#FlaPanthers Should Need No Motivation

Florida Panthers coach Tom Rowe has an easy job on his hands today: Getting his Cats, who are all over the place with their lines, ready to face a losing Winnipeg Jets team that has already beaten the Panthers.

Last month they lost to Winnipeg, a club that currently grids out as 25th in the NHL in the conference standings.

That should be enough motivation right there for professional athletes: Losing to a bad team. A bad team with a good coach and skilled players, but a bad team nonetheless, especially on the back end.

If Florida isn’t ready to play tonight and comes out sloppy, it will be on everyone — Rowe, his staff and the rest of the staff. Everyone. Florida has been off since Saturday’s solid effort against Dallas, and the approach they took against the Stars is the same one that needs to apply tonight.

Shoot the puck. Every time it’s on your stick, send the frozen rubber toward either Michael Hutchinson (4-7-2, 3.18, .894) or Connor Hellebuyck (14-12-1, 2.76, .908). The latter played adequately in a 6-4 win over Tampa, allowing a pair of late power-play goals to tighten the game.

Florida (16-14-8) lost 4-3 to the Jets in December in Manitoba in a game when Aleksander Barkov, Vincent Trocheck and Reilly Smith scored power-play goals but couldn’t capitalize and earn two points against Winnipeg and Hellebuyck.

Hutchinson beat Vancouver last month in a 4-1 win, stopping 22 of 23 shots. Whether or not he or Hellebuyck is in, the approach should be straighforward: shoot. Newcomer Michael Sgarbossa put a shot on goal in his first Florida shift last week, forcing me to sarcastically say, “Shooting the puck with a good look instead of passing first? Yeah, that won’t play too well on this team.”

Shoot. The. Puck.

Florida put 44 shots on Hellebuyck in their previous meeting and outshot Dallas 22-6 after one period on Saturday. Forty shots on goal should be the benchmark for the Cats, especially against Winnipeg’s shaky netminding. While we’re at it, let’s end the night with SOGs being in the mid 40s.

The worst tact Florida could take is underestimate the Jets (18-19-3), which might be a possibility considering Winnipeg played a fast-paced game versus the Bolts last night. There was almost no neutral zone play as forwards streaked through center ice unimpeded.

Florida must slow down speedy, talented forwards Patrik Laine, Blake Wheeler, Nicolaj Ehlers and Mark Scheifele to take some of the pressure off Roberto Luongo.

Like Florida, the Jets are underachieving as well. The Panthers are four points out of third in the Atlantic Division with a Saturday meeting with Boston lying in wait, while the Jets are three points out of a wildcard spot.

No doubt, both face huge uphill battles of making the postseason, but Florida needs to take care of the business in front of them of beating the Jets instead of thinking about what lies ahead. Then they can worry about Nashville, who will also be playing Tampa the night before they meet the Cats on Friday.

Well rested and coming off a sweet road win in a game where they attacked the Stars early, there’s no reason at all the Panthers should have jet lag against Winnipeg tonight and stink up the joint.

None whatsoever.

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

#FlaPanthers Go for Spectacular Road Trip in Winnipeg

By Bill Whitehead

When the last shift had been skated at Edmonton’s Rexall Place and the Florida Panthers had completed yet another win, an observation came up: “So this is what a really successful road trip feels like.” Florida is 4-1-0 on its current road swing that started in the East and then moved on to Western Canada.

Most of the banter in the BB&T press box before the 6-game cross-country trek began centered on the notion that seven or eight points out of Florida (20-11-9) in some difficult places to play would be a fine trip and allow the Cats to keep their position in the wildcard chase. After the 4-2 victory over the Oilers and with one more contest remaining, I tweeted this:

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Now the Panthers have the chance to transform “excellent” into “spectacular” – if they can win Tuesday night in a very tough MTS Centre in Winnipeg to finish the trip. It’s a game I circled as the toughest of the six.

