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.
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By Bill Whitehead
SUNRISE –After Florida’s 2-1 Saturday night shootout win over Boston courtesy of Roberto Luongo and Brandon Pirri, Panthers captain Willie Mitchell was asked what the young Panthers could possibly learn from the enormous moment at the BB&T Center.
Frankly, there hadn’t been a moment like that since April 26, 2012, when Adam Henrique broke the hearts of the entire arena.
Mitchell’s advice to his young teammates was clear: “We believe in here that if we stay in the present and take care of what’s ahead of us, we’ll be there until the end. You just try to stay in the moment.”
And after a slow start by the Panthers – the first 15 minutes were very nervy ones by the home team – there were plenty of moments.
The Cats settled in and battled the Bruins, desperately chipping away at a 5-point wildcard deficit in a game that was like a heavyweight match. In the second and third periods, the physical play reached a crescendo with the Panthers doing the majority of the smacking.
“You’re playing Boston,” said defenseman Erik Gudbranson. “That’s what they bring game in and game out. There wasn’t much space out there, that’s for sure. We didn’t have much time with the puck; you had to move your feet to open up a spot. You needed to be physical to create opportunities. Our forwards did a really good job of that in the second half of the second and the third. We really got physical, created those holes and created opportunities for us.”
The two expressions I heard most often in the Florida dressing room post-game from Gudbranson , Luongo and Pirri were the lack of space on the ice and the playoff-style energy to the contest. Gudbranson said the Panthers didn’t designate a must-get number of points in the three tilts versus the Bruins, the first of which went to Florida in a single-point gain.
“Our playoffs started a long time ago. Knowing where we are in the standing in relation to Boston, it had to be tonight. It was a physical affair all night long. They brought it, we brought it. We’re really happy to come out on the top end,” Gudbranson said.
“At this point of the season, you’re going shift by shift, trying to match the intensity of your linemates and teammates, and trying to keep that strong momentum going forward.”
Luongo said the crowd’s enthusiasm was palpable. He easily stopped Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand before Pirri slowly skated in and 5-holed Tuukka Rask.
“It was a playoff game, playoff intensity,” Luongo said. “You could feel it. There was not a lot of room on the ice. We’re happy we got the win; you’d have liked to have got it in regulation, obviously, but we’ll take the two points and move on here.”
In his second start since returning from injury, Luongo said he had no history on Boston center Ryan Spooner, the Bruins’ last chance at prolonging the game. Florida improved to 8-10 in shootouts while Boston slipped to 3-9.
“I didn’t know what he was going to do,” Luongo said. “Once he went to the backhand, I tried to close the 5-hole and get a glove on it. He wasn’t able to get it high enough to get it over my shoulder, which was nice. Whenever you’re involved in those (playoff) types of games, the crowd goes along with it and it brings the energy in the building.”
Luongo has seen Pirri’s game-winning move on Rask, too. The Finnish goalie stopped Pirri in a 2-on-1 in overtime, then Pirri’s last blast of the 5-minute session whistled by the near post off a pass from Aleksander Barkov.
“Rask made one huge save on him, and (Pirri) missed on another, but Pirri’s so good and patient with the puck in the shootout. I see it in practice every day. It’s a tough move to stop,” Luongo said.
Pirri laugh and added of his molasses-like approach in the shootout: “I give Lu fits with that. It takes too long and wastes time.”
It wasn’t a perfect night for Florida. In fact, the scenario that played out was maybe third-best in the pecking order. Ottawa won over Toronto – whom the Senators play two more times – and Boston gained a point.
As always, there were many near misses for the Cats, too, most noticeably Dave Bolland failing on a tap-in. The center had a chance to quiet the belly-aching over his acquisition, and his assist on Jimmy Hayes’ tally in the first was a beautiful backhanded pass. But he came up short on Rask’s doorstep in his efforts to be the game’s No. 1 star. ESPN had that save in its top 10 plays, but the result was more about Bolland whiffing than Rask stonewalling.
Still, it was perhaps the best night of the year in Sunrise. A dramatic win over a tough opponent whom Florida has struggled against, all in the thick of a playoff race and played out in a front of a loud crowd.
