Tippett Shoots, Plus An Announcement

By BILL WHITEHEAD

Well, I picked a fine game to resume the blog with the first column of the season, huh?

Fresh off the Philadelphia Flyers’ 5-1 pasting of the Florida Panthers, which dropped the Cats to 2-3-0 on the young season, it remains to be seen as to what this team’s identity is, and no answers were to be found in the City of Brotherly Love on Tuesday.

In fact, the best question might be this: What one thing – if anything – did the Panthers do well at Wells Fargo Center?

Faceoffs, special teams, blocked shots, puck possession? Nope, nope, nope and … definitely nope. They won shots and hits, but I’d rather have an advantage in those other categories.

A better question might be who was the one good thing about the game?

Simple. Owen Tippett.

The 18-year-old rookie more than made an impression in his NHL debut, zipping a game-high in both shots on goal (7) and attempted shots (12). If there’s one thing we learned about Tippett, it’s that he’s more than capable of getting the puck on net, and the Cats’ staff likes that.

Of all the stats out there, it seems the Panthers’ season will hinge on how many pucks they can get on goal, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if they don’t hold their lead and wind up topping the NHL in the category.

“You kind of see the game and how much open ice there is and how the puck moves. You obviously want to get into the open areas,” Tippett said afterward of his debut.

But will the emergence of the shoot-first Tippett, who also schooled Philly defenseman Robert Hagg with a swift, slick move on a scoring chance in the third period in front of the Flyers’ goal, be enough to keep him on the roster after his 9-game stint he’s allowed as a rookie?

Can the Panthers afford to burn a year of Tippett’s entry-level contract and pro career and do they feel he is capable of being a significant part of what the Panthers hope is a playoff team?

The answers to those questions depend on how important you figure Tippett is when sized up against Denis Malgin and Connor Brickley in the bottom six, particularly the third line.

For now, Jamie McGinn and Jared McCann have locked up left wing and center on the third line, and though he slotted on opening night on the 3L, Brickley seems like a perfect candidate for the fourth, in the mix with Micheal Haley, Derek MacKenzie and nicked up Colton Sceviour for ice time. That was Brickley’s spot during his first stop with the Panthers when he was a camp surprise to open the 2015-16 season.

That leaves Tippett and Malgin vying for playing time on 3L if Nick Bjugstad remains on 2L, which is probably the best place for 27 to find and regain his offensive form.

All things being even and injuries not playing a major factor – and they could at some point – it’s going to be pretty crowded on the McCann-centered line, so a great case could be made for sending Tippett back to juniors, sharpening his game and seeing how far Malgin, a breakout from last year’s camp, has come and how much he’s improved in the offseason.

However, Tippett certainly made his best pitch to stay with the big club on Tuesday and be back in there against the Stanley Cup champion Penguins at home on Friday.

HEAR YE, HEAR YE! – It is with great honor that I announce that I am the new Florida Chapter Chair of the Professional Hockey Writers Association (PHWA), taking over for my good friend George Richards, who headed north to the Land of John Tortorella and will likely get some regular postseason work in late spring.

Richards took over the PHWA position from Brian Biggane of The Palm Beach Post years back – so long ago George couldn’t recall when. If you’ve never had the pleasure of meeting Richards and Biggane, then you’ve missed out on chatting with two of the finest chaps to grace the BB&T press box. Both welcomed me 10 years ago when I began covering the Panthers and immediately treated me as another legitimate voice covering the team, which, frankly, deserves more coverage than it gets.

Both are good guys who are sorely missed in the close kinship of covering a team, but we still have a great group up there with writers like Alain Poupart (NHL.com), Walter Villa (SportsXchange), Paul Gereffi (AP), Jameson Olive (Florida Panthers) and others who spread the word of the Panthers. In my 20 years of covering sporting events, the BB&T Center’s press box tops the list as a working environment full of likeable co-workers and accommodating staff from within the team.

Again, it’s a pleasure to head a chapter of an organization that is home to many of the NHL’s finest writers, whose opinions and game coverage are read by so many in North America and all over the world and who help choose the league’s award-winners at season’s end.

I promise to uphold those duties done so well by Richards and Biggane before me.

**Bill is the Florida Panthers Chapter Chair of the Pro Hockey Writers Association. Follow him @BillWhiteheadFL

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#FlaPanthers: Coaching Change Inevitable

By BILL WHITEHEAD

We’ve been told for a long time that a picture is worth a thousand words. With that in mind, the images that we saw Sunday night about 10:00 must be worth at least 100,000 words.

