#FlaPanthers Win Again, 2-0, in Carolina

By Bill Whitehead

RALEIGH, N.C. – If you’re a fan of The Walking Dead, the mention of the name Terminus conjures awful imagery, some of the most graphic in the popular series.

Without giving away any spoilers from Seasons 4 and 5 for those in the process of binge-watching during the holidays – “TWD at Christmas, you say? I’m all for that!” – let’s just say Terminus held the prospect of hope and forcefully snatched it away like Lucy with the football from the oncoming, place-kicking Charlie Brown.

This hockey barn known as PNC Arena has been a Terminus of sorts for the Panthers since the start of the 1999-00 season. Carolina held a 30-9-4 mark against the Cats before Friday night’s final meeting of the season in the Tar Heel State’s capital.

Back in the day, nothing good ever happened here. Bad play, mysterious diving that led to Carolina power plays and poor results were the characteristics of the Panthers’ play in my home state.

That all started to change during the 2011-12 season when Florida won two out of three in their Southeast Division-winning campaign. In fact, since then the Panthers have gone 4-4-0 in the building once known as the RBC Center.

Only defensemen Dmitry Kulikov, Erik Gudbranson and Brian Campbell – Florida’s three longest-tenured players – were around for that playoff season, but rumors of the Cats’ struggles in Carolina surely surfaced when the club pulled up near the North Carolina State Fairgrounds.

Not so much anymore, though. And let’s bump that record to 5-4-0 while we’re at it.

Willie Mitchell’s one-timer from the bottom of the right circle – yep, you read that right – off a slick pass from Jonathan Huberdeau, Roberto Luongo’s 70th career shutout and Reilly Smith’s empty-net goal with Carolina’s Cam Ward on the bench were all that was needed as the Panthers (17-12-4) ran their road record to 10-6-2 with a 2-0 win.

“We’re just playing good hockey right now,” said Gudbranson, part of a blue line that limited the Hurricanes, who had 26 goals in their last six games, to nothing on the scoreboard while Luongo was rock steady and made every stop when something did emerge.

“We’re coming to the rink with the same mindset and preparation every single game. There’s a confidence in this room, even in a tough game like that. Kind of a boring game, a chess match. We knew if we stuck with it that at the end of the day we’d come away with two points.”

By no means was this win pretty, but it was pretty effective.

Coach Gerard Gallant gave credit to Luongo for making 24 enormous saves against a team that had been finding the twine often.

“You never tell your team to play defensive hockey, but they didn’t have a lot in the tank and were a little tired. The puck was bouncing quite a bit, so there weren’t many offensive chances,” Gallant said of Florida, winners of their last eight of 10 on the road.

“Those points tonight were big. We were 4-0 on the last (road) trip and lost the last game. We wanted to try and finish off this trip the right way.”

In a building that thankfully doesn’t hold the Terminus-like dread anymore.

EMPTY-NETTER: It was my first time back at PNC since April of 2008 when Chad LaRose’s hat trick led Carolina to a 6-2 win over Tampa, and it was nice to be back in the building. As much as Florida takes grief for its attendance, Carolina has been just as much in trouble throughout the season. However, Friday night’s crowd of 10,511 a week before Christmas wasn’t too bad for the Canes, whose foothold as the official hockey club of both Carolinas is tenuous at best, especially for a team that has a Stanley Cup championship under its belt.

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

Advertisements

#FlaPanthers Goaltending Impresses Hurricanes

By Bill Whitehead

Working for the Associated Press last night had me racing toward the Carolina Hurricanes’ dressing room following their 1-0 loss at the hands, gloves, sticks and pads of Roberto Luongo and Al Montoya in a combined 33-save performance. While the Florida room was festive and thankful for a pre-Thanksgiving two points, the Hurricanes were left shaking their heads at an NHL-leading ninth road loss.

Coach Bill Peters, whose club was outshot 16-5 in the first period, saw Carolina rebound and outplay Florida for the last 40 minutes. The Hurricanes held a 28-12 shot advantage in that span as the Panthers managed to collapse and hang on.