“We’re a good group in here, and we know where we are. There’s a very, very strong belief in here that we’re going to make the playoffs and go far in the playoffs once we get there. We’re just going to continue the way we’re going and stay strong,” Gudranson said.
Florida did just that. They held strong, put pressure on Boston and won a game that felt like the postseason all over again — just with no Henrique ending.
They stayed in what amounted to a very important moment.
Follow Bill Whitehead on Twitter @BillWhiteheadFL and in Scripps newspapers online at TCPalm.com
By Bill Whitehead
Monday’s suspension of Florida defenseman Dmitry Kulikov was warranted. It’s the kind of dangerous hit the NHL is trying to get away from and put in its past like the era without visors and immovable steel goals that were anchored into the ice.
But don’t kid yourself into thinking there isn’t another name than had an impact on Kulikov receiving a 4-game suspension without pay. And that name?
If Kulikov’s blow below the waist would have been to the leg of Shawn Horcoff or Travis Moen or almost any other Dallas Star, there’s no way Kulikov would have been hit as hard and received the punishment he did.
But Kulikov hit the Stars’ star.
Seguin, a 29-goal scorer and an exciting point per game player, is one of the league’s stars, and let’s face it, the NHL protects its big names. Kulikov, who has no history of dirty play, was also a bit of a victim of the media on the night after the hit.
During intermission of Saturday night’s Toronto-Montreal tilt, the majority of the Sportsnet crew chose to vilify Kulikov, whose rebound from last year’s terrible play on the back end is one of the Panthers’ best stories this season. His presence was missed in the St. Louis game, though the performance by call-up Shane O’Brien, a steady Alex Petrovic and an increasingly impressive Steve Kampfer became better after a sketchy first period against the physical Blues.
I suggested Sunday night that the Russian defenseman would get five games, then maybe get a game or two reduction. My reasoning for it being as harsh was this: Seguin, the Sportsnet team’s over-the-top persecution of Kulikov, Florida’s tenuous relationship with the NHL’s Department of Player Safety, and, well, Seguin. And Seguin.
But here are some names of players who were scofflaws when it came to dishing out hits that were clearly over-the-line against Cats yet received no suspensions: Anton Volchenkov, Jaroslav Spacek, Mike Richards, Radko Gudas, Rick Nash and Keith Yandle. Surely there are some offenders I’m leaving out.
Kulikov deserved a suspension because the NHL is trying to put that type of dangerous play in the past, like the hit by Brad Marchand on Sami Salo – very similar contact. It’s unfortunate what happened to Seguin, which hurts the Stars’ playoff hopes.
The NHL, though, carried the punishment a couple of games too far.
GOING WITH YOUR GUT: Florida coach Gerard Gallant has made it known he plays a hunch at times and goes with a gut feeling, but his Sunday shootout decisions have left many puzzled, myself included.
If you want to find the origin of the recent stretch of misery, look no further than the game against the Nashville Predators. The talk after the game was, hey, playoff teams don’t blow 2-goal leads in the third period at home and make matters worse by losing in the shootout. However, that’s exactly what Florida did.
But what was perplexing was not so much Gallant’s decision to trot out the four shooters he did – Brandon Pirri, Brad Boyes, Nick Bjugstad and Dave Bolland – but the three sharpshooters he didn’t use at all. That would be Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov and Jussi Jokinen. You can make a case for the first three of Pirri, Boyes and Bjugstad, but not Bolland over Huby, Barky or Jussi. Ever.
There was more.
In the 5-round shootout against St. Louis, he failed to call on No. 16 to go out there and win it. Instead he slipped in Jimmy Hayes, a brutish net-front presence who isn’t exactly Phil Kessel-like in his one-on-one skills. Shootouts are about dazzling dangles and dipsy-do. That’s not Hayes’ game. Barkov, who beat Pittsburgh with perhaps the shootout goal of the year, must be wondering what he has to do to crack the top five in future shootouts.
Every Florida 5-rounder should have some combination of Huberdeau, Bjugstad, Boyes, Barkov and Jokinen starting it.
Every. Single. Time.
