We had chances tonight early in the game and they went in. But that (first one) was a pretty goal, when you look at the touch passes that those  two guys had.”

The three-goal spurt matched Florida’s effort on opening night when they scored a trio of markers in the third period at Dallas to put away the Stars 4-2 on Oct. 3. In the process, Florida (18-21-7) derailed the hot Islanders, who had won four straight overall, including seven consecutive road games, and were 8-2 in their last 10 contests.

The Islanders (18-23-7) had trailed in five straight road games before rallying to win, but the task in South Florida was too tall.

“It’s not the start and the work ethic,” said Islanders coach Jack Capuano. “It’s just the first and third (goals) weren’t making the right decisions. That’s it. If there’s nothing, make the safe play. You’ve got to be mentally ready to make the right play. We had some chances…then the third one hurt at the end of the period.”

Added winger Matt Martin: “It’s something we’ve been doing a lot lately. We’ve been starting awfully slow. A lot of the games we’ve won we’ve come from behind. If you play with fire long enough you’re going to get burned.”

Upshall tallied a short-handed goal, his second this season, on a breakaway in the second period for a 4-0 lead before Colin McDonald finally solved Florida netminder Tim Thomas with 31 seconds left in the period. Thomas Vanek added another goal to cut the lead to 4-2 — his 31st point in 32 games since being traded from Buffalo — but Florida’s veteran goalie held down the fort to preserve the win.

Traded to New York last February by Boston and then sitting out the whole season, Thomas made 31 saves to improve his record to 12-11-3 on the season.

“We were able to play with the lead,” said Upshall, who added an assist. “It was just a big confidence  booster to get some goals and to balance out. All four lines played  great and created equal opportunities. It’s kind of a nice effort by  everybody.”

NOTES: Jonathan Huberdeau, last year’s Calder Trophy winner, was benched and did not play in the last 17:22 of the game. He was stopped by Poulin on a breakaway in the first period after coming out of the penalty box…Barkov’s goal in the first 32 seconds was the fastest goal of the season. The previous one was at 1:55 by Boyes against Pittsburgh in the home opener…Thomas made his sixth consecutive start in goal after returning from a lower-body injury. He was traded to the Islanders last February after announcing he would sit out the season and never played a game for the orange and blue…The Panthers play host Thursday night to the San Jose Sharks, a 2-1 shootout winner over the Capitals in Washington…Florida will host the 2015 NHL Draft on June 26-27. The event will feature likely top pick Connor McDavid, the Canadian phenom who turned 17 on Monday.

CAT-QUICK GAMER: #Canadiens 2, #FlaPanthers 1

By Bill Whitehead

The Montreal Canadiens finally solved the Florida Panthers in the teams’ third meeting as Atlantic Division rivals.

Goaltender Carey Price thwarted a third-period rally by the Panthers, and Brian Gionta scored the game-winning goal in the second period as Montreal defeated Florida 2-1 at the Bell Centre.

After Florida mustered just 11 shots in the first period, Price (20-11-4) fought off all 16 shots by the Panthers in a frantic third period.

Ed Jovanovski turned over the puck behind goaltender Tim Thomas, and Tomas Plekanec fed a pass to Gionta for a goal at 15:46 of the second period and a 2-1 Montreal lead, marking the first time Montreal (25-14-5) had scored more than one goal in a game against the Panthers (16-21-6).

Montreal’s David Desharnais took a pass from Max Pacioretty, missed the puck initially then spun and sent a backhander beyond Thomas’s glove on the Canadiens’ first shot on goal at 6:23 of the first period. The marker was the sixth for Desharnais, with Brendan Gallagher recording the secondary assist.

Florida’s B line – Sean Bergenheim, Aleksander Barkov and Brad Boyes – stayed hot to tie the game at 1-1. Bergenheim scored his 10th goal after picking off a pass from Barkov in front of Price and beating the Montreal netminder at 17:09 – ending a stretch in which Florida didn’t have a shot for 10 minutes after holding a 3-0 edge in shots to open the contest.

Bergenheim’s goal was his eighth in his last 12 games. Barkov’s assist extended his team-best point streak to six games, the best by a Cats rookie since Kristian Huselius in 2001.

Montreal had a shorthanded goal waved off in the opening seconds of the second because of interfering with Thomas, though no penalty was called on the play. Thomas made a sprawling save of a shot by Douglas Murray that rebounded off the end boards and was tipped by Rene Bourque six minutes later.

Thomas (10-11-2) made 33 saves in the losing effort.

Florida plays at Buffalo on Thursday in the second game of their three-game road swing.

