Dale Gets It Done, Adds Quality

There was plenty of chatter in the press box Thursday during Florida’s win over Arizona, and Friday night was full of tweets discussing trade possibilities as the last full weekend before the trade deadline was about to get underway.

Then Saturday arrived. By the time the Panthers had dropped a disappointing 4-3 shootout loss in Columbus, the club had three new acquisitions — forwards Jiri Hudler and Teddy Purcell plus defenseman Jakub Kindl.

GM Dale Tallon gave up a second-round pick this year and a fourth-round pick in 2018 to Calgary to acquire the versatile Hudler. He gave up a third-round pick this year for Purcell. Florida traded a sixth-round pick in 2017 and took some cash back in getting Kindl, a 29-year-old former first-round pick (No. 19 overall) in 2005.

Hudler, a 31-goal scorer last season and possessing valuable playoff experience, said he had watched Florida a few times on TV and said it looked like they had fun playing together.

“I didn’t know where I would end up. I’m really excited and really happy to go to a young team like that and especially the way the play, and they’re in first place. It’s really exciting for me,” said the 32-year-old Hudler, who has 10 goals and 25 assists in 53 games for Calgary this season.

As for playing with fellow Czech Republic native Jaromir Jagr, Hudler laughed and said, “You’re lucky to have him near you. You call him old guy, but I think he’s younger than anybody else on that team. I know Jags for a long time. Obviously, growing up he was one of my favorite players. He’s a living legend. I played with him a couple of times on the national team. He’s having a great season.

“The team, when I watch some games, they look great. They have fun playing hockey and they play hard. They’ve got a good group going on there.”

As a member of the Lightning from 2009 to 2014, Purcell was a gnat to the Panthers. The right winger won’t get to wear No. 16 with the Panthers, but he said the Cats have a good puzzle and that his goal is to come in and be a nice piece of it.

“Being out west, I didn’t get to see them a whole lot,” said Purcell, a 30-year-old Newfoundland native who will slot in at right wing for Florida. “I think they caught everyone’s attention when they went on that run. That was obviously eye-opening around the league, and people were following that very close. They can burn you with their chances and they’re pretty tight defensively, and they have a pretty solid goalie back there.

“I’ve heard a lot of good things. They’re a fun team to watch, and I’ve heard good things about the coach, too. It’s going to be a pretty exciting stretch for me heading down there.”

And the prospect of possibly facing his old Tampa teammates in the Stanley Cup playoffs?

“That would be a lot of a fun. I still have a lot of good friends on that team. I’d like to get to hate them for a couple of weeks and get to play them in the Sunshine State. That would be great,” Purcell said.

Tallon traded for Jerred Smithson and Wojtek Wolski in 2012, both key players down the stretch as the Panthers won the Southeast Division but lost to the Devils in the quarterfinals. Adding Saturday’s three pieces is a giant step up in quality from the trades four years ago.

“We needed a presence on the blue line and felt we needed three good scoring lines. Now it gives us three wonderful scoring lines and a fourth line that will be invigorated,” said Tallon, who reiterated on two occasions that ownership gave him the go-ahead to get the deals done at whatever cost.

“Overall, we thought we needed to add more depth on all our forward lines to give us more options. These guys are really good hockey players who’ve had success everywhere they’ve been. We’re very fortunate to get these deals done.

“I’m pretty satisfied with the depth of our team now. We needed some scoring and playmaking ability on the wings. I think we achieved that today. We got a good playmaker, passer and point man on the power play in Kindl. Right now we’ve got good positional depth.”

Tallon said it would take a pretty big deal to add more in the next two days but said he was pleased with how the trades played out.

“I was hoping (the trades) wouldn’t affect our roster,” said Tallon, who said he “dipped his toe in the water on Ladd” possibility.

“The goal always for us is not to give up a first-rounder or top prospects, and we achieved that.”

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

 

Little Things are Big to the #FlaPanthers

SUNRISE — Clearly, finishing off this Atlantic Division race with Boston, Tampa Bay and Detroit won’t be easy. In fact, nothing has been easy this entire six-game homestand, which saw a couple of awful losses, three significant injuries and some spotty overall play at times.

But that’s life in the ultra-competitive Atlantic, where keeping up with the Joneses — in this case the Bruins, Bolts and Wings — is a daily chore. The Panthers sat by this week and watched their lead shrink.

Florida lost two brutal games against St. Louis and Nashville, plus saw Brandon Pirri, Quinton Howden and Jonathan Huberdeau go down to injury. Can’t say confidence was too high going into the final four games at the BB&T Center.

However, as they seemingly have all year, the Panthers responded in the next four games, grabbing seven points of a possible eight to end the home stretch on a high note. Couple that with the fact that Florida finished with the same points lead — five — that it did when it started on Feb. 12 and you’ve got the makings of successful stint in Sunrise.

Not bad considering how this all began against the Blues and Predators.

“It was good. It was a good finish to the homestand,” said Florida coach Gerard Gallant, whose club moved to 77 points after increasing its record to 35-18-7 with a 3-2 win over Arizona on Thursday. “We lost the first two games and weren’t too happy about it. We got back and had three wins and an overtime loss in the next four.

“It’s a good way to finish and we’re a good road team.”

Little things played a big role in the win for Florida, a game in which Gallant said there was “no flow.” The Panthers head out to Columbus and then Minnesota over the weekend for games with 3:00 start-times.

Jussi Jokinen, who was angry over a high stick that left him bleeding butt wasn’t called in the first period, kept the puck in the offensive zone but was leveled by Martin Hanzal in the third. Jokinen’s puck push sent it to Jaromir Jagr, who slipped it back to Aleksander Barkov for his second goal, the ultimate game-winner, and a 3-1 lead.

