Jagr Signing a Top Priority for #FlaPanthers

By Bill Whitehead

Okay, so there are two weeks left in the season, the Florida Panthers are vying for the final wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference, Dan Ellis has just backstopped the biggest win of the year on the road against another playoff contender, and coach Gerard Gallant said the best player on the ice for Florida in that win was Jaromir Jagr?

Yeah, was one or all three of those part of your September predictions for a club that finished with the second-worst points total in the NHL last year?

The crazy ride gets crazier in Boston in what will again be “the biggest game of the year” and another “Game 7,” but for just a moment, let’s look at what the 43-year-old Jagr has done in 14 games with Florida and how he figures in to future plans in South Florida.

First, let’s go back to the afternoon of Feb. 26. I learned of the Jagr deal, with Florida sending back second- and third-round picks to the Devils, by text. While leaving Starbucks, my phone simply popped up with “Jagr to Panthers.” That was it. No details, no terms, not even the other side of the deal with what New Jersey was getting. It was a venti java-spewing moment, but fortunately I hadn’t started the consumption process.

The fallout of the Jagr trade orchestrated by Florida GM Dale Tallon may be the other memorable moment from that day. Hockey pundits and web sites had their instant analyses ready for rollout, and most viewed the Jagr acquisition as pure desperation by Florida, who was trailing Boston in the wildcard hunt by two points. As a letter grade, many doled out the Panthers a Bart Simpson-like “D” rating, while some called Jagr a borderline retired player who would just fade away into the South Florida sunset like most Floridians past their prime. By most, the trade was a stinker.

Fourteen games later, those same naysayers are writing different stories. Jagr has 12 points (4-8) in those games. The Panthers have been in the thick of every one of them, and easily could have beaten the Stars, Rangers, Canadiens and Lightning with a bounce here or there. Florida has made its share of mistakes but has played with or clearly outplayed most clubs during the brief Jagr Era in Sunrise.

Which brings us to this: How brief will that era be?

Tallon caught plenty of flak for the Dave Bolland signing, much of it is warranted. Now, talks between the Panthers and Jagr’s camp have begun. A potential Jagr deal is Dale’s do-over, a mulligan the golfing Tallon would enjoy swinging at in light of the Bolland criticism. However, the reality is that Jagr, a UFA who is making $3.5 million this season, can just walk after these next two weeks.

But I don’t think that happens.

I’ve arrived early to the BB&T Center press box a couple of times the last month, looked through binoculars and watched a lone Panther get on the ice and skate around, working his way through pre-game preparation. Each time it has been the grizzled, gray-stubbled Jagr.

Now that the love affair with the Hamburglar has cooled as Ottawa goalie Andrew Hammond has come back to earth after an incredible run, Jagr’s resurgence and Florida’s last-ditch run at a wildcard berth may be the best story in hockey.

Jagr scoring two goals only added to the narrative on Sunday in Canada’s capital. Both were pure goal scorer’s markers – the first a clever shot on the short side against the play’s flow after cutting back against Sens defenseman Mark Methot, the other an incredible wraparound that left ex-Cat Craig Anderson way out of position and the Senators blue line helpless. The latter goal was the kind that happens to the Cats, not the type they net.

With every clang of the crossbar and potential goal that has rolled off a stick in front of a gaping net, Florida fans have clamored louder and repeatedly for a legit finisher to join the Panthers. Well, he’s here. Jagr, now with 720 career goals, is obviously not the player he was 10 years ago, but he’s also obviously more worthy of the minutes he’s getting with Florida than he did with New Jersey. His points pace would be 70 for a season, and let’s not forget that Nick Bjugstad topped the Panthers last season with an NHL team record-low 38 points.

Jagr’s line consisting of center left winger Jonathan Huberdeau and center Aleksander Barkov has produced 13 goals and 25 assists since 68 has arrived. The top line is the centerpiece of a promising young team that many view as a Cup contender for years to come.

“They’re so talented,” Jagr said of his linemates after the 4-2 win over Ottawa. “They’re going to surprise the league in two years. They may win the Cup.”

Tallon needs to make sure that Jagr is here for that.

Follow Bill Whitehead on Twitter @BillWhiteheadFL and in Scripps newspapers online at TCPalm.com

#FlaPanthers “stay in the moment,” beat Bruins 2-1, gain a point

By Bill Whitehead

SUNRISE –After Florida’s 2-1 Saturday night shootout win over Boston courtesy of Roberto Luongo and Brandon Pirri, Panthers captain Willie Mitchell was asked what the young Panthers could possibly learn from the enormous moment at the BB&T Center.

