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

#FlaPanthers Rough Up #Blackhawks

By Bill Whitehead

SUNRISE — In a battle of first-place teams Friday night at BB&T Center, the Florida Panthers, atop the Atlantic Division by a single point before the puck dropped, decided on an interesting approach in facing the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.

They decided to get physical.  “Let’s get physical” ala Olivia Newton-John. The “Pow!”, “Bam!” and “Zow!” of the old Batman series from the 1960s starring the incredibly great, talented Adam West.

A 4-0 thorough whipping of Chicago later, spurred on by a pair of goals by the defense, 27 saves by Roberto Luongo, strong play on all four lines and a complete team effort, and the Florida Panthers (27-15-5) suddenly don’t look like the team that lost to a mediocre Edmonton club on Monday.

Much of it came from the physical nature of Florida, who will never be mistaken for the punishing L.A. Kings, but who can bring the lumber and lay the wood when they need to.

Such as defenseman Erik Gudbranson’s smash of Finnish forward Teuvo Teravainen in the second and oversleeping left winger Richard Panik in the third. Plus Alex Petrovic’s bout with edgy Blackhawk Andrew Desjardins.

Florida outhit and bruised the Blackhawks 27-18, including a game-high five each by Gudbranson and Petrovic.

“Yeah, that (Gudranson hit) was a good hit, that was a good hit,” said Shawn Thornton, whose blind backhander in the third period nearly beat Chicago’s Scott Darling for a goal that would surely have brought the house down.

“Petro stepping up. We’re not an overly physical team, but we genuinely really like each other in this locker room and we have each other’s back. That stuff’s never been a concern in here, win or lose.”

After his post-game treatment, I caught Gudbranson, who ranked his hit right up there with his blow on Taylor Hall in Edmonton in terms of being his season’s best. As Teravainen entered the offensive end with the puck from the right side in front of Chicago’s bench, Gudbranson leveled the 5-foot-11 No. 86, who went head over heels covered in a swirl of curvy 8s and 6s on his white sweater.

“That’s kind of what I mold my game after,” said Gudbranson when I made the reference to the Kings. “I really enjoy hitting, almost as much as scoring, and I haven’t done much of that. I make my name known that way.

“The ref came up to me afterward and said it was absolutely textbook. I got him through the shoulders, and his head was down and I caught him off-guard. (That hit) or Hall right now. The Hall one was definitely harder. This one was a little more exciting to see him flying through the air.

“We’ve got a lot of skill on this team, but I don’t think at any point we’ve let ourselves get pushed around. If the game gets physical, that’s fine. That’s hockey, and guys are ready to step up.”

Even Luongo joined the fray in the second, roughing Desjardins after the Blackhawks’ left winger ventured into the crease following Luongo’s 14th save.

“There was a little bit of a spear after the whistle and I wasn’t too happy about it,” said Luongo, who authored his 72nd career shutout. “That’s stuff that happens during the game. I really don’t want to go down 4-on-4 in that situation, but I was a little upset with myself there and lost control.”

It’s a skill game at times, but on a night when Florida did almost everything right, was clearly by far the better team through 60 minutes and caught the champs on the second game of a back-to-back, the Panthers brought the hits and let the Blackhawks know they were there.

Old-time hockey style.

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

 

#FlaPanthers #Devils pre-game notes

By Bill Whitehead

SUNRISE – Some pre-game observations and notes before the Florida Panthers host the New Jersey Devils tonight at 7:30 here at BB&T Center. Some quick hits below:

DEVILISH TIME: Florida’s game tonight marks the 82nd time the clubs have met. The Cats hold a 26-41-7-7 record against New Jersey and are 15-17-4-4 at home against them. The two teams meet for the final time in New Jersey on Mar. 31.

ON THE SCORESHEET: Florida defenseman Alex Petrovic tallied his first NHL point in Tampa Thursday when he assisted on Brandon Pirri’s goal late in the Panthers’ 5-4 loss.

SCORING LEADERS: Jaromir Jagr leads New Jersey with 57 points (21-36), while Patrik Elias (42 pts., 14-28) and Adam Henrique (38 pts., 23-15) follow. Florida is paced by Scottie Upshall (32 pts., 12-20), Nick Bjugstad (31 pts., 14-17) and Brad Boyes (30 pts., 17-13).

