Huberdeau Named Calder Trophy Finalist

By Bill Whitehead

In the closing minutes of that slugfest in Ottawa Sunday night — and slugfest might be too tame of a description — Brandon Prust crosschecked Cory Conacher. The former Tampa Bay Lightning fan favorite skated away, but Montreal’s Brendan Gallagher, likely angry as his team was on the receiving end of a 6-1 beatdown by the Senators, took the opportunity to fight with the former Canisius forward.

It was a three-second clash between two high-profile rookies, both Calder Memorial Trophy candidates all year, and the battle for the top first-year player was far more intense. Is it as intense as the 232 minutes produced in Game 3 of the Montreal-Ottawa series? Maybe.

The NHL announced its three finalists for the Calder on Monday, and Florida Panthers forward Jonathan Huberdeau was among the trio who made the cut. Huberdeau, 19, being a finalist is no surprise. After all, we all saw him set the tone early by scoring against Carolina on the first shot of his NHL career.

Huby

Huberdeau’s numbers stack up well with the rest of the Calder competition, which just so happens to be Gallagher and Chicago Blackhawk forward Brandon Saad. Huberdeau was durable, playing in all 48 games for the injury-riddled Panthers. He was productive, too — tallying 14 goals and 17 assists, which tied him as the league’s top scoring rookie with Edmonton’s Nail Yakupov, last year’s first overall pick. The Quebec native, along with Kid Line teammates Drew Shore and Peter Mueller, gave Florida an offensive spark that