Or maybe something closer to epic proportions, somewhere in the neighborhood of War and Peace.

There was Gerard Gallant, bags in hand, grabbing his own cab. One Carolina Hurricanes employee was assisting him, which accentuated the matter even more.

In his time of departure from the Florida Panthers and lowest point within the organization, Gallant’s sole help was a worker from a former Southeast Division rival.

In the high stakes game of Optics, which is enormous these days (Google “National Election” images), the Panthers came off looking terrible on a Sunday night.

Worse than the worst segment ever of 60 Minutes. Or if you’re over 45, the most woeful melodramatic episode ever of Murder, She Wrote.

Rumors had been swirling like a furiously forming funnel cloud that Gallant’s days in Florida could be coming to a close. A 3- or 4-game losing streak might just be Gallant’s last straw, but one loss? One particularly bad loss to a mediocre  Hurricanes team that is extremely young and played most of the game without its top center?

Seems extreme, no?

Unabashedly, I admit to liking the Panthers. I’ve covered them since Pete DeBoer’s first season, and my duties have expanded greatly in that time beyond anything I had ever imagined.

When they lose, it stings some. Hey, prosperity’s a good thing, and business is better for everyone when the Cats are winning like last season, breaking records and being the lead NHL story on occasion.

When my wife saw me sulking a bit and asked, “Is someone upset because his team lost?”, my eight-year-old son — the real hockey fan in the house — looked over his shoulder from his computer hockey game and set the record straight.

“Everyone gets upset when their team loses,” he said simply.

Apparently that goes for Florida’s management, too. And it literally is their team.

That said, Sunday night won’t go down as one of the better moments for the Florida Panthers.

Gallant was a great guy to work with. Even when angry or perturbed by something, that grin seemed to widen and those teeth flashed as he prepared to deliver the reasons why. He didn’t single out players often, but he didn’t cover up the mistakes that were made either.

He’s appreciated around the league, and the perception of him is a good, strong one. The media likes him, and he’s viewed as a good hockey guy.

If you’re setting the scene at home, management will be playing the role of the Big Bad Wolf in this story, folks.

But the bottom line is this: There was a gulf that existed between Gallant and management. Gallant bristled at some of the decisions made by the brass, but their final one that concerned him was inevitable.

It could have happened last night or in Chicago or Detroit later in the week, but it was coming. That funnel cloud finally formed over Gallant, and he couldn’t escape it.

The growing discontent between Gallant and management would never go away.

Now it’s on ownership, though, and they’re just as culpable as Gallant.

They secured the future by making long-term decisions and locking up the core. That’s great. But with over $5 million left in salary cap, they failed to address the present state of secondary scoring, which has usually been a problem for the Panthers as long I’ve been here.

Particularly of issue is the third line and the team’s offense, which ranks in the NHL’s lower half in almost every significant category.

Some players on the third line are rookies, castoffs, borderline AHLers or some with marginal skills that should be playing on the fourth line. With Nick Bjugstad out, Gallant tinkered with that line incessantly, trying to make something out of it and establishing some consistency, but he couldn’t.

While spitballing some hot stove talk in July, a colleague and I often talked about many possible free-agent acquisitions. Two that came up frequently were Austrians Michael Grabner and Thomas Vanek.

An energetic player like the former 30-goal Michael Grabner or proven scorer like Vanek were both available on the cheap to shore up the third line, even before Bjugstad’s late preseason injury.

Both wingers are having standout years. Grabner has 12 goals and is his usual reliable self on the PK, and he’s a ridiculous plus-20 for the Rangers. Vanek has been nicked up a bit but is almost a point a game for Detroit.

The Rangers paid less than $2 million per Grabner, Detroit slightly more for Vanek. Meanwhile, the Panthers still have a hole at wing.

One of these seasoned vets could have brought production to a line that had gaping holes on both wings and kept Bjugstad in the middle, but management hope a youngster would step up.

It was a gamble that hasn’t paid off.

Grabs or Vanek would have helped offensively and pushed players getting third-line minutes to  the fourth line, too, making it more productive in the process.

I didn’t want Gallant necessarily, but I grew to like him. No one asked me, but I had my sights on Guy Boucher and his Mad Scientist approach to coaching.

Boucher took the Lightning to within one goal of the Stanley Cup Final with a goalie tandem of Dwayne Roloson, Dan Ellis (remember him?) and Mike Smith. Think about that for a minute.

