#FlaPanthers Worthy of All the Attention

By Bill Whitehead

When the club you’re covering is riding an 11-game winning streak and has suddenly become the media darling in a sport that’s not headquartered in the U.S., there’s plenty to write about. Puh-lenty. Here are just a few Florida Panthers storylines scribes could flesh out today:

A franchise-record/NLH-high winning streak, a franchise-record road winning streak, a 17-3-0 run in their last 20, winning without their top goal scorer for most of the streak, 21-3-2 when scoring first, 15-2-0 when leading after the first period, 13-5-2 when being outshot, trailing for just 14:02 during the run, 5-1 in shootouts, allowing just 32 goals in their last 20 games, sweeping a six-game homestand, leading the NHL in defense, surging to the top of the Atlantic Division and leading by five points, watching them lead NHL On the Fly then being ticked off when they don’t, getting All-Star selections, any Panthers player, even the coach.

Whew.

It’s dizzying what a person can sit down and write about these days with this club. For once, the Florida stories from the second half of this season won’t be about which player to trade to a contender, calling up some hot prospects or analyzing the upcoming draft.

Actually, a couple of observations stand out over the last couple of games Florida has won – winning ugly, the defense and the top line.

If this were, say, the 2011-12 season – the last playoff run – I think it would be a pretty fair assumption to say that Florida would not have beaten either Minnesota or Ottawa in their last two games. These Panthers, the owners of that 11-game streak, brought what amounted to their C or C- game in both of those.

After Jaromir Jagr scored in the first minute against Minnesota, Florida was shut down for most of the game until Jagr unleashed a shot from his heyday in the 90s for his 132nd game-winner, an NHL record, to make a winner out of a strong Al Montoya.

Same with Ottawa. The Panthers scored two quick ones, looked wide awake and appeared ready to blow the Senators right out of the Canada’s capital, yet the Cats had to hang on at the end like they did against the Wild. In fact, Florida had just 16 shots against an Ottawa team that allows 33 per game, most in the league, in a building Florida doesn’t win in often.

Four years ago Florida probably would’ve been taken to overtime after a late goal and perhaps lost in a shootout in both games; the 2011-12 team was 6-11 in shootouts and had 18 overtime losses, earning important “loser points” as they’ve become known as. And that’s no knock on those Cats, who won the Southeast Division. It’s just who they were.

However, the current Panthers improved to 16-2-2 when leading after two periods and 13-3-4 in one-goal games: They hold on to late leads and generally don’t let tight contests go to overtime, and that’s all about coach Gerard Gallant’s defensive system.

Defensively, the Cats have stonewalled opponents. What Roberto Luongo did to Kyle Turris on three occasions and once to Mika Zibanejad was almost a criminal act in Canada. File it under “Goal Theft.” Alex Petrovic’s glitch aside – those plays are going to happen, especially with youngsters – the blue line has been rock solid while the forwards have battled, too.

The top line is simply better, as well.

Sasha Barkov with the third goal on a flip past sprawling good guy Craig Anderson provided a comfort zone. In fact, getting the puck in the hands of Jagr, Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau is always a fine option. Stephen Weiss, Kris Versteeg and Tomas Fleischmann comprised a very good first line; the current one is a great top line consisting of three elite offensive players who can bail Florida out even when they aren’t clicking on all cylinders.

And as for winning ugly when you’re not at your best and somehow boarding the team bus with two points when you were likely driving away with none?

That’s what playoff teams do.

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

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#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 Goaltending Impresses Hurricanes

By Bill Whitehead

Working for the Associated Press last night had me racing toward the Carolina Hurricanes’ dressing room following their 1-0 loss at the hands, gloves, sticks and pads of Roberto Luongo and Al Montoya in a combined 33-save performance. While the Florida room was festive and thankful for a pre-Thanksgiving two points, the Hurricanes were left shaking their heads at an NHL-leading ninth road loss.

Coach Bill Peters, whose club was outshot 16-5 in the first period, saw Carolina rebound and outplay Florida for the last 40 minutes. The Hurricanes held a 28-12 shot advantage in that span as the Panthers managed to collapse and hang on.

“I think it’s more of what we did or didn’t do rather than the goaltender,” said Peters, who was impressed with the line of Jeff Skinner-Victor Rask-Andrej Nestrasil in peppering Florida’s goalies. “If you go back to our last four or five games, we’ve got to make it harder on the goaltender. There’s some quantity in shots, but there needs to be more quality.”

Other Canes, though, pointed to the stellar work of Montoya, who hopped off the bench and replaced Luongo after Shawn Thornton’s slashing penalty 9:38 into the second period.

“The goalies are so good in this league that you’ve got to bear down,” said Carolina goalie Cam Ward. “For me as a goaltender, I know what it’s like to come off the bench, and it’s not an easy thing to do. Kudos to Montoya. Once he went in, we really started to put the shots on him. He made some big saves in the end.”

However, Ward admitted, “Luongo made probably made the save of the year.”