Frankly, there hadn’t been a moment like that since April 26, 2012, when Adam Henrique broke the hearts of the entire arena.

Mitchell’s advice to his young teammates was clear: “We believe in here that if we stay in the present and take care of what’s ahead of us, we’ll be there until the end. You just try to stay in the moment.”

And after a slow start by the Panthers – the first 15 minutes were very nervy ones by the home team – there were plenty of moments.

The Cats settled in and battled the Bruins, desperately chipping away at a 5-point wildcard deficit in a game that was like a heavyweight match. In the second and third periods, the physical play reached a crescendo with the Panthers doing the majority of the smacking.

“You’re playing Boston,” said defenseman Erik Gudbranson. “That’s what they bring game in and game out. There wasn’t much space out there, that’s for sure. We didn’t have much time with the puck; you had to move your feet to open up a spot. You needed to be physical to create opportunities. Our forwards did a really good job of that in the second half of the second and the third. We really got physical, created those holes and created opportunities for us.”

The two expressions I heard most often in the Florida dressing room post-game from Gudbranson , Luongo and Pirri were the lack of space on the ice and the playoff-style energy to the contest. Gudbranson said the Panthers didn’t designate a must-get number of points in the three tilts versus the Bruins, the first of which went to Florida in a single-point gain.

“Our playoffs started a long time ago. Knowing where we are in the standing in relation to Boston, it had to be tonight. It was a physical affair all night long. They brought it, we brought it. We’re really happy to come out on the top end,” Gudbranson said.

“At this point of the season, you’re going shift by shift, trying to match the intensity of your linemates and teammates, and trying to keep that strong momentum going forward.”

Luongo said the crowd’s enthusiasm was palpable. He easily stopped Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand before Pirri slowly skated in and 5-holed Tuukka Rask.

“It was a playoff game, playoff intensity,” Luongo said. “You could feel it. There was not a lot of room on the ice. We’re happy we got the win; you’d have liked to have got it in regulation, obviously, but we’ll take the two points and move on here.”

In his second start since returning from injury, Luongo said he had no history on Boston center Ryan Spooner, the Bruins’ last chance at prolonging the game. Florida improved to 8-10 in shootouts  while Boston slipped to 3-9.

“I didn’t know what he was going to do,” Luongo said. “Once he went to the backhand, I tried to close the 5-hole and get a glove on it. He wasn’t able to get it high enough to get it over my shoulder, which was nice. Whenever you’re involved in those (playoff) types of games, the crowd goes along with it and it brings the energy in the building.”

Luongo has seen Pirri’s game-winning move on Rask, too. The Finnish goalie stopped Pirri in a 2-on-1 in overtime, then Pirri’s last blast of the 5-minute session whistled by the near post off a pass from Aleksander Barkov.

“Rask made one huge save on him, and (Pirri) missed on another, but Pirri’s so good and patient with the puck in the shootout. I see it in practice every day. It’s a tough move to stop,” Luongo said.

Pirri laugh and added of his molasses-like approach in the shootout: “I give Lu fits with that. It takes too long and wastes time.”

It wasn’t a perfect night for Florida. In fact, the scenario that played out was maybe third-best in the pecking order. Ottawa won over Toronto – whom the Senators play two more times – and Boston gained a point.

As always, there were many near misses for the Cats, too, most noticeably Dave Bolland failing on a tap-in. The center had a chance to quiet the belly-aching over his acquisition, and his assist on Jimmy Hayes’ tally in the first was a beautiful backhanded pass. But he came up short on Rask’s doorstep in his efforts to be the game’s No. 1 star. ESPN had that save in its top 10 plays, but the result was more about Bolland whiffing than Rask stonewalling.

Still, it was perhaps the best night of the year in Sunrise. A dramatic win over a tough opponent whom Florida has struggled against, all in the thick of a playoff race and played out in a front of a loud crowd.

“We’re a good group in here, and we know where we are. There’s a very, very strong belief in here that we’re going to make the playoffs and go far in the playoffs once we get there. We’re just going to continue the way we’re going and stay strong,” Gudranson said.

Florida did just that. They held strong, put pressure on Boston and won a game that felt like the postseason all over again — just with no Henrique ending.

They stayed in what amounted to a very important moment.