“I think it’s more of what we did or didn’t do rather than the goaltender,” said Peters, who was impressed with the line of Jeff Skinner-Victor Rask-Andrej Nestrasil in peppering Florida’s goalies. “If you go back to our last four or five games, we’ve got to make it harder on the goaltender. There’s some quantity in shots, but there needs to be more quality.”

Other Canes, though, pointed to the stellar work of Montoya, who hopped off the bench and replaced Luongo after Shawn Thornton’s slashing penalty 9:38 into the second period.

“The goalies are so good in this league that you’ve got to bear down,” said Carolina goalie Cam Ward. “For me as a goaltender, I know what it’s like to come off the bench, and it’s not an easy thing to do. Kudos to Montoya. Once he went in, we really started to put the shots on him. He made some big saves in the end.”

However, Ward admitted, “Luongo made probably made the save of the year.”

Skinner was part of two great saves by Luongo just before the 35-year-old goaltender exited with what the Panthers said wasn’t a significant injury. The “save of the year” Ward referred to was a diving one with his glove after Rask deked left. The other was when Skinner skated past Aaron Ekblad on the left side and tried to score from in tight.

“There’s not a lot of space there in front of the net, and I was battling through guys. I just couldn’t get enough on it to lift it and get one for us,” Skinner said.

The sweet-skating Skinner also said the time to get Montoya was midway through the second when Luongo left. Allowing Montoya to warm up put the backup netminder in a groove.

“He was playing pretty well. It’s not the easiest thing coming in off the bench. He played a good game. Early on, we could’ve done a better job of getting pucks on the net against him. We (pressed) but couldn’t find that one,” Skinner said.

“He played well.”

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

#FlaPanthers Jimmy Hayes Has to Move Those Feet

By Bill Whitehead

SUNRISE – Wednesday morning – and perhaps it was really Monday night – could have been better for Florida Panthers forward Jimmy Hayes.

Hayes, tied for fourth in team scoring with nine points, was one of the last Panthers to head off the ice at BB&T Center, strolling in hot and sweaty along with defenseman Colby Robak, as Florida wrapped up morning skate in preparation for its game against former Southeastern Division rival Carolina.

The extra skating meant the pair would likely be scratched for the 7:30 game against the Hurricanes (6-11-3). Coach Gerard Gallant said Scottie Upshall (lower body) would likely be out “a week for sure” due to his hard hit into the boards Monday night. Upshall was wearing a walking boot Tuesday. Derek MacKenzie, who felt flu-like Tuesday, was expected to play.

Gallant suggested Hayes’ potential scratch stemmed from effort.

“He’s a guy who sat in the stands the first few games, and he’s played hard for us,” said Gallant. “But we’ve got to keep on Jimmy and make sure he’s working. He’s a big guy. When he’s effective, he skates hard and moves his feet and is an important guy for us.”

And when he’s not moving those feet anchoring his mammoth frame?

“Everybody’s different. Some guys you have to push them a little harder,” Gallant said. “For me, I talk to Jimmy quite a bit and say, ‘When you’re playing well you’re moving your feet.’ These big guys look lazy out there at times…We keep telling him, ‘You’re a good hockey player and a goal scorer. Get to the net, move to the net and make sure you’re working hard.’

“He’s working hard, and he’s a good kid. We like what we’re seeing from him. Goals are scored around the blue paint. When you work hard to get there and you’re a big-bodied guy and tough to move, you’ve got to pay a price to score goals.”

Hayes is tied with Brad Boyes in points (9) despite having played in only 13 of the 19 games for the Panthers (7-6-6). Jussi Jokinen leads with 12 points, followed by Nick Bjugstad and rookie Aaron Ekblad with 11 each.

Hayes, originally drafted by Toronto, and teammate Dylan Olsen, were traded to Florida last Nov. 14 in a deal that sent Kris Versteeg back to Chicago. Hayes was playing in Rockford (AHL) at the time but saw the opportunity in Florida.

“It was a new team and a chance to establish myself. I’m grateful and happy for that opportunity. I feel like I’m a full-time NHLer now and starting to contribute the way I want to. It’s good not to be the guy walking around on eggshells not sure where he’s going to be every day. I never say I’m complacent, but it’s good to have a role on an NHL team,” said Hayes, who missed six of Florida’s first eight games in October.

