#FlaPanthers Win Again, 2-0, in Carolina

By Bill Whitehead

RALEIGH, N.C. – If you’re a fan of The Walking Dead, the mention of the name Terminus conjures awful imagery, some of the most graphic in the popular series.

Without giving away any spoilers from Seasons 4 and 5 for those in the process of binge-watching during the holidays – “TWD at Christmas, you say? I’m all for that!” – let’s just say Terminus held the prospect of hope and forcefully snatched it away like Lucy with the football from the oncoming, place-kicking Charlie Brown.

This hockey barn known as PNC Arena has been a Terminus of sorts for the Panthers since the start of the 1999-00 season. Carolina held a 30-9-4 mark against the Cats before Friday night’s final meeting of the season in the Tar Heel State’s capital.

Back in the day, nothing good ever happened here. Bad play, mysterious diving that led to Carolina power plays and poor results were the characteristics of the Panthers’ play in my home state.

That all started to change during the 2011-12 season when Florida won two out of three in their Southeast Division-winning campaign. In fact, since then the Panthers have gone 4-4-0 in the building once known as the RBC Center.

Only defensemen Dmitry Kulikov, Erik Gudbranson and Brian Campbell – Florida’s three longest-tenured players – were around for that playoff season, but rumors of the Cats’ struggles in Carolina surely surfaced when the club pulled up near the North Carolina State Fairgrounds.

Not so much anymore, though. And let’s bump that record to 5-4-0 while we’re at it.

Willie Mitchell’s one-timer from the bottom of the right circle – yep, you read that right – off a slick pass from Jonathan Huberdeau, Roberto Luongo’s 70th career shutout and Reilly Smith’s empty-net goal with Carolina’s Cam Ward on the bench were all that was needed as the Panthers (17-12-4) ran their road record to 10-6-2 with a 2-0 win.

“We’re just playing good hockey right now,” said Gudbranson, part of a blue line that limited the Hurricanes, who had 26 goals in their last six games, to nothing on the scoreboard while Luongo was rock steady and made every stop when something did emerge.

“We’re coming to the rink with the same mindset and preparation every single game. There’s a confidence in this room, even in a tough game like that. Kind of a boring game, a chess match. We knew if we stuck with it that at the end of the day we’d come away with two points.”

By no means was this win pretty, but it was pretty effective.

Coach Gerard Gallant gave credit to Luongo for making 24 enormous saves against a team that had been finding the twine often.

“You never tell your team to play defensive hockey, but they didn’t have a lot in the tank and were a little tired. The puck was bouncing quite a bit, so there weren’t many offensive chances,” Gallant said of Florida, winners of their last eight of 10 on the road.

“Those points tonight were big. We were 4-0 on the last (road) trip and lost the last game. We wanted to try and finish off this trip the right way.”

In a building that thankfully doesn’t hold the Terminus-like dread anymore.

EMPTY-NETTER: It was my first time back at PNC since April of 2008 when Chad LaRose’s hat trick led Carolina to a 6-2 win over Tampa, and it was nice to be back in the building. As much as Florida takes grief for its attendance, Carolina has been just as much in trouble throughout the season. However, Friday night’s crowd of 10,511 a week before Christmas wasn’t too bad for the Canes, whose foothold as the official hockey club of both Carolinas is tenuous at best, especially for a team that has a Stanley Cup championship under its belt.

**Follow Bill on Twitter @BillWhiteheadFL and in newspapers at TCPalm.com**

#FlaPanthers Put Together Textbook Win

By Bill Whitehead

It took a while for the Florida Panthers to get going — or even get the game to get started for that matter — on Thursday, but the Cats put together arguably their best performance of the season against one of the league’s best in the Washington Capitals, who had only lost five times in regulation all year.

From Jaromir Jagr’s record-tying goal in the game’s opening minute to Logan Shaw’s empty-netter, his second goal in as many games, the Cats put together a fantastic performance that focused on following a great game plan, not getting caught out of position and pouncing on any offensive opportunities they had against Caps backup goalie Phillipp Grubauer.

A few points worth considering from a convincing 4-1 win:

  • Team play. From the opening puck drop, Florida seemed faster and much better prepared than they did against Ottawa. Maybe it was  the lull of returning from that five-game road trip or just a poor game against a Sens bunch that has plenty of talented players. Whatever the reason, Florida (14-11-4) played out front the whole game, prevented scoring chances for the Caps and were simply the better team. Florida’s  blocking 16 Washington shots and winning 54 percent of face-offs were keys to getting a victory before starting a four-game road trip.
  • Jagr and Brandon Pirri. Hopefully, Florida fans can look forward to these two key scorers bringing their A game a little more often, especially with fellow netfinder Nick Bjugstad sidelined. Jagr’s goal was the net-presence factor Florida has been lacking; Pirri’s a howitzer that resembled the blasts he fired often last year during a 22-goal season. Florida really needs this pair to contribute nightly.
  • The blue line. With Steven Kampfer and Brian Campbell going out with injuries, the defensemen had to step up and did. Aaron Ekblad, Dmitry Kulikov, Erik Gudbranson and Willie Mitchell picked up the slack, were on the scoresheet some and kept one of the most skillful offenses silent until two minutes left in the game.
  • Skill, skill, skill…Jonathan Huberdeau’s slick saucer pass to Ekblad resulted in one of the best scoring plays of the year and gave Florida a 3-0 lead that left little drama in the contest. When your former Calder winner is leading a 2-on-1 break to your No. 1 overall pick/Calder winner from last year, well, you like your chances of changing the number on the scoreboard. A skill goal all the way around.
  • Good night for Al Montoya. In a rare start, Montoya was very good against the Caps and ran his record to a strong 4-1-1. With back-to-back games in New Jersey and Raleigh next week, the Big Cubano will be back in goal in one of those games. He can hope the defense in front of him only yields 20 shots again by playing a sound defensive game, blocking shots and turning clearings into breakouts and odd-man rushes.