Now Boucher is in Ottawa, the Senators are in second in the Atlantic Division and GM Tom Rowe is the Panthers’ new bench boss.

It’s quite an ascendancy from Rowe’s stint in the AHL to Florida’s front office and now to the bench, albeit in an interim role. The onus will be on him to get the team, which is likely a little ticked off at losing Gallant, back on task of chasing Montreal,  Ottawa and Tampa for a divisional spot.

Last night was a lot about Gallant — those images, again, were bad and will be played out too much for anyone’s liking — and the players will always have to own up to their play on the ice.

But now with Rowe coaching the team, this is mostly about the brass, less on the players and not on Gallant at all.

It’s on management now.

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

#FlaPanthers Riding Homegrown Momentum

BY BILL WHITEHEAD

It sounds like an ad for an upcoming ESPN 30 for 30, but what if I told you the Florida Panthers would lose to Toronto on their road trip and it would be a success?

However, if I added that the Cats went 3-1-0 on the trip and took points from Eastern Conference foes and divisional rivals along the way, then it gets much more believable.

Toronto, while having plenty of skilled forwards, isn’t a playoff team. This is a rebuilding year for the Leafs and their batch of young talent up front to get a lot of experience, setting up their future. And their 6-1 win over Florida was an aberration on this trip.

Maybe it was James Reimer back home against his former team or Toronto already having beaten Florida once or a generally crummy Cats’ effort, but the Leafs blew out the visitors for some reason.

But enough of that miserable night.

The stars shined for Florida (10-8-1) in their three wins that changed their Facebook team status from “Middling Mediocrity” to “Playoff Contender.”Aaron Ekblad’s shattered-stick game-winner, Roberto Luongo’s stone wall and Sasha Barkov’s shootout dazzler all will appear in highlight packages when the final touches are put on this season.

Everyone chipped in on those three wins, though.

Barkov’s play has improved dramatically, while linemates Jaromir Jagr and Jonathan Marchessault picked it up as the top line played like one. Vincent Trocheck had strong games on the trip, and the third and fourth lines continue to be fun to watch. The bottom six will  get more talented when someone gets moved down when Nick Bjugstad returns, likely Tuesday.

The defense has been better as well but still needs to establish consistency.

The Rangers’ two goals were on a bad line change and a fluke deflection off a skate. In addition to Ekblad, Mark Pysyk was outstanding in New York, and Keith Yandle fired the blast that gave Florida life against his former team.

And the goaltending must continue to play like it did in three of the four games if Florida has playoff dreams.

While it’s early in the season, probably too early to think playoffs, the standings are there for a reason and are what they are — a slotting of the teams through the one-quarter point of the season.

With 21 points in 19 games, Florida is on pace for roughly 91 points, and that average wouldn’t be good enough to get it done right now. Last week, due to Eastern Conference teams beating up on the West, the cut line appeared to be 101 points, but that will change, especially as injuries mount.

On the plus side, Florida’s start is better than last year’s 103-point season that ended with an Atlantic Division title. Those Panthers opened with an 8-8-3 mark and 19 points, but of course were eventually buoyed by a 12-game winning streak.

Right now Florida’s 21 points has them tied with New Jersey for the second wild-card spot. That’s right, wild-card. That was a little unthinkable about 10 p.m. in Toronto on Thursday night when everyone, including yours truly, was griping about the Cats’ lack of effort against an inferior opponent.

Wins in Ottawa and Madison Square Garden changed that mood.

This Meow Momentum wasn’t found in Canada like something from a Roots store or from inside a Tim Horton’s on a cold morning. The Cats may be playing through a good stretch, but it all started at the BB&T Center two Saturdays ago.

That rally against Jack Capuano’s Islanders and behind Denis Malgin’s game-winning chip past Jaroslav Halak is the seed of what we’re seeing.

It was just nurtured then sprouted in Canada over the period of a week.

It may seem like the Panthers are returning to Sunrise with plenty of momentum, but they actually left the 954 with it.

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

The #FlaPanthers after 5 games

BY BILL WHITEHEAD

Five games or so is really a small sample to figure out how good a team is in an 82-game season. It’s safe to say the Edmonton Oilers (5-1-0) and Vancouver Canucks (4-1-1), who are atop the Pacific Division, are better than expected, but likely for different reasons. The Oilers are so deep with offensive talent they’re playing 2011 No. 1 overall Ryan Nugent-Hopkins as their third line center. Vancouver? Who knows. They were expected to be pretty bad and in a youth rebuild.