The Winnipeg Jets, the Cats’ former divisional foe, are returning from a 3-game Western swing of their own, having lost to Arizona and splitting shootouts with Los Angeles and Anaheim. Winnipeg collected three points of six and currently occupies the first wildcard berth in the Western Conference with a 21-14-8 mark.

And speaking of the Jets, here’s an admission: I watch them. A lot. After they left Florida’s division and conference, I was still drawn to them for some reason. And having no genuine allegiance to any other club in the West, I viewed them similarly as I did when they were in the Eastern Conference, just without the dislike naturally reserved for divisional rivals.

That said, a Florida win would indeed move the excellent to the spectacular because, frankly, the Panthers haven’t historically pulled off big stretches of road wins, dispatching of opponents from city to city and leaving crowds mostly silent when the goal scorers and stars of the game are announced. Florida has left four of five home crowds filing out quietly, likely complaining about their team but confessing, “You know, that’s a pretty good Florida team.”

So what are the Panthers facing in Winnipeg, the Slurpee Capital of the World?

For starters, they’re facing a healthier squadron of Jets than were available a few weeks ago. Winnipeg has been hit hard by injuries, predominantly on the blue line. Standout young defenseman Jacob Trouba (upper body) is out until next month, while Grant Clitsome (back surgery) is gone for the season. Mark Stuart, Toby Enstrom and Zach Bogosian have all recently returned. Imagine Florida being without five of their six blueliners at one time.

Also on the injury front, electrifying winger Evander Kane – expected to be out until February with a lower-body injury – missed just five games and scored against Anaheim in his return. Dustin Byfuglien is as imposing and dynamic as ever, and Blake Wheeler is a personal favorite who leads in assists (21) and sets up top goal scorers Andrew Ladd and Bryan Little, with 16 each. Former Panther Michael Frolik, who will be a UFA this offseason, is having a strong year as well and has found a role with Winnipeg just as he did in Chicago.

Goalie Ondrej Pavelec, from the same hometown as Frolik, has always been an obstacle for Florida, but the Cats’ biggest concern likely will be 24-year-old upstart Michael Hutchinson, who was minding the net for the ECHL’s Ontario Reign last year. He’s grabbed the No. 1 goalie spot from Pavelec by going 11-4-2 with a 2.00 GAA and a .931 save percentage. With the Czech goalie having played in Anaheim on Sunday, the money’s on the right-handed catching Hutchinson to be in goal versus Florida, though one never really knows how Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice is going to shuffle his backstops.

Winnipeg is 21st on the power play, 10th on the penalty kill, 22nd in scoring, seventh in goals against and 24th in faceoffs. And we all know from those Southeast Division tilts that the MTS Centre is problematic: It’s a small barn, the crowd is often boisterous and the Jets feed off that energy with physical play. A 7-2 drubbing of the Cats there in April of 2013 comes to mind.

The Panthers will need a pretty spectacular effort to move “excellent” to “spectacular,” but they’ve been doing it this whole road trip and most of the season.

It’s just what these Cats do.

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

Jets’ Pavelec Shuts Down Panthers in 3-2 Overtime Win

By Bill Whitehead

SUNRISE — A night after being sequestered in the nation’s capital, the Florida Panthers faced something else that shut them down on Friday night — Winnipeg goaltender Ondrej Pavelec.

Pavelec made 38 saves and defenseman Dustin Byfuglien outworked the Panthers in scoring the game-winning goal in overtime as the Jets finished their Sunshine State swing with a 3-2 win over Florida in front of 16,442 fans at BB&T Center.

Byfuglien collected the puck behind the Florida goal in the 4-on-4 extra session, skated around the left circle while warding off Panthers’ checking efforts and fired a shot past goalie Jacob Markstrom with 41 seconds remaining in overtime for the win.