In all, this win was simply as textbook as it gets.

EMPTY-NETTER: The NHL has gone out of its way to bring about more safety to the league, basically protecting the unprotected player along the boards. The five-minute boarding major and game misconduct the Caps’ Tom Wilson received was well deserved, but if the NHL wants to prove it is serious about player safety, it will sit Wilson for a game or two, sending a message to the edgy forward that a thuggish style of play won’t fly in the new NHL. There’s just no place for that hit in this wonderful game.

On to Boston!

Follow Bill on Twitter@BillWhiteheadFL and in Treasure Coast newspapers at TCPalm.com

#FlaPanthers Getting Little Respect

By Bill Whitehead

Following Florida’s 2-1 hard-earned shootout win over Columbus to record its fifth straight win and fifth consecutive road victory dating back to that memorable 5-4 shootout win in Tampa on Nov. 14, Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella placed a load of blame on his players for the outcome.

“To me, it was a little lack of respect for the opponent. I don’t understand how we can disrespect an opponent when we’re looking up at all 29 teams,” said the edgy, often irate Tortorella.

Apparently St. Louis bench boss Ken Hitchcock felt similarly after his Blues were handled by the Panthers in perhaps Florida’s best performance of the year, a 3-1 drubbing of a good Blues team in a city where Florida hadn’t won since 2009.

St. Louis defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk was complimentary of Florida, saying the Cats clogged up the neutral zone and prevented the Blues from getting behind the Panthers and working on their forecheck. The Western Conference team thrives on that kind of physical play.

Hitchcock said his team’s mental preparation was bad: “We didn’t give Florida near the respect they deserve.”

The assessments by the two coaches brings up a good question: What’s the value of respect and how does a team like Florida earn it?

The answers don’t seem to matter too much right now, do they?

Florida (13-9-4) is riding an incredible wave of momentum as it looks for six straight in the Garden State against those pesky Devils, a team they are chasing. The emotion of opening night’s 7-1 win over Philly was incredible, but that feeling was nothing like the last seven days.

Five wins coming against four likely playoff teams, though Florida may have something to say about Detroit or the Islanders playing in mid April.

There was a taste of what the Panthers can do when they beat their nemesis Tampa and swept a home-and-home series from the Bolts in thrilling fashion last month, but the ride started with that record-setting shootout against the Islanders.

Since then, it’s been a rally and shootout winner at Detroit, an outstanding overall showing in St. Louis and 21 blocked shots that never challenged Roberto Luongo in another win, this time in Nashville where they had not won since pre-Y2K.

Then Columbus.

A strong first 20 that produced nothing. A lucky bounce on a pass by Vincent Trocheck that turned into his eighth goal—nothing to be ashamed of, by the way—then late penalty-killing and shootout heroics.

The most impressive win to me, all things considered, was Columbus.

Of all 13 wins this year, the victory in the Buckeye State was the kind of game Florida never would have won in years past.

The club held a very brief lead against a Blue Jackets team that was struggling and playing in front of a lifeless crowd. Somehow Florida found a way to win it—thanks largely to the PK unit, Columbus’ awful power play and some timely play by backup goalie Al Montoya and virtuoso shootout artists Jonathan Huberdeau and Sasha Barkov.

Past Florida teams would have wilted against an inferior Columbus, given up a power-play goal or had a bad break go against them as they skated on tired legs from a game the previous night while fresh Columbus had three nights off.

However, these Cats used a good break on Trocheck’s goal, killed off penalties and used their better skill in the shootout to snap the terrible streak of losing in central Ohio.

Instead of outplaying a team for 55 minutes and losing late in some bizarre manner, Florida trotted out its fatigued, “Hey, we played a tough game the night before” C game, went through the motions the last 40 minutes, had their backs against the wall in the shootout after failing to win on an overtime power play…

And won.

That just hasn’t happened much in the years I’ve covered this team. Florida basically won Friday when they shouldn’t have.

As for the answers to the two-part question about what respect is and how does Florida get it?

Right now respect probably means very little to the red-hot Panthers, who aren’t really worried too much about how to go about getting it either.

They’re just worried about winning.

Follow Bill on Twitter@BillWhiteheadFL and in Treasure Coast newspapers at TCPalm.com