WATCH OUT BELOW: Florida’s focus since the turn of the year has been the Boston Bruins, New York Rangers and Washington Capitals, who linger above the playoff cut line. However, the club just below the Panthers – the Philadelphia Flyers — have made a serious push and trail Florida by just two points with the Cats having a game in hand. Philly (24-22-10) has transformed from sellers to potential buyers as the deadline approaches, buoyed mainly by their current 7-1-3 run. The Flyers open a 3-game home stretch with Columbus tonight then Buffalo on Thursday, so they could put even more pressure on Florida.
As for the Panthers (24-19-12), tonight’s game against a wreck of a Toronto team is not a must win, it’s a must-must win. Very musty. Double musty. The Maple Leafs (23-29-5) have been in a disastrous freefall since the Panthers’ 6-4 victory spurred by a 4-goal third period on Dec. 28, and we’re currently in Day 3 of the Leaf Rebuild that has already seen Cody Franson and Mike Santorelli leave Leaf Nation. Tonight Toronto will play fast as they did in Sunrise, has ex-Cat Olli Jokinen on the roster and called up prospect Brandon Kozun from the the AHL Marlies.
But the Leafs are damaged goods at this point, and anything less than two points tonight will be a huge letdown and leave the #OneUnderTheSun crowd quite upset – which they should be. Florida blew extra points against Nashville and St. Louis and really wasted strong goaltending efforts in their last three contests against Minnesota, Dallas and St. Louis, coming away with just one point.
Yet as Cats’ broadcaster Steve Goldstein said post-game on Sunday, we’re talking the possibility of Florida Panthers playoff hockey as the trade deadline nears. Florida looks now more like buyers instead of sellers, and fans are studying the standings, out-of-town scoreboard and upcoming schedules as if they were cramming for finals.
No one saw that one coming in September.
Follow Bill Whitehead on Twitter @BillWhiteheadFL and in Scripps newspapers online at TCPalm.com
By Bill Whitehead
New Florida fourth-liner Shawn Thornton is well aware of his role on his new team. It’s a position he’s been locking down since his days in the Ontario Hockey League.
“I’m not really good at a lot of things, to be completely honest. I probably strive to be a little better than average at most things. But taking care of myself…I’ve had a fairly tough upbringing. I’ve always been able to take care of myself,” said Thornton, 37, on Thursday.
“The fighting role started when the Peterborough Petes drafted me. They basically said, ‘If you’re going to play here, you’re not going to be a defenseman any more. You’re going to play forward on the fourth line, and if you’re playing on the fourth line, you’re going to have to stick up for everybody.’”
Two decades later full of seasons that usually had triple-digit PIMs, Thornton has taken his talents to the Panthers, where he will be arm’s length or closer and in a bellicose state from opposing tough guys who dare to take a run at the likes of Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Nick Bjugstad or any other player wearing Panthers red.
Thornton started boxing at 16 in his hometown of Oshawa, and he continued to do so in the early 2000s when he developed a shoulder problem while playing for the Norfolk Admirals. He still boxes and will be in California next week working on his skills in the ring.
However, the immediate impact of boxing – the literal impact of smashing one’s fist into a fellow pugilist’s face – isn’t the allure of the sport.
“I never had any amateur fights. I never really did it to help me in hockey fights. It doesn’t translate. But the conditioning aspect of it is superb and that’s why I do it. I’ve always taken pride in my conditioning my whole life. And being able to contribute in more ways than just my fists,” Thornton said.
“I’ve worked very hard over the last 16 yrs to become more than a one-dimensional hockey player. I bring other things to the table. I’m fairly smart defensively, pretty good positionally. Winning a couple of Cups helps.
“Being an enforcer and an agitator are too different things. Usually I have to clean up the mess of the agitators.”
Thornton has a strong friendship with Krys Barch, the player he’s essentially replacing on the fourth line, though he added that Barch is a better hockey player than fans give him credit for. Thornton actually helped Barch learn to fight in the minors and estimates they’ve tangled 10 times. Thornton also is close to Travis Moen: The pair roomed together for five years and were invited to each’s wedding.
“That’s part of the job,” Thornton said of fighting with friends. “We’re not the WWE where we’re pulling punches. It’s either me or him (out there). It’s understood and part of the job.”
The genuine nature of Thornton was evident when he discussed his regret on the hit on Brooks Orpik last Dec. 7 in Boston. After Orpik kneed Loui Eriksson, Thornton tried to fight the former Penguin defenseman. When he refused, Thornton used a sneak attack similar to another on Dec. 7, Pearl Harboring Orpik with a slew foot and hitting him twice in the head, which resulted in a concussion and the current Washington Capital being taken off the ice on a stretcher.