FORMER BUDS: Cory Schneider gets the starter in goal for New Jersey and is ranked third in the NHL with a 2.07 GAA. He faced former teammate Roberto Luongo on Nov. 24 earlier this season when Luongo’s Canucks beat the Devils 3-2 in a shootout.

ONE-TIMERS: Bjugstad has nine points in his last nine games and is riding a career-best four-game point streak…New Jersey’s Henrique, who beat Florida two years ago with the game-winner in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, has 11 points in his last seven games…The Devils currently hold the 10th position in the Eastern Conference while Florida is 15th, leading only Buffalo…Pirri has goals in back-to-back games and has three points in his first five games with the Cats…Jimmy Hayes’s two goals against Boston last Sunday in Florida’s 5-2 loss marked the first multi-goal game and third multi-point game of his NHL career; his seven goals are also a career high…Brian Campbell grids second in the league with 27:20 TOI/per game. He has also registered 28-plus minutes in 13 of his last 28 games played.

Cats End Season on High Note, Look Ahead

By Bill Whitehead

By both mediocre teams’ standards, the season finale between the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning likely turned out for the best, with each club getting the most it could out of the outcome, a 5-3 win for the visiting Cats, who rallied twice in a strong performance.

For Florida, beating its in-state rival is always a good thing, and this season’s games with the Bolts have been particularly frustrating. The Panthers battled back from down 2-0 and 3-2 on Saturday night, scoring three unanswered goals to end the season 2-2-1 against the Lightning. But it could have been much better than that if Florida had taken care of business in its only two meetings with the Bolts in South Florida.

On Feb. 16 at BB&T Center, Florida appeared to be on the way to a 5-4 win but couldn’t clear the puck out of its zone — a season-long problem that hounded the  team — with Tampa’s net empty. Teddy Purcell scored with 11 seconds left in regulation, and Benoit Pouliot tallied the game-winner in overtime.

A month later at home, the Cats turned in easily its most frustrating performance of the season in another loss — a defeat that truly defined the team’s shortcomings in the shortened season. Florida completely outhustled and outshot Tampa for the first 40 minutes, spending almost the entire time in front of Lightning goaltender Anders Lindback. Despite holding a 30-6 shot advantage after two periods and its opponent to a season-low 13, Florida dropped a 3-2 decision.

The Panthers (15-27-6) exacted a little revenge at the Tampa Times Forum, leaving the Cats fans who made the trip feeling a little better about the drive up I-75. The team showed a resilience that has been absent most of 2013, plus a snapshot (key word there) of its skill. Nick Bjugstad scored the first goal of his career. Alex Petrovic looked like a true NHL blueliner. T.J. Brennan looked like he had played with the Cats all year. Drew Shore and Quinton Howden were aggressive and had scoring chances. Eric Selleck scored his first NHL point by stealing the puck from Vincent Lecavalier in the third period and speeding toward Lindback, resulting in a tying goal by Scottie Upshall. And the prized rookie Jonathan Huberdeau strengthened his bid in his quest to win the Calder Trophy with three assists, including one on the empty-net goal by Marcel Goc that shut out the lights on Tampa’s season that started so promisingly but spiraled out of control.

The Lightning (18-26-4) started 6-1 and pulled out wins early in dramatic fashion, appearing to be a playoff team, but they only won 12 more times, fired mad genius coach Guy Boucher, traded away fan-favorite Calder candidate Cory Conacher for yet another goalie (Ben Bishop) and ended the season with a fizzle. This despite having flashy Art Ross Trophy winner Martin St. Louis and sharpshooter Steven Stamkos, who both had fantastic campaigns.

More significantly, though, for the Bolts is that it didn’t completely blow the season by beating Florida to close the year. In fact, St. Louis’ possible game-tying shot with the Tampa net empty that rang off the iron before Goc’s goal may have been a godsend. A win or overtime loss would have moved Tampa out of the top three draft spots (a club outside the top three could also do that Monday night by winning the draft lottery, with the Lightning then drafting fourth).

