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).

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