The Boston College alum said he knows he has to play near the blue paint.

“It’s where I’ve been my whole career being 6-foot-5, so I just had to take hold of (the spot) as a pro. Not many guys go there and stuff, so I was able to establish a spot there,” he said.

Vincent Trocheck and Tomas Fleischmann, both scratched Monday, are expected to be in the lineup in place of Hayes and Upshall, while Olsen replaces Robak.

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

Barkov Pick a Bold, Strong One

By Bill Whitehead

When the draft lottery occurred two months ago and the Colorado Avalanche leapfrogged the Florida Panthers by gaining the No. 1 pick overall, most said the Avs had won the “Seth Jones Sweepstakes.” It didn’t quite work out like that, did it?

The forward-laden Avs defied the experts who said they should draft defense, stuck to their word and chose Halifax center Nathan MacKinnon with the top pick — the only forward they took in Sunday’s draft. To most Florida fans, that was discouraging. MacKinnon was the hot commodity coming out of the Memorial Cup tournament, and Jones, while a fantastic prospect, was a local Denver kid with ties to the Avs; Jones staying in Denver seemed to be a sure thing. Frankly, it didn’t seem that Jones excited Cats fans, and in retrospect Sunday afternoon, he must not have blown away the Panthers’ brass away either. Or Tampa Bay’s.

Like Colorado and going against most of the experts’ opinions as well, Florida selected Finnish center Aleksander Barkov, the 17-year-old son of a former Russian player, with the second pick. Lightning GM Steve Yzerman and company were on the phone after Panthers GM Dale Tallon passed on Jones, then Stevie Y decided his club, which desperately needs defense like Florida, didn’t want the WHL defenseman either. Surely Carolina, sitting at No. 5, was hoping the drama would continue to play out, but the Nashville Predators, who all along considered Jones the best player in the draft, ended it and drafted the Portland Winterhawks star.

First off, I’m pretty excited Tallon elected to go with offense instead of defense. The Panthers started the draft in the same situation as Tampa: Needing defense. But unlike its upstate rival, Florida has major offensive deficiencies as well. In a few games this past season, especially in the year’s first third of games, the Bolts rallied from late 2-goal deficits to earn at least a point by taking a team to overtime. Florida was incapable of doing that because they don’t have Stamkos, St. Louis or Lecavalier (well, not yet). MacKinnon was first on the list to be taken by Florida, but fans had to feel confident that Jonathan Drouin or Barkov would be there to give the offense a boost and help Calder winner Jonathan Huberdeau develop as an elite player.

My impression of Barkov. The good: I like his overall game. The fact that he plays a strong game, as Tallon says, in all three zones makes him a valuable asset and the kind of player coach Kevin Dineen wants; this organization doesn’t want to ice one-dimensional players. Barkov is already big and will fill out even more, has fantastic hockey sense, can score and sees the ice well, and has been outplaying men much older than him in the top Finnish league. He has the potential to make everyone around him better and constantly wins puck battles. The Boston Bruins reportedly tried to trade up Sunday to take Barkov, who received this praise from a Canadian writer after being taken No. 2:

“Many scouts told me in lead up that Barkov could be the best player in this draft. Talk in Finland was always that he would go top three,” said James Mirtle of the Toronto Globe & Mail.

The bad: His shoulder. He hurt it in March in the first shift of his Tappara club’s playoff game against IFK Helsinki. That’s a concern, but I have to feel Tallon, assistant GM Mike Santos and scouting director Scott Luce did their homework and wouldn’t have gambled with such a high selection if they felt the injury was prolonged and perhaps recurring. Drafting at No. 2, Tallon said the Cats would get an immediate impact player, and he would’ve passed on Barkov if health were a major issue. Also bad is that his English isn’t so good and he’s rather laid back and stoic. Really, I’m kidding. If he leads all rookies in points, gives the Panthers a repeat Calder winner and doesn’t speak one word of English over the course of 82 games, I couldn’t care less. It’s all about production.