Jovanovski, Upshall Elevate Panthers’ Play

By Bill Whitehead

A big “Welcome Back” is in order for Florida Panthers Ed Jovanovski and Scottie Upshall after a successful return to the lineup, wouldn’t you say? Both played Saturday night in the Cats’ 5-4 win over Nashville, and while the pair’s arrival may not be a “put them over the hump” moment, it should signal some improvement as the club heads to Montreal for its third game against the Canadiens in three weeks.

How long has Jovo been gone? So long that his name didn’t even pop up under “Tags” when I started typing it. That long. Longer than this blog’s existence.

The captain Jovanovski was rock solid in his season debut after being sidelined with a hip replacement. Jovo logged 15:54 of ice time and was a plus-3 for the Panthers (16-20-6). The most telling moment for me was when Jovo grabbed the puck and led a headstrong 3-on-2 rush in the third period. With Florida up 4-2 at the time, Jovo displayed the knowledge of a veteran who was aware of the game’s situation: He dished the puck to one of his forwards, let them move in on Predators’ goal and quickly backed out, choosing not to get caught too low on the play.

His performance against Nashville is the type of play Florida needs from Jovo, especially with Florida’s most interesting pairing, Erik Gudbranson and Dylan Olsen, out with injuries. On Saturday night against the Capitals, Minnesota’s Ryan Suter stole the show by becoming the first Wild defenseman to every record a hat trick in the team’s 5-3 win. Jovo does not have to be that guy. He just needs to be a reliable leader.

If Saturday’s play is the standard this new and surgically improved Jovo has set, interim coach Peter Horachek will be just fine with that. Jovo’s presence as a leader is immeasurable, but his addition to the blue line is sorely needed. Florida’s defensive corps has demonstrated a tremendous inability to clear the puck at times, and turnovers like Dmitry Kulikov’s that led to Nashville’s second goal by Mike Fisher will haunt the offensively challenged Cats. Jovo should help remedy those problems.

Upshall’s return after a three-game absence should be just as significant as Jovo’s. The winger put together a strong November, scoring 12 points in a sizzling 11-game stretch late in the month. Uppy wears his emotions on his sleeve and has benefited the most by the departure of former coach Kevin Dineen and arrival of Horachek, and his importance to the club runs deep.

Sure, Uppy’s going to take an untimely penalty on occasion, but he’s also more than likely to keep a play alive, do some of the dirty work that’s often necessary to turn close losses into close wins and is an emotional leader. He may be the most hot-headed Cat on the squad (and occasional water bottle squirter from the bench), but every team needs a player like that.

Welcome back, guys. Florida is already better for it.

FITTING END: Kopecky’s game-winner in the shootout was his second in less than a month. And Saturday night’s ending was only fitting after the way a strange New Year’s Eve played out at BB&T Center.

That game against the New York Rangers was an odd one, starting with the 5:00 start. Florida seemed to have victory in hand and led throughout before Kopecky made the horrible mistake of vacating his defensive position in front of Tim Thomas to go get a stick from the bench after dropping his. New York’s Dan Girardi blasted the tying goal past Thomas from the spot where Kopecky was.

The scene in the dressing room afterward was also strange. While interviewing Brad Boyes, the media was interrupted by new owner Vincent Viola, who wanted a word with his players to close out 2013. While the media questioned Kopecky’s decision – one that Horachek called “a little bit surprising” – the interim coach came across somewhat uncharacteristically short with the media.

It’s understandable considering the circumstances of the loss, and let’s face it, you just don’t expect a two-time Stanley Cup winner and player who’s approaching a decade in the NHL to make such a rookie gaffe.

So from a redemptive standpoint, it just made sense that Saturday’s game-winner came, like it did against Washington last month, deep in the extra session from Kopecky, who improved his shootout record to 3-for-7 when he roofed his shot in the bottom of the sixth round over goalie Marek Mazanek’s glove.

It almost made the two-goal lead that evaporated late in regulation forgettable.

Almost.

HIGH FIVES: The number five played a prominent role in Florida’s win to close out – yes – it’s five-game homestand that ended 2-2-1 after starting with regulation losses to Tampa Bay and Detroit, a good win over Montreal, the extremely disappointing shootout loss to the Rangers and the weekend win over Nashville.

Sean Bergenheim has five goals in last five games. His linemate and fellow Finn Aleksander Barkov carries a five-game point streak to Montreal for Monday’s game. The pair’s line – the B Line – had five points in the win over Nashville. Finally, Jonathan Huberdeau tallied the fifth multi-assist game of his career.

KICK SAVES: The Panthers are facing the Atlantic Division-rival Canadiens for the 77th time, holding a 36-26-6-8 career advantage. Florida is 16-12-3-5 in Montreal…Florida is 6-3-1 in both their last 10 games and last 10 road games, and is 9-4-1in their last month of play…Barkov’s five-game point streak is tied with Upshall and Olsen for the longest this season…Brad Boyes has a three-game point streaking (2-2-4).