“It was unfortunate. I’m friends with Brooksy. My intention was never to knock him out or hurt him. If I were going to take a (15-game suspension), it wouldn’t have been on him, believe me. I still don’t like it. I did my 6 weeks. I lost a good amount of change,” said Thornton, who lost over $84,000 in salary.
“It probably took a few weeks after that to get back into it and start playing the same way. It was unfortunate and I shouldn’t have done it.”
Of the Panthers, Thornton pointed to the obvious talent and youth.
“The skill level is obviously second to none. I was asking Tuukka about Barkov last year because I didn’t know much about him. But playing against him, you definitely notice him. Playing again (Erik Gudbranson) the last couple of years, he was extremely hard to play against. Every time I dug into a corner, I knew it was going to be a rough one coming out. These guys are starting to come into their own…and play the game the right way. Hopefully the guys Dale has brought in for leadership will help out along the way,” he said.
“Willie Mitchell and David Bolland have both won (the Stanley Cup) twice, so I guess I won’t come in to the locker room and say, ‘This is how I did it, this is how I did it.’”
When late June rolled around and the free agent period was looming, I made a short list of UFAs I felt the Panthers should pursue. Making the top five was Thornton – a leader, a winner, an enforcer and veteran who will show these young Cats how the game is supposed to be played for the most part, minus any water squirting, of course.
“I was talking to (Florida GM) Dale (Tallon) a few days before, and Florida was my first choice. I like where the team’s going. I like the moves they’ve made in the offseason. I’ve been down there with the wife. We’re really excited to be a part of it,” Thornton admitted.
“At this point, I know my role and my job fairly well and he didn’t need to stress too much to me. We’ve known each other a long time and he knows how self-aware I am. There wasn’t too much to be said other than he was excited that I was excited to come there. I was very pleased that they were as interested.
“I’m excited for the next chapter.”
Florida fans should be equally excited, too, because no opponent will run any Panther with impunity like Rick Nash did to Tomas Kopecky and Mike Richards did to David Booth.
Shawn Thornton won’t stand by idly and simply watch that take place.
Follow Bill Whitehead on Twitter @BillWhiteheadFL and in Scripps newspapers online at TCPalm.com
By Bill Whitehead
The last 24 hours have not been the status quo for the Florida Panthers and their fans. The blockbuster transaction that came over on Tuesday, of course, was the club re-acquiring former star goalie Roberto Luongo and minor leaguer Steve Anthony from the Vancouver Canucks for Shawn Matthias and Jacob Markstrom.
Briefly on the latter two.
First, Matthias, while hot the last few games, has been a disappointment for most of this season after re-signing with the Panthers. Matty is an effort-over-skill guy, and he’s at his best playing a high-energy type game. That has been lacking this season. As for Markstrom, the Swede had more than his fair set of chances to earn playing time, and he simply hasn’t developed. He routinely seems out of position, and his mechanics appear to have slipped. I’ll recall fondly his 40-save effort in his second career win in early 2011 in a 2-1 win at Montreal, but that’s about it. Time just expired on Marky—at least his time in Sunrise.
Monday’s first trade involving Florida, though, brought over offensively skilled center Brandon Pirri from Chicago for a couple of future picks and is an intriguing deal put together by current Florida and former Chicago GM Dale Tallon. Pirri is a former AHL scoring champ and gifted shooter, and he’ll get the chance to contribute right away.
Skating on a line with Jonathan Huberdeau and Jimmy Hayes, Pirri made his Florida debut just under five minutes into Tuesday’s game against Boston. He made an immediate impact by drawing a penalty on just his second shift of the game against Boston. Pirri, 22, looked like he belonged and mixed it up.
Pirri chose to wear No. 73 for Florida, saying he just switched around his former No. 37. Here are some of the highlights from 1973, the number that corresponds to Pirri’s new number:
- Aerosmith released their debut album, while Pink Floyd dropped Dark Side of the Moon
- The Dolphins defeated the Redskins 14-7 in Super Bowl VII to complete the only undefeated season
- George Foreman pounded Joe Frazier in Jamaica to win the heavyweight title. Remember Howard Cosell’s “Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!” call?