Skinner was part of two great saves by Luongo just before the 35-year-old goaltender exited with what the Panthers said wasn’t a significant injury. The “save of the year” Ward referred to was a diving one with his glove after Rask deked left. The other was when Skinner skated past Aaron Ekblad on the left side and tried to score from in tight.

“There’s not a lot of space there in front of the net, and I was battling through guys. I just couldn’t get enough on it to lift it and get one for us,” Skinner said.

The sweet-skating Skinner also said the time to get Montoya was midway through the second when Luongo left. Allowing Montoya to warm up put the backup netminder in a groove.

“He was playing pretty well. It’s not the easiest thing coming in off the bench. He played a good game. Early on, we could’ve done a better job of getting pucks on the net against him. We (pressed) but couldn’t find that one,” Skinner said.

“He played well.”

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

#FlaPanthers: Five Things Learned in Five Games

By Bill Whitehead

We’re only five games deep into the 2014-15 season, but the Florida Panthers have already given their fans some dire concern but with glimpses of hope, moments of worry tempered by anticipation. A 1-2-2 start has alternately been decent but disappointing (Tampa Bay), abjectly miserable (New Jersey), utterly embarrassing (Ottawa, in a home attendance “sit-anywhere-you-want-to, hell-nobody’s-here” Internet/Twitter mess), and good-but-could’ve-been-better (win over Buffalo, shootout loss to Washington). It’s just a five-game snippet, but something can be and has been learned in that time.

Here are five observations over five games, some positive, some not:

 

  1. The defense is better than expected. The Cats gave up five goals against the Devils, but throw those out (I know, they all count) and the defense has allowed just five goals in four games, excluding the shootout marker. Of course, a large part of that lies with Roberto Luongo, who blanked Buffalo for coach Gerard Gallant’s first win, and Al Montoya, who has been exceptional in both appearances, though he failed in the shootout against the Caps. Granted two of those wins are against mediocre Ottawa and awful Buffalo clubs, but Tampa Bay and Washington are likely playoff teams. This defense should keep Florida in many close games.
  2. The top six can’t be any worse. The top two lines of Aleksander Barkov, Jussi Jokinen, Brad Boyes, Nick Bjugstad, Jonathan Huberdeau and Scottie Upshall have combined for exactly four points, and only two – Huberdeau and Boyes – have goals. Worst still, top centers Barkov and Bjugstad are scoreless, as is Jokinen, the club’s major offensive acquisition in the offseason. Jokinen, who has shown some nice passing, was the lone missed shot in the shootout in DC. No team wins in the NHL consistently without production from its top six.
  3. Willie Mitchell has been well worth the money. The 2-time Stanley Cup winner has been a solid addition to the blue line, adding a calming presence and making all the small plays necessary of a player who has competed in over 900 NHL games. He’s also served as a fine replacement for Ed Jovanovski, another defenseman who was the previous captain. Another trait the two blueliners share: They will speak at length – at incredibly fantastic length – about their play and the state of the game or team. Mitchell’s value will continue to increase as strengthens relationships with his defensive unit and learns his teammates’ characteristics. A great stabilizing, experienced addition by GM Dale Tallon.
  4. Brandon Pirri must play. A team that struggles so mightily to score and appears goal-challenged most of the time cannot – simply can’t — repeatedly scratch the one player on the club who can snipe a bit. Shoot first instead of pass? That’s Pirri. One-time a pass, an amazing feat for this group? That too is Pirri. Win draws, push the play forward and put the puck on net? Pirri. Clearly, he has some faults that Gallant doesn’t like. At the Philadelphia draft, one Western Conference beat writer told me Pirri felt like he deserved more playing time in Chicago’s top six and was upset he wasn’t getting it, so maybe that’s why he was expendable to the talented Blackhawks. However, the Cats need him and must have him in the lineup.
  5. Aaron Ekblad belongs here, as does Derek MacKenzie. Ekblad, the 18-year-old rookie and No. 1 overall pick, has transitioned well into the NHL and has shown a flare for offense. He’s defensively responsible, solid in all aspects of his game and likes to shoot the puck – just like he repeated to us in Philadelphia – and should be here for the long haul this season. MacKenzie, a fourth line scrapper, wins face-offs and is as gritty as a Burning Man Festival attendee after a week spent in the Nevada desert. He hits and hits and hits, and physicality is infectious along a team’s bench. Florida already appears to be a much more physical club than in previous years. A large part of that credit goes to the feisty MacKenzie.

Also, the season is not over. The hockey world appeared bad after New Jersey humiliated Florida last weekend, but it’s equally bad or worse with other teams. Edmonton, a team loaded with top talent, has scored six more goals than Florida but is 0-4-1 and has one point. Buffalo is as bad and dismal as a horrible winter storm in western New York, and Carolina’s not much better. As for scoring deficiency, Winnipeg tallied one goal over a three-game stretch and has two in its last four games.

Plenty of hockey remains in this season, but it’s up to Gallant and the real quality drafted talent – Bjugstad, Barkov and Huberdeau – plus high-dollar acquisitions like Dave Bolland and Jokinen to give Florida the offensive punch it needs and turn these close losses into wins.

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