Follow Bill Whitehead on Twitter @BillWhiteheadFL and in Scripps newspapers online at TCPalm.com

 

#FlaPanthers Frustrate #NHLJets as Jagr Line Rolls On

By Bill Whitehead

SUNRISE – While working the Winnipeg dressing room for the AP following Thursday night’s 4-2 win by Florida, allowing the Panthers to keep pace with Boston, I couldn’t help but hear one word tossed about repeatedly by Jets coach Paul Maurice’s club.

Frustration.

“I think frustrating is the word,” said Winnipeg’s Drew Stafford, who scored a goal to tie the game at 2-2 in the third period. “Now is the time we need every point possible. We just need to figure out a way to turn this thing around.”

While Stafford, acquired from Buffalo in the Evander Kane trade, was frustrated by his new team’s shortcomings, much of them on the ice, some in the standings, a good portion of that all came back to Florida.

“They were real stingy in the way they played. The shots were pretty low. There weren’t too many quality chances. They got a couple of breaks on their goals. We just need to show a little more desperation, a little more urgency,” Stafford said.

Standout Winnipeg defenseman Jacob Trouba said, “They’re a good team and play a good game…They were fast and are a big team; they were good in the neutral zone, and I think we kind of lost our speed toward the end there. I mean, it’s a little frustrating, but that’s how it goes.”

And as for goaltender Michael Hutchinson, who started his season so strongly but has allowed seven goals in his last two starts?

“I felt good,” said Hutchinson, who is now part of an apparent growing goaltending problem in Manitoba. “I thought I made some big saves during the course of the game. They didn’t throw many easy saves at me all night. Whenever they shot, they were either shooting for a deflection or it was a good scoring chance.”

What wasn’t frustrating for Florida (30-23-14) were the good moments that happened – and there were many.

The club played from out front or was tied the entire 60 minutes, and didn’t get taken to overtime after relinquishing a late lead against a playoff-caliber team it has been pounded by before. Derek MacKenzie, moved to wing upon Dave Bolland’s return as a fourth-line center, played perhaps his best game as a Panther, and the chemistry between the two resulted in a “Goal of the Year” nominee. Goalie Dan Ellis was good again, which is an observation absolutely no Florida fan was saying one year ago. Florida special teams were excellent, too, killing off both Winnipeg power plays and capitalizing on one of their own three when Brad Boyes went into the blue paint and created real frustration for Hutchinson and unfortunate defenseman Adam Pardy, who own-goaled his goalie.

Then there’s that Jonathan Huberdeau-Aleksander Barkov-Jaromir Jagr line.

At 43, Jagr showed that his experience and perhaps tutelage is paying off big dividends. He should have drawn a penalty in the first penalty when he was grabbed behind the net and had his stick held while clearly having the best chance at getting a loose puck behind Hutchinson. He did draw a holding penalty from Tobias Enstrom in the second period after Boyes’ man-advantage goal 1:42 earlier, giving the Panthers a chance to go up 3-1.

“He might be old, but he’s really good,” said Huberdeau, who recorded two assists. “He’s so good on the ice. We’re all playing simple. He really helps us. He has so many guys on him so it opens us for us.”

Jagr, in the final year of a deal that is paying him $3.5 million this season, has clearly made an impression on the former Calder Trophy winner and the 19-year-old Barkov. The puck-possessing Jagr appears to be the match that has sparked Huberdeau, who struggled mightily last year, and the pass-oriented Barkov, who brilliantly beat Hutchinson for the game-winner by using blueliner Mark Stuart as a screen on a wicked shot that rang off the inside of the left post.

“We’re all pretty strong on the boards,” Jagr said of his linemates. “It’s in our advantage once we’re in the offensive zone and are cycle skating. It’s up to us. (Barkov’s) shot was good.

“He’s a passer first. It doesn’t matter what you tell him, he’s going to pass first. But he had no other option — nobody was close to him — so he shot it. He has a good shot, so it’s good for him. Once we started skated again – not everybody’s young, but we have a young team. Once we skated and played offensive zone…we can beat anybody.”

So on a great night all around for the Panthers against a tough opponent who had thrashed (sorry about that) them 8-2 in Winnipeg, Jagr assessed his new teammates by simply saying, “We can beat anybody.”

If Thursday night was a preview of what lies ahead for Florida’s future, then one more year of Jagr in Panther red might ease some of the team’s own frustration.

Scoring.

Follow Bill Whitehead on Twitter @BillWhiteheadFL and in Scripps newspapers online at TCPalm.com