Earlier in the second, Logan Shaw and finally Barkov won a tough battle in the low slot with Zbynek Michalek and Klas Dahlbeck, with Sasha scoring his 17th goal and sixth in his last six contests — along with a six-game stint sidelined with an injury.

Brian Campbell got a stick on Antoine Vermette’s potential game-tying goal and Roberto Luongo denied him in the game’s final minute. Erik Gudbranson then tied up Shane Doan in front of the crease to send the puck away from Luongo. Derek MacKenzie, Vincent Trocheck and Jussi Jokinen all won faceoffs, which didn’t happen much for the Cats as they lost 59 percent of the draws.

All the game’s little things — all those sticks getting in the way, blocked shots, taking hits to keep a puck in the offensive zone and securing faceoffs when they mattered the most — added up to two huge points to end a homestand that started so poorly but ended so well.

EMPTY-NETTER: Center Nick Bjugstad, one of the three I cast my vote to for the three stars of the game, had his best showing since returning from his injury and was a problem all night for the Coyotes. He drove to the net hard and cut through the Arizona defense seemingly at ease at times, slicing his way through a blue line that features silky skating Olive Ekman-Larsson. However, Bjugstad blew past and got the best of OEL and Michael Stone to draw a pair of penalties.

He laughed when I brought up the subject of whether or not he should have received a penalty shot, especially on OEL’s hooking infraction.

“Yeah, I thought I should have,” said Bjugstad, whose smile stretched like his 6-6 frame. “I was wondering and asking someone on the bench what was the stipulation for getting a penalty shot. I felt good and just need to keep going from here.”

A big boost from Big Nick and a return to his physical dominance will go a long way to improving Florida’s offense on this road trip and in the remaining 22 regular-season games.

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

#FlaPanthers Let One Slip Away

By Bill Whitehead

SUNRISE —Well, that didn’t go as planned.

In a scene Florida fans have watched much this year, the Panthers (31-15-6) let one slip away in a huge way Saturday, squandering a two-goal lead in the final 10:45 and falling to the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-2 in overtime on a skillful game-winner from Sidney Crosby to Kris Letang.

To say it was disappointing to most of the 20,295 in attendance is an understatement as enormous as the red-clad crowd.

After Sasha Barkov dashed down the ice and retrieved a slick pass from Jussi Jokinen and scored Florida’s third shorthanded goal of the season — a dazzling backhander that beat goalie Jeff Zatkoff 5-hole — the Cats seemed to be in good shape. It appeared all they needed to do was sit back, pack it in, grab puck possession and send it down the ice.

It’s textbook play and what they’ve been doing since Thanksgiving. It’s what fans have come to expect.

But Crosby and Letang changed the outcome almost singlehandedly, hooking up for the first goal on a one-timer by Letang from the bottom of the left circle, then Letang shoveling in the final marker on the power play after a dish from Crosby. Twice now the Pens have beaten Florida in overtime with the man-advantage.

The sudden loss tainted some of Florida’s better numbers on the year.

Florida slipped to 14-3-6 in one-goal games and 26-3-4 when they score first. The Panthers are now 19-2-2 when leading after one period and 22-2-4 when ahead after two periods. And they are now 22-7-4 against the Eastern Conference.

Those stats aren’t the new Twitter algorithm. They’re the numbers — a calculation of hard work in a systematic approach — that illustrate the Panthers are a top hockey club in the NHL.

If Florida had found a way to hold on to the two-goal margin, they would’ve won for the 12th time in their last 13 home games, dating all the way back to early December, with the only loss being to Edmonton in which they were more interested in owning the score with Matt Hendricks than owning the contest’s final score.

Those are the bad numbers — well, the numbers are fine, they just could’ve been finer.

The good number? One, the amount of points they added to their Atlantic Division-leading season.

Unlike the 2011-12 Florida club that won the Southeast Division by grabbing the dreaded loser points in overtime and shootout losses, the current pack of Cats has won games in regulation. A lot of them. Because of that they can afford to lose a game and — voila! — grab that loser point. At this point (there’s that word again), the idea is to keep banking points.

They aren’t chasing a playoff berth and don’t require two points every night; they’re holding one and padding a first-place lead. And they’ve been there for a while. Keep adding points, mostly two at a time but occasionally one, and they’ll be hosting Game 1 of a first-round playoff series in April.

Honestly, a Florida win, say, 2-1, wouldn’t have been the most artful one of the season, and many would’ve said, “Yeah, they won, but…”. The Panthers had 20 shots in the first periods, but as Crosby, Zatkoff and Pens coach Mike Sullivan said, they weren’t high-quality scoring chances. All of the Pens interviewed seemed to think the shots were misleading, and they ended up 42-35 anyway.

Both teams took way too many penalties, too. Pittsburgh’s overtime power play resulting from Jokinen’s hooking penalty proved to be what is painfully obvious: The 4-on-3 is the true death sentence in the NHL. Rarely do teams kill it off. Too much ice, lack of possession and the long change are brutal to overcome.

On the good side, I posed a question to Crosby about facing Florida this time as compared to the club he saw in Pittsburgh way back on Oct. 20 in the Panthers’ sixth game of the year.

“I thought they possessed the puck,” Crosby said. “It took us a while to climb our way back (in shots). They’re a really deep team. They’ve got a lot of different ways they can beat you. Their D is active, make good plays and come up the ice. Their strong on the puck down low and have good goaltending.

“It’s not a fluke why they’re doing well.”

And, because they’ve been doing well, a non-fluke divisional leader can come away with one point on a night when two seemed so near.

Let’s just not make it a habit.

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