#FlaPanthers, Bolts Battle for Top Spot

Well, the Florida Panthers’ visit to Habsland turned out to be so much better than their visit to NYC, huh? You know, that Monday night fiasco that quickly turned into the Brooklyn Disaster.

As bad as Monday’s inexplicable 3-2 loss was to the Islanders was — and it was right up there as worst of the year, maybe because of its terrible timing with the postseason looming — the Cats’ bounceback 4-1 win over the Montreal Canadiens was a 60-minute effort. Granted it came against a Habs team that resembled an AHL club, but, really, who cares at this point about the circumstances surrounding any of these games?

Did anyone really feel sorry for a rag-tag Florida (39-22-9) group that scratched Derek MacKenzie, Erik Gudbranson and Jussi Jokinen? Gudbranson’s absence was no surprise as he was seen limping around the dressing room following the loss in Brooklyn, but Jokinen’s ailment is just another in a slew of injuries and was a surprise. However, for Florida to compete at top level and succeed, key contributors 17, 44 and 36 need to be in the lineup. This is especially important in the pursuit of the Atlantic Division.

Just as Super Tuesday resulted in a four-candidate field being reduced to three on the Republican side, mainly because of the Sunshine State no less, I’ve said for weeks that I feel the three-team race in the Atlantic will eventually be trimmed to two. Florida and Tampa appear to have an easier path to achieving the divisional title as compared to the Boston Bruins.

Take Boston’s upcoming slate of games into consideration — and I write this as they lead San Jose 2-1 in the second period. Yet after that it gets no easier for Boston in its last 11 to end the season. Back-to-back games in Anaheim and Los Angeles at the end of the week, then traveling to face the Rangers next Wednesday. Florida rolls into Beantown the next night on a Bruins’ back-to-back. However, the real kicker is Boston going to St. Louis and Chicago to start April. The penultimate game is home against Detroit, who is fading and scrounging to hold onto the final wild-card spot.

In total, Boston faces seven playoff teams in its final 11 contests. The Bruins will face five of those seven teams currently holding a playoff spot away from TD Garden. The Bs have been the NHL’s best on the road, but that’s a tall task ahead of them.

I expect Florida and Tampa to reap the benefits of that, meaning the Atlantic winner would play Pittsburgh right now and the divisional runner-up would host Boston if the Bruins slip to third in the division. That will be a tough matchup for either Florida or Tampa.

In short, I just don’t think the Cats and Bolts meet in the first round.

But we still have a few weeks to figure that out.

EMPTY-NETTER: Jonathan Huberdeau was given the A on his No. 11 sweater as he returned home to Quebec. The Saint-Jerome native showed he was worthy from the get-go, engaging in some rough stuff right away and eventually leaving a mark on the game when he slid a beautiful pass over to Sasha Barkov for the game’s final goal. It was Huberdeau’s 35th assist, second on the team to Jokinen. Interestingly, the Montreal fans seemed to cheer loudly when the primary assist from one of their hometown lads was announced in French.

Say what you will about Montreal fans — they dress funny, they’re cocky bordering on arrogant, they feel entitled because of their rich history — but one thing is also worthy of mention: They are passionate about their hockey. That passion often translates into appreciation, which is why they cheered for their homey Huberdeau after he helped bury his childhood favorite team.

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




#FlaPanthers Do’s and Don’ts in Western Canada

By Bill Whitehead

After a pair of games in eastern Canada, the Florida Panthers (25-12-4) take to the other end of the Great White North with a 9:30 game against the suddenly better Edmonton Oilers (17-22-3). Florida will be trying to extend their NHL season-long 11-game winning streak against the Oilers, who are 8-2-0 in their last 10 against the Cats.

After watching the Oilers lose Saturday night’s game against Tampa Bay in a game they completely dominated – Tampa had all the puck luck in the world, scoring three goals in the third on shots that all bounced off Oilers — I’ve come up with a couple of areas Florida should focus on in an effort to get to a dozen consecutive wins.

Don’t run-and-gun: Edmonton is young and talented, icing highly skilled forwards, some who were No. 1 overall or lottery selections. That youth likes to get out and go to demonstrate their abilities. Florida doesn’t need to get caught up in matching the fast pace of the game and should just take the opportunities presented. Hey, I’ll take Jonathan Huberdeau or Sasha Barkov against Cam Talbot or Anders Nilsson in a breakaway all day over Taylor Hall against Roberto Luongo or Al Montoya, but the Panthers don’t need to play at Edmonton’s pace.

Stay within the system: Coach Gerard Gallant has utilized a tight defensive system that clogs up the neutral zone, creates traffic in the shooting lanes on attempted shots and allows breakouts to get possible odd-man rushes. If Florida can demonstrate their system works better than first-year Edmonton coach Todd McLellan’s, the young Oilers and Barkov-like Leon Draisaitl (by far my favorite non-Cat player from the 2014 draft) may become frustrated and slip into some bad habits. This could lead to breakdowns and offensive chances.

Don’t get caught up in the streak: The team and Gallant have handled the winning streak and its attention like true pros instead of newcomers being fawned over as media darlings – actually, like they’ve acted like they’ve been here before. That said, there’s no reason to press and gamble against Edmonton. A look at the standings says Florida is five points ahead of second-place Detroit in the Atlantic, and for once Florida isn’t chasing the divisional leader. Going to overtime in Rexall Place against a Western Conference club and being assured of at least one point in the standings isn’t the worst thing in the long run.

EMPTY-NETTER: Florida immediately treks to Vancouver for a game Monday night against the Canucks. I watched all of the Vancouver’s game Saturday against Tampa – an overtime loss to the Canucks – and this version of Luongo’s old club isn’t that special. The Sedin twins didn’t stand out in the loss to the Bolts, and none of the veterans, including winger Radim Vrbata (who may be a rental target for a playoff team, maybe in South Florida), stood out at all.

What Vancouver does have is a nice young core. Jake Virtanen has exceptional speed and flair to his game, and Bo Horvat is fun to watch, too. Also, former Panther goalie Jacob Markstrom, once thought to be the netminder of Florida’s future, played a strong game against Tampa (aside from his flopping effort on Nikita Kucherov’s game-winner), though it would be hard to picture him as Vancouver’s future No. 1.

Staggeringly, Vancouver has scored two goals or less in 26 of their 42 games, not exactly the high-flying numbers put up by the team over the last decade or so. Florida’s defense could be the difference.

It will be a hard test in British Columbia, but don’t be confused into thinking this is the Vancouver that Luongo suited up for.

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