- The World Trade Center officially opened. The Sears Tower was finished, too.
- The Knicks defeated the Lakers in five games to claim the NBA title.
- Yankee Stadium closed for a two-year, $160 million renovation, with the club playing at Shea Stadium the following two seasons.
- The A’s beat the Mets in the World Series in seven games
- OJ Simpson became the first running back to rush for over 2,000 yards
- I turned eight and watched all those sporting events (OK, that’s really a personal achievement)
Those are just some of the highlights from the year closely related to that odd hockey number. No. 79 would have been a decent choice because the Cats could fire up “1979” by the Smashing Pumpkins, but hey, we’ll go with 73. And Pirri should score or be in the middle of goals or offensive highlights somehow, regardless of the number he’s wearing or goal call by the announcer at BB&T Center.
That’s the plan, right?
By Bill Whitehead
I wish I had some explanation for what we’re seeing at Florida Panthers’ home games this season, but it seems to be inexplicable.
I’m talking about the Buzz.
In a number of games this year, Florida has started out as if they’re already trailing, jumping on the opponent for the early portion of the game and desperately acting as if they’re trying to get back in it. They did it against Buffalo, Tampa Bay and, most recently, a woeful Edmonton team. The Buzz is when Florida simply seems to have more jump in their step than the opposition, creating more puck possession and better scoring opportunities. Typically, they haven’t scored when the Buzz was in full force. A great first 20 minutes against Buffalo yielded just one goal despite 18 shots on goaltender Jhonas Enroth.
Some times, though, the Buzz does work like a charm late – and it results in scoring. It did against Boston, Chicago, Minnesota and, most recently, well, against that woeful Edmonton club. The Jesse Winchester-Nick Bjugstad-Scottie Upshall line turned into a terror in the last 10 minutes, solely because they were buzzing. Uppy’s first goal of the season was a beauty and cut the Oilers’ lead to 3-2. He stopped a clearing attempt by sliding, then banged home a pass from Winchester with 9:56 left. He tied it with just 57 seconds left in regulation when Marcel Goc’s pass went off the leg of Boyd Gordon. Upshall tossed toward goalie Devan Dubnyk what analyst Bill Lindsay called a Tim Wakefield-like knuckleball, though Billy could’ve gone old school with a Charlie Hough or even Wilbur Wood reference.
The Buzz does exist. We see it almost every game, but at random points and not for any extended amount of time. Certainly not the majority of the game. Yet it’s there. You can see those 10-minute spurts where good things are happening on the ice for the guys in red and they look like a competitive team, but then it expires like Florida’s recent power plays.
Bottom line: Why does Florida often start with The Buzz and end with it? What causes it? What driving force suddenly springs alive in a player like Upshall, quickens his step and creates manic, positive play around the opposing goal? And more importantly, how does the team oddly transition from buzzing to mailing it in and just floating around out there for 20 or 30 minutes?
I don’t know those answers. However, Kevin Dineen had better be trying to find one or two of them and figure out a way to capture that Buzz in a bottle.
The B’s – Speaking of buzzing, Florida takes on the Bruins tonight, or as my younger son calls them, the B’s. The Panthers must be buzzing like a ticked off hive of angry worker bees tonight, and that’s what it will take – a workman-like effort – to get a win. See Shawn Matthias’s hard-working goal last year as Exhibit A on how hard Florida will need to work to win tonight. Here are some stats:
- Florida is 32-32-6-5 all-time against Boston
- The Cats begin a 3-game road trip; 8 of the next 9 are on the road
- D Matt Gilroy played at Boston University, G Scott Clemmensen at Boston College
- Two Florida draft picks, Michael Matheson and Ian McCoshen, play for BC
- Florida is 3-8-4 while Boston is 8-5-1
- Milan Lucic has 7 goals while David Krejci has 12 assists
- Ex-Bruin Brad Boyes leads Florida with 5 goals, Tomas Fleischmann has 8 assists
The puck drops on Game 16 at 7 p.m. Watch on Fox Sports Florida or listen on 560 WQAM.
Also, there’s a watch party at Duffy’s in Plantation. It begins at 6 p.m.