But it’s really the Florida Panthers we’re concerned about. At 3-1-1 and embarking on their first real road trip, not a day-trip up I-75, here’s what we can glean so far from this version of the Cats:

STAYING HERE — Denis Malgin and Shane Harper. A few people griped a bit when the 19-year-old Swiss forward and the 27-year-old Californian broke camp with the team, but the lesson the pair has taught is this: Let’s give them a chance before we ship them out to Springfield.

Malgin was a big unknown coming in. With Lawson Crouse and Rocco Grimaldi out of the picture, more talk centered around Kyle Rau, Juho Lammikko, Jayce Hawryluk and even Dryden Hunt, a curious potential “diamond in the rough” signing, among the forwards who were looking to impress. However, Malgin tore it up in rookie camp and showed he belonged with the big club in the preseason.

He still belongs.

Much like Tampa’s 20-year-old Brayden Point, Malgin battles size issues as both are a couple of inches short of six feet. Yet what they’re not short of is talent and determination — you know, those immeasurables — that have put both players on teams that most feel should be in the playoffs. Though he hasn’t beaten an NHL goalie yet, Malgin has outworked defenders and won battles that have led to goals, again showing that the staff’s decision to bring him up was the right call.

I tweeted Saturday night that Malgin was “clearly the most electrifying player who has never scored a goal,” but I think that changes and I’m going to go ahead and call my shot Babe Ruth-style: Malgin scores against Pittsburgh.

Maybe it’s because Malgin sounds like Malkin. Or because Malgin wears No. 62 like the Penguins’ Carl Hagelin, who was instrumental in their Cup run last year. Whatever. I’ll take any off-the-wall connection at all I can use, but it’s time for Malgin to score.

The well-traveled Harper nearly made the club out of camp last year, but that honor went to Connor Brickley. Now it’s Harper’s turn, and the former ECHLer is making the most of it. Unlike most from that league, Harper can flat out score — he’s done it everywhere he’s played.

His finish from nice assists from Greg McKegg and Alex Petrovic on 2-on-1s Saturday are skillful scores we don’t see often from NHL  fourth lines. But again, Harper has scored at all levels, so don’t be surprised when he shoots more often and it happens again.

Quite a few players have bounced in and out of Florida’s bottom six in the past year — some have been dealt, some demoted, some just outright handed their walking papers. Malgin and Harper appear to be good candidates to stay here all year, putting pressure on young players to step up their game if they want to get the call and likely keeping Shawn Thornton out of the lineup.

The lineup decision gets tougher when Nick Bjugstad returns in the near future and Jonathan Huberdeau in early 2017, too.

MUST SEE STs — The Florida Panthers’ special teams have always been interesting to watch and often a work in progress. That’s still the case this year.

First, the good: The penalty kill has been excellent through five games.

The PK is a major asset on a couple of fronts. First, it’s been non-existent much of the time because Florida has shown its discipline by being down a man only 11 times, a 90.9% clip that ranks ninth in the NHL.

The power play is a different story — so far.

Only twice in 18 opportunities (11.1%) has Florida scored on the PP, which is hard to fathom considering there’s a 750-goal scorer and two of the game’s best young centers on the ice.

“So far” is the key here. The PP has only reaped benefits for Jaromir Jagr and Aaron Ekblad, but it has shown signs of life. Look for Reilly Smith, Vincent Trocheck, Jonathan Marchessault and Keith Yandle to start tallying goals with the man-advantage. Florida ices too much offensive talent to sit tied for 23rd in the PP.

Both special teams must improve into the top half of the NHL in order to have long-term success and make a deep run.

A TOUGH ONE — Like most, you probably feel the Cats gave away a point in the final seconds in Tampa in a game they deserved to win last week. In actuality it’s a three-point swing: the one Florida didn’t get for the win and the two the Bolts got instead of a regulation loss.

Making it worse is that the points transfer happened with a divisional opponent. And if Montreal stays hot and is for real and Florida and Tampa Bay fight but come up in second and third in the Atlantic, those three points could determine home-ice advantage in a Citrus Showdown in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

But it’s a long season, one in which Florida will surely come out victorious in a game or two when they shouldn’t have. It’s a tough, tough season, too.

How tough?

Look at Trocheck’s face in the season’s first week. A pair of scabbed over wounds on each cheek, the Pittsburgh native wears black and blue instead of black and gold right now.But Trocheck won battles, scored a greasy goal and lobbied for a high-sticking call Saturday night after one of the abrasions was re-opened and bubbled blood.