I could have imagined Tallon taking Barkov, but not at No. 2. I figured if it happened it would’ve been at No. 4 with Florida swapping picks with its trading partners in Nashville. The only reason I can guess that it happened at 2 is that Florida really liked Barkov better than Drouin — much, much better — and felt that Nashville would take Jones. Tampa, having bought out Lecavalier, might seek center help by adding the young Finn at 3. At that point, Florida would’ve been left with the prospect of having to take Drouin at 4, which, again, it didn’t seem to like too much. There was very little talk from Florida about MacKinnon’s Halifax teammate. Drouin seems to be a big risk-reward guy: If he develops, you’ll see plenty of his highlights on NHL Network, but he’s going to have to get much stronger and play in both ends.

Bottom line: I think the Barkov pick is good, rock solid, enticing and exciting — as long as that shoulder injury is a distant memory when camp opens.

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.

Cats Looking to Win Series from Penguins

By Bill Whitehead

With their 7-2 drubbing courtesy of the Jets left behind in Manitoba, the Florida Panthers will take to the ice tonight for home game No. 22 of 24, and they will be attempting to do something they have already accomplished at BB&T Center — beat the Pittsburgh Penguins, which they did, 6-4, on Feb. 26.

Florida (13-21-6, 32 pts.) stands in stark contrast to the Penguins, who earlier this week, to no one’s surprise, clinched the Atlantic Division crown in a 5-3 win at Carolina. Pittsburgh (31-10-0, 62 pts.) still has the competitive edge despite clinching, though, and will need it in the remaining seven games. The Penguins hold a five-point lead over Montreal and six-point edge on Boston in the race for the top spot in the Eastern Conference, and both of the Northeast Division teams have a game in hand over the Penguins. Pittsburgh also trails Chicago by four points for the overall No. 1 spot in the league, and the Blackhawks also have an extra game to play.

Some of the numbers between Pittsburgh and Florida are striking. As far as goals for and against, simply invert the numbers. The Penguins have tallied an NHL-best 138 goals this season, while the Panthers have yielded a league-high 139. The Pens haven’t been too charitable, allowing just 101 goals to the 98 netted by the Cats. And this stat sums up the clubs’ season in a nutshell: Pittsburgh didn’t lose in March, posting a 15-game winning streak; Florida has won 13 games…on the season.

The three-time Stanley Cup champions have been playing without Sidney Crosby since the captain broke his jaw and lost multiple teeth after being hit by a slap shot from teammate Brooks Orpik on March 30. Still the Hart Trophy favorite, No. 87 was recently given clearance to fly with the team to Florida, and he was in the press box during the club’s 6-3 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday. Crosby, who isn’t skating yet, will join the team in Sunrise in their effort to win the season series from Florida (Pittsburgh won at home, 3-1, on Feb. 22), though there’s no time table for his return. Also, defenseman Kris Letang (broken toe, groin) returned to the lineup against the Lightning; Letang (3-25-28) has missed 12 games this season with numerous ailments but still is third in scoring among defensemen behind P.K. Subban and Ryan Suter. Fellow blueliner Paul Martin (broken hand) has resumed skating.

Panthers fans will be seeing some new faces wearing the black and gold. Pittsburgh’s Ray Shero was the most active general manager near the trade deadline and made it known his intention is for his club to win the Stanley Cup now. He acquired forwards Jarome Iginla, Jussi Jokinen and Brenden Morrow, plus added rugged defenseman Douglas Murray. While Jokinen appears to be the minor acquisition, Shero was able to trade with Carolina for Jokinen, who was placed on waivers last month. By trading for him instead, Shero put the Hurricanes on the hook for a portion of Jokinen’s contract.

For Florida, Tomas Fleischmann and T.J. Brennan both had a goal and an assist against Winnipeg, and Brennan has been impressive since being acquired from Buffalo. Fleischmann has a seven-game point streak and 11 points in his last 12 games. The Panthers will head to the metropolitan New York area after the game, embarking on a four-game road trip beginning on Long Island on Tuesday against the playoff-primed New York Islanders.

The puck drops tonight at 7:30 in the final meeting between the two teams and will be broadcast on Sun Sports and 560 WQAM.