The Jets (12-11-1) redeemed themselves from a 4-1 loss to the Panthers on Tuesday to begin the southern swing. Winnipeg was a 2-1 winner in Tampa on Thursday night, with the biggest moment coming when they killed off a full 5-on-3 power play by the Lightning. Florida was routed Thursday in Washington as the Capitals blitzed Markstrom and backup netminder Scott Clemmensen early and often, breezing to a 7-1 win while Winnipeg was beating the slumping Bolts.

Predictably, Florida (7-12-6) looked like a team that arrived home at 3 a.m. Friday and was sluggish. The Panthers outshot Winnipeg 11-7 in the first 20 minutes, but the club failed in all of its attempts but one in beating Pavelec, who they defeated in the Tuesday win.

Against the NHL’s worst penalty kill, Florida was 0-for-4 on the power play, including a great chance with nine minutes left in regulation after Zach Bogosian’s holding penalty. Pavelec was at his best, though, making his best saves on two shots by Peter Mueller — a redirection and a backhanded shot in close that the Czech goalie spread and made a pad save on.

“He made some really good saves but we played well and we fought back,” said Jack Skille. “It showed our character in the third period, we were playing responsible on the fore check and the defensive zone so that’s really one we’d like to have.”

Florida dropped to 0-5 in overtime games and are 1-1 in shootouts. In fall, five of the six losses after regulation have come at BB&T Center.

Panthers coach Kevin Dineen’s post-game interview:

Rookie Jonathan Huberdeau scored his team-leading 12th goal with 13 seconds remaining in the first period to trim Winnipeg’s lead to 2-1. The Jets took the lead on markers by Andrew Ladd and Blake Wheeler, beating Markstrom for their 13th and eighth goals, respectively.

Huberdeau, who has scored goals in all four games against the Jets, leads all NHL rookies in goals and ranks just second to Tampa Bay’s Cory Conacher in points. On Friday Huberdeau, 19, joined Teemu Selanne, Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin as the only active players who scored at least 12 goals in their first 25 NHL games.

Shawn Matthias scored off a backhanded pass from Tomas Kopecky 5:50 in to the third period to tie it at 2-2. Kopecky kept the puck in the offensive zone after Winnipeg’s Grant Clitsome failed to clear it, leading to a 2-on-1 opportunity and the first assist on Matthias’s sixth goal.

Game Day Preview: Winnipeg at Florida

By Bill Whitehead

The Florida Panthers are getting to the point, frankly, where there’s not much more to say. Promising homestands have transformed into nightly home dressing rooms that resemble a first date between two bashful teens, quiet as can be. Or a Quaker meeting. Another enticing stretch of home games begins Tuesday when the Winnipeg Jets visit BB&T Center for the second time. The Cats are 1-0-1 against the former Atlanta Thrashers franchise, but now, time and points are more precious than ever.

The last two home games have been disastrous. Shoddy goaltending put Florida in a hole against both Buffalo and Carolina, and the two opponents simply decided against playing offense for the final 40 minutes of both of those games. Rush by rush, shot by shot, both Ryan Miller and Dan Ellis fended off great efforts by the Panthers, but it was mostly fruitless unless Florida had a man advantage. Miller was strong all game and even better in the shootout. Ellis had missed his scheduled start due to illness and was forced to replace an injured Cam Ward, so he was ripe for the picking, yet the Panthers couldn’t get it done.

Florida has four home games in its next five — twice against Winnipeg, the hot Habs on Sunday and the slumping Lightning next Tuesday. Five games against divisional opponents. It’s time to put together some decent numbers, like, say, somehow gaining eight points in those five games. It’s truly come to that because the season is slipping away.

And that’s what’s been missing from these Panthers — an impressive four- or five-game winning streak. A stretch of eight points in five games would get them right back into the mix somewhat, but they’ve shown no inclination, whether it be sparked by steadfast goaltending, workman-like effort or skillful moves, to author a winning streak. Here’s perspective: Florida has six wins this season, which is approaching the midpoint; Winnipeg won 2/3 of that amount on its recent five-game road trip. Now, the Jets are near the top of the Southeast Division.

