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