FRIDAY NIGHT ‘LIGHTS: In Calgary, the Flames allowed a late goal by Phoenix to force overtime, but Mark Giordano’s shot from the high slot with 23.1 seconds left in the extra session beat goalie Mike Smith and lifted Calgary to the win. The victory pulled the Flames out of a three-way tie for last in the league standings with Florida and Colorado and into a tie with Carolina with 34 points…In Newark, the Ottawa Senators continued their surprisingly strong season, despite playing without stars Jason Spezza and Erik Karlsson, by beating the New Jersey Devils 2-0 behind a 33-save showing by former Panther goalie Craig Anderson. The ninth consecutive loss by the Devils and ex-Florida coach Pete DeBoer likely ended the team’s quest for the playoffs. New Jersey, who ousted Florida in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals last year, trails ninth-place Winnipeg and the eighth-place New York Rangers by four points…

“Just Win, Baby” Doesn’t Apply to Panthers

By Bill Whitehead

Riding a streak of four wins in five games with each contest being decided by one goal, the Florida Panthers need to address this question: What exactly is the team playing for as this shortened season winds down? After tonight’s game with Winnipeg, the last between the two clubs as divisional and even conference rivals, the Panthers (13-20-6) will have just eight games remaining — three at home, with the first being this Saturday against the Atlantic Division champion Pittsburgh Penguins.

So what’s Florida’s goal at this point? To get out of the Southeast Division cellar, where it has been buried for the majority of the season? That’s possible, especially when considering that three of the bottom five teams in the entire NHL called the Southeast Division home this week. Three of five.

Tampa Bay won five of its first six this season and seemed to be the hot team on the rise when the year started, but it’s old nemesis — defense, particularly goaltending — reared its ugly head. It cost Lightning head coach Guy Boucher his job, plus sent Calder candidate Cory Conacher and a fourth-round pick packing and heading northbound for, you guessed it, another goalie.

Carolina sat atop the division at 15-9-1 on March 12 to begin a home-and-home series with Washington. But following that game, the Hurricanes (16-21-2) have been outscored 56-21 since its contest against Washington two night later in the nation’s capital. Against Pittsburgh on Tuesday, Carolina lost its franchise-record eighth straight home game, and let’s face it, real playoff teams don’t lose a snowman of games consecutively in their own barn.

At Winnipeg tonight, Florida will be facing a team that is truly schizophrenic, like Sally Field in the movie Sybil if you can remember that far back, but it was in color. The Jets (20-19-2, 42 pts.) have the ability to handle teams with ease or lose to inferior ones, such as the Panthers, who are 2-0-2 against Winnipeg this year. While the Jets may be as tough to figure out as a math equation with a lot of numbers and letters, their playoff hopes aren’t as confusing. The Jets are two points out of sixth place with fewer games remaining than the three clubs ahead of them with 44 points. Simply put, Winnipeg needs wins, and it wouldn’t hurt a bit if the suddenly surging Caps laid an egg or two. Like four of the five other teams in the Southeast, Winnipeg has had its time at the top, but Washington has come alive, led by Alex Ovechkin, who seemingly has emerged from hibernation. A desperate team counting on putting two points into the postseason bank at MTS Centre tonight, Winnipeg will likely give the Panthers its best effort.

Florida has nine games left, but hard reality is that it would probably be in the team’s best interest not to play better than 3-6-0 to close the season. Any more winning than that would pile on to the absurdity of this season and be self-defeating, but who draws up Xs and Os on performing poorly? Every team outlines a plan to win, and when executed properly it’s a beautiful thing. Coaches and players respond with, “Good hard work is rewarding, and this was our goal.” But no one sets in motion a plan for failure and achieving losses. It just happens.

When Al Davis owned the NFL’s Oakland Raiders, his famous rallying cry was, “Just win, baby” The Panthers, though, don’t need to adopt that mantra. It would’ve played well last year, though in reality that one was, “Just tie, baby, and take it to overtime” And it would’ve worked well when this season started after Florida’s 5-1 season-opening win over Carolina on Jan. 19.

However, Florida’s cry now should be, “Just play, baby.”

And whatever happens, happens.