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.

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Trade Deadline a Flurry of Activity at End

By Bill Whitehead

Wednesday’s much anticipated NHL trade deadline played out like Season 2 of The Walking Dead: slow, slow, slow then bam, a major payoff at the end. Hey, the little girl was right there under their noses the whole time. Same for the deadline as it inched closer and closer to its 3 p.m. finish – general managers finally put together a number of deals after a long lull. In all, 17 deals were made, many in the deadline’s last hour.

New York Rangers general manager Glen Sather traded away Marian Gaborik in a six-player deal that returned among other players Derick Brassard. New York also acquired Ryane Clowe from San Jose for three draft picks.

The Blueshirts received immediate dividends as Clowe scored twice and had an assist, and Brassard had a goal and three assists in New York’s 6-1 pasting of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Clowe was named the game’s first star while Brassard was the second. The two looked like they had been playing together for years. Clowe was everywhere, and Brassard demonstrated his playmaking skills with a sweet backhanded pass from the low slot right onto the stick of Clowe after Brassard earlier lifted a backhander past Marc-Andre Fleury for his first goal as a Ranger.

Minnesota made a major deal as well in landing Buffalo captain Jason Pominville. The streaking Washington Capitals went all-in on attempting to earn a playoff spot after a dreadful start by trading for Martin Erat but parted with top prospect Filip Forsberg, an 18-year-old forward whom many consider a future top line player. Forsberg was drafted No.11 overall in last year’s draft in Pittsburgh and has been an elite player in Sweden this season.

But the most surprising transaction of the day occurred between Ottawa and Tampa Bay as the Senators shipped goaltender Ben Bishop to the Lightning for winger Cory Conacher and a fourth-round pick. The 6-foot-7 Bishop didn’t fit into Ottawa’s goaltending plans, and the Lightning, who have been plagued with poor netminding for years, made the move. The shocker was that it was Conacher and a pick that was sent to Ottawa, not the Lightning getting the pick. A solid Calder candidate, Conacher was a fan favorite and a feel-good story as he played well early while skating on a line with Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis, but the Canisius alum’s numbers had dwindled significantly of late. Now he’s the top scorer on the Senators with 24 points.

But why would Bolts GM Steve Yzerman trade so much for a player who was the odd man out of the Ottawa crease, plus throw in a draft pick to boot, especially when Anders Lindback was supposed to be the answer in net? Yzerman gave up three good picks and a prospect to get the 24-year-old Lindback and Kyle Wilson. At least one – or maybe both – will likely be a bust.

Florida general manager Dale Tallon saw his trade deadline unfold a little differently than last year.

Last February, Tallon pulled the trigger on two deals that added depth to the Panthers as they pushed for the Southeast Division title. First, he acquired Jerred Smithson from Nashville for a sixth-round pick in 2012. A few days later he traded a prospect and a third-round selection this year for Wojtek Wolksi, a shootout specialist who wasn’t getting much ice time with the Rangers. Smithson was typically great on faceoffs and the penalty kill, while Wolski scored the game-tying goal on his first day with the Panthers, a 3-2 shootout win over the Hurricanes in Raleigh.

Smithson again was a part of Florida’s plans as Wednesday’s deadline neared. Tallon shipped the unrestricted free agent – 54.8 percent in the faceoff circle — to Edmonton, the NHL’s worst faceoff team (45.0 percent), for a fourth-round pick. Florida isn’t better off with No. 25 out of the lineup, and if Tallon decided to, he could purse the 34-year-old UFA on July 1. The other deal involved Mike Santorelli, who scored the game-winning goal last Thursday in a shootout win over Buffalo. Santorelli had been put on waivers numerous times and Winnipeg finally claimed him; eventually, it seemed as though some club would take a chance – which is something Santorelli had plenty of in Florida. With all the injuries Florida has incurred, no player, especially Santorelli, can make a claim that he didn’t have a chance to prove himself. His GWG Thursday, though, may have convinced the Jets that they needed that kind of spark as they continue to lose games but still hang on to the top of the Southeast.

But that was it on Tallon’s end. As one of only four teams that really have no shot at the playoffs, Florida was expected to have its roster picked over by 26 vulture-like clubs. However, Tallon wasn’t willing to part with Tomas Kopecky, Marcel Goc or anyone else for peanuts, which is the right move. No point to bust up the roster simply because of a slew of injuries nor deal a top rookie like Jonathan Huberdeau or promising one in Drew Shore, which is exactly what Tampa Bay did.

“When you’re at the bottom, teams just expect you to panic and give up players. That’s not going to happen here,” Tallon told the Miami Herald’s George Richards.

A case could be made that the best deal Tallon made was signing prized prospect Nick Bjugstad to a pro contract and bringing the Minnesota Gopher star to South Florida for his debut Saturday against the Washington Capitals, but that wasn’t a trade deadline transaction between Florida and another club.

Fortunately for the Florida Panthers, Tallon making very few deals turned out to be the best deal of the day.