It’s time for the Panthers to get going — actually it’s way past that point after a wasted first half — because the season is starting to become unmanageable.

Some notes for tonight’s home game against the Jets and some guy named Jokinen:

LAST TIME THE JETS LANDED AT BB&T: In one of its better performances, Florida rallied from two deficits in the third period and scored five times in the final 20 minutes as the Panthers grounded the Jets 6-3 on Jan. 31. Florida was 3-for-6 on the power play, with Brian Campbell, Peter Mueller and Alex Kovalev all scoring a man up. Jonathan Huberdeau, Kris Versteeg and Tomas Kopecky also scored goals, while Tomas Fleischmann recorded a career-high three assists.

HUBY DOING IT: Florida rookie Jonathan Huberdeau tallied the third two-goal game and fourth multi-point game of his 22-game NHL career in his team’s 3-2 loss to Carolina on Sunday. He ranks first among rookies in goals (10), shots (62), is second in points (15) and fourth in shooting percentage (16.1%). The Quebec native is tied for the team lead with Campbell and Fleischmann in points with 15.

STREAKING JETS: Before a 3-0 home loss at the hands of the Washington Capitals on Saturday, Winnipeg had turned its season around by transforming into road warriors. The Jets won five out of six before the Washington loss, including four on the road in Buffalo, Carolina, New Jersey and in Madison Square Garden against the Rangers. Andrew Ladd leads the Jets in both goals and points, with 12 and 20, respectively. Evander Kane is second with 18 points (9-9-18) and Blake Wheeler has 17 (7-10-17). Ex-Panther captain Olli Jokinen has seven points (5-2-7) and is a minus-10. Goaltender Ondrej Pavelec is 8-10-1 with a 2.87 GAA and a .900 SV%.

He’s no longer here wearing 26, but this was a great shootout winner against the Jets:

FEELING A DRAFT: In non-Panther news, at least for now, the NHL announced Monday that the 2013 NHL Draft Lottery will be held on April 29 and will mark the first time in NHL history where all 14 teams not making the Stanley Cup Playoffs, or the clubs that have acquired the first-round selection positions of those clubs, will have a shot at winning the right to the top selection. Previously, the bottom five teams were the only ones who had the opportunity to get the first overall pick. The 2013 NHL Draft will be held Sunday, June 30, at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., at 3 p.m. For the first time since 2006, all seven rounds will take place on the same day.

The chances of each non-playoff team earning the first pick is below:

Team 1                    25.0%
Team 2                    18.8%
Team 3                    14.2%
Team 4                    10.7%
Team 5                     8.1%
Team 6                     6.2%
Team 7                     4.7%
Team 8                     3.6%
Team 9                     2.7%
Team 10                    2.1%
Team 11                     1.5%
Team 12                    1.1%
Team 13                    0.8%
Team 14                    0.5%

Winnipeg (10-10-1, 21 pts.) at Florida (6-11-5, 17 pts.)
Tues., Mar. 5, 7:30 p.m.
BB&T Center — Sunrise, Fla.

BY THE NUMBERS

WPG                       vs.               FLA

14.3% (24th)            Power play               20.0% (10th)
72.7% (30th)            Penalty kill             75.0% (29th)
2.62  (18th)            Goals per game           2.46  (22nd)
3.00  (25th)            Goals against            3.68  (30th)
0.93  (21st)            5-on-5 For/Ag.          0.60  (30th)
50.0% (15th)             Faceoffs                 50.7% (13th)
28.5  (18th)            Shots per gm             29.7  (11th)
28.2  (12th)            Shots ag. per gm        31.1  (24th)

PANTHERS’ PACE

Florida has 17 points in 22 games: 37.1 over 48 games

LOCAL TV BROADCAST
Fox Sports Florida, 7:30 p.m.
Steve Goldstein (PxP), Bill Lindsay (Color)

LOCAL RADIO
560 WQAM, 7:30 p.m.
Randy Moller (PxP)