The top three selections in the draft, in some order, should be defenseman Seth Jones, center Nathan MacKinnon and left winger Jonathan Drouin. Unless it wins the lottery or makes a trade, Tampa won’t get Jones, which would be a huge asset to a club bereft of defense, but GM Steve Yzerman could walk away with MacKinnon or Drouin when he leaves the podium in Newark on June 30. That wouldn’t have happened if the Bolts had beaten Florida or even lost in overtime or a shootout if St. Louis had scored in the last 90 seconds.

Both teams’ futures look good. No team in the NHL showcased more top-shelf, highly drafted talent than Florida this year. Kris Versteeg likely won’t be healthy enough to open next season, but his and Sean Bergenheim’s return, plus some roster tightening — and maybe a deal or two at the draft — and the Cats should be a far better team next year. Adding one of the three top picks or trade out of the top spot for an impact player will just make them stronger.

The Lightning, meanwhile, will bring back all that offensive wizardry and a coach who has produced winning teams, but until it strengthens its blue line and finds a legit No. 1 goalie, Tampa won’t be a serious postseason contender. Both Lindback and Bishop have been backups during their careers. With Nashville having Pekke Rinne, who wasn’t going to be beaten out by Lindback, and Ottawa icing ex-Panther Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner, both Lindback and Bishop were expendable. One of the tall goalies will have to step up and win the job in camp, not in a season-long tryout each night.

It was locker cleanout day on Sunday, but next season likely can’t get here soon enough for both teams.

Panthers 3, NY Rangers 2

By Bill Whitehead

SUNRISE — Florida Panthers goaltender Jacob Markstrom showed the New York Rangers a glimpse of what they can expect in future divisional play, halting the Blueshirts’ quest for a playoff spot in the process — for now.

Markstrom stopped 36 shots, and Tomas Fleischmann, Marcel Goc and Drew Shore scored goals to help the Panthers break a six-game losing streak and get past the Rangers, 3-2, in front of 17,758 fans at BB&T Center on Tuesday night.

Following a scoreless first period in which Florida (14-26-6)  was outshot 10-2 by the visiting Rangers, Filip Kuba’s shot from above the left circle was tipped by Fleischmann at 5:04 into the second period, resulting in the Czech winger’s 10th goal. Defenseman Mike Weaver also recorded an assist on the play, and the Panthers held a 1-0 advantage after 40 minutes.

“We know the Rangers focus on blocking our shots so we’re not trying to mess around with it on the blue line. I had a good screen and maybe Fleischmann tipped it, I’m not sure,” said Kuba, who was originally credited with the goal, following the second period.

After Taylor Pyatt was awarded a goal when his shot was accidentally kicked in by Colby Robak, Florida defenseman T.J. Brennan jumped up after a loose puck, forcing New York’s Brad Richards to commit a tripping penalty as Brennan broke into the Rangers’ defensive zone. Florida went on the power play, and Goc, standing in the slot, broke the 1-1 tie by redirecting a pass from Fleischmann past New York goalie Henrik Lundqvist for his eighth goal with 7:37 left.

Drew Shore broke a 22-game streak without a goal, including 18 without a point, by scoring shorthanded and into an empty net with 1:23 remaining in the game, his third tally. With Lundqvist pulled in the last minute of play, New York watched newly acquired center Derick Brassard cut the lead to 3-2 with 32.9 seconds left. However, Florida fought off a pair of good attempts by New York in the closing seconds to preserve the win.

Drew Shore on his night’s work and the season:

Florida has two games remaining and still sits in last in the league’s standings. A loss to either Toronto at home on Thursday or in Tampa on Saturday in the season finale would slot the Panthers with the best chance of securing the top overall pick and assure them of picking no worse than second in the June 30 draft in Newark.

Panthers coach Kevin Dineen discusses his defense, rookie
Alex Petrovic and beating the New York Rangers:

The Rangers (24-18-4) outshot Florida 38-16 but wasted a chance to clinch its third straight playoff appearance and are just one point ahead of Winnipeg, who lost 5-3 in Washington. The Jets have one game remaining, at home against Montreal, while New York travels to Carolina on Thursday and rounds out the season at home against New Jersey. The Rangers and Ottawa Senators are tied for the final two playoff spots in the Eastern Conference, with the Jets just the one marker in arrears.

Florida won the season series 2-1 from the Rangers, also beating them 3-1 behind Markstrom on March 21. New York defeated Florida 6-1 last week.