Trocheck’s counenance is a canvas showing the determination and grind that comes with a grueling NHL campaign, with scabs, scratches and scar tissue the paint that splatters the canvas. Meanwhile, bruises, muscle pulls, dental issues and lingering body pain will define the days.

And it’s not even Halloween yet.

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

Keeing the Faith, #FlaPanthers style

By BILL WHITEHEAD

SUNRISE, Fla. —  Growing up in eastern North Carolina during those formative, single-digit years of my youth, I spent my Sundays in a stuffy, hot Baptist church with wood pews that weren’t much of an improvement, from a comfort standpoint at least, over the trees they came from. Nor was there any hockey with Doc Emrick or John Forslund to get through those lazy afternoons.

Our fire-and-brimstone preacher’s message was a monotonous but stern one, drilled over and over like some backwoods mantra, but hey, here we are some four decades later and it still applies to a certain extent.

The message in that church that leaped out, cat-like from the doldrum of that sermon that had me zoning out as a youngster, rings true for Florida Panthers fans after the first two games of the club’s Eastern Conference quarterfinal series against the New York Islanders.

Keep the faith.

It isn’t easy to stay calm, be positive and look forward when a game like Thursday night’s 5-4 loss unfolds. It isn’t easy to be a fan at all — especially of team that is making just its fourth postseason appearance in the organization’s history.

With all the pressure of a great season, a strong home crowd and suddenly becoming Canada’s darling in the playoffs in the absence of any teams from above the border qualifying for the postseason, Florida simply made too many mistakes against a skillful New York team to earn the Game 1 W.

Slipping up like that only added to the pressure and anxiety of Friday.

Did that two-goal lead in the last 20 minutes — honestly, the middle third of the final period seemingly took 45 minutes to play and was constantly somewhere between the 8-minute and 10-minute mark — ever feel comfortable? As fans of this team, did you ever feel safe and keep the faith that Florida would hold on to the advantage and knot this series at 1-1?

Probably not.

That little seed of doubt  in the back of your brain from bad Panther teams of the past likely started to throb and sprout a few roots. Would it become full-blown and blossom into something horrible if New York tied it 2-2 with Thomas Greiss on the bench, forcing overtime with the series and potential 2-0 deficit hanging in the balance?

Even when Jussi Jokinen’s backhander toward New York’s empty net skittered just wide and there were less that 15 seconds left in the game, no level of comfort ever appeared.

That’s where the keeping the faith part  comes in.

Unlike former Florida teams, even the last playoff one in the 2011-12 season, these current Cats have a different makeup and mentality. The work is hard like back then, but more talent, skilled depth and better goalkeeping abound. And it’s not just one top line making a difference like the Versteeg-Weiss-Fleischmann line did early four years ago; it’s three solid lines that can score.

In fact, Florida’s No. 1 line hasn’t scored a goal.

But Dmitry Kulikov has — and did with his empty-netter — to end all the drama and stifle the rising doubt that often comes when confronting faith.

His goal to make it 3-1 was simply the kernel of that sermon: Whenever you doubt faith, something comes along to get you back on track. As the line from The Godfather goes, “Just when I thought I was out…they pull me back in.”

However, the biggest aberration so far was the blowing of leads in the Game 1 loss, which forced the Panthers to look at themselves and their defensive game, reset a bit and, well, keep the faith in and get back to doing what they have done all year in the organization’s most successful season ever.

“The goals we gave (up) in Game 1 were great A++ chances that … we can’t do that,” said defenseman Brian Campbell. “Tonight, there was nothing as over-the-top as in Game 1. We did a lot of good things in Game 1; we just made bad, bad mistakes.”

Now the tide has turned. Instead of being down 2-0 to New York, Florida will take the momentum to the Barclays Center. Sure, the Islanders stole the home-ice edge, but the Cats have won plenty of times on Long Island, and that building isn’t the most intimidating.

If Florida can manage to snag just one of the two games up there, the series returns to South Florida next Friday just like it was in Game 1 — all even and with the Panthers having the advantage of maybe two more games at BB&T Center.

Just keep the faith.

**Follow Bill on Twitter @BillWhiteheadFL and in 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

#FlaPanthers Roll, #Flyers Have No Answers in 7-1 Mauling

By Bill Whitehead
SUNRISE – Just over one hour into Florida’s season-opener against the Philadelphia Flyers, I tweeted out the following query:

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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