By Bill Whitehead
SUNRISE – Just over one hour into Florida’s season-opener against the Philadelphia Flyers, I tweeted out the following query:
The answer to that question in a bit.
The first game of my eighth season covering the Florida Panthers was unlike any I’ve seen, maybe ever in my tenure watching the Cats skate around at BB&T Center.
And I didn’t even get to experience the joy of a winning dressing room, with music, smiling faces and good moments between players who had combined to put a 7-1 butt-kicking on one of the most hated teams in the Eastern Conference, the Philadelphia Flyers.
Instead I was working the Flyers’ room, which not surprisingly was a complete contrast to the emotions running rampant on the other side of the arena. Our entrance into the visitors’ room was delayed because the players had decided on a players-only meeting.
Yep, you read that right: In Game 2 of an 82-game season – and I cannot under any circumstance fathom that orange-clad bunch playing more than 82 – the players had decided to close the door and call a meeting without first-year coach Dave Hakstol, whose locked stony glare in the post-game presser looked like it was chiseled out of Mt. Rushmore.
The good of the Philadelphia presser: Goalie Steve Mason, who stopped a whopping four of eight shots in 6:46 and made a huge error that led to the fourth goal, was a stand-up guy and faced the tough questions. That isn’t always the case. Some players become “unavailable,” which works against the spirit of the relationship between the media and team. However, the tall netminder took full responsibility, which he surely didn’t have to do. Florida outplayed more than Mason as they blitzed their way to that NHL record-setting four-goal barrage.
The bad: Captain Claude Giroux had nothing to say. Any team leader is expected to step up and explain the bad as well as the good. Last night was the horrible, and Giroux wasn’t around to talk. Keeping Hakstol locked out doesn’t help relations between the former North Dakota coach and the players he’s trying to get to know. Mark Streit, Philly’s lone goal scorer, seemed dumbfounded by the club’s play and couldn’t believe how they were outskated and outworked.
But enough of the Flyers. We’ll learn more about them and their resiliency Monday in their home-opener against the Panthers.
As for the Cats, what can you say about them that the 7-1 mauling doesn’t tell? Well, some interesting things, actually.
First, I was excited about the Reilly Smith trade when it went down, but his showing has me firmly convinced GM Dale Tallon and the Panthers will come out on top – way on top – when the season ends and Smith’s numbers are put up beside Jimmy Hayes’s, whom Tallon shipped to the Boston Rebuild. That second goal alone on the power play was a slick move Hayes couldn’t dream of pulling off – puck-handling dexterity and a quick flip for a 2-0 lead.
Speaking of the power play, it was a shocking surprise, and improvement in special teams is mandatory if the Cats want to be a special team and play games after April 9. Florida was 3-for-7 in their well-structured time with the man-advantage. The spacing of players displayed a scheme that wasn’t evident last year. The passing was quick, crisp and tape-to-tape, unlike what we’ve seen most seasons.
Finally, the hard-nosed hustling of Vincent Trocheck, playing in his first season-opener with the Cats, led to a career four-point night. On Florida’s first marker of the season, he sprinted and read Jussi Jokinen’s long flip on Steve Mason better than Philly defenseman Evgeny Medvedev did, then beat Mason five-hole.
He returned the favor on the fourth goal when he hustled again and snookered Mason with a steal of a terrible pass from behind the Philly goal. Jokinen then tapped in Trocheck’s shot that caromed off the post. All I’ve seen and heard from hockey insiders is how Trocheck does the little things well – gritty, keeping pucks alive in the zone, winning battles and doing everything to come out on top. Those two goals illustrated that skill and hockey sense.
As for the aforementioned Twitter question, the answer is both. I don’t think anyone will mistake Philadelphia for a playoff team; they’ll more than likely be lumped in with Buffalo, Carolina, Toronto, New Jersey and maybe Boston as clubs more interested in the NHL lottery format rather than the first-round playoff schedule.
Also, these Panthers set the bar high on Saturday – and they set it way up there with some help. They smelled blood early and rode the emotional boost of an enthusiastic crowd, which the coaches and players referenced post-game, so the Flyers were caught in a buzzsaw of sorts that they didn’t expect, and everything just got out of hand.
Frankly, it wasn’t a typical outing for either team.
If it were a heavyweight championship fight, the game would’ve been stopped on a TKO and all 19,434 fans would’ve filed out at 6:46 after Jokinen netted the fourth goal. Then we in the media wouldn’t have had to worry about deadline too much.
In the end, it’s just one game. One of 82. The only one for Florida in the first week of the NHL season. Likely the only time they’ll win by a six-goal margin.
But what a refreshing, rewarding win it was.
Follow Bill on Twitter@BillWhiteheadFL and in Treasure Coast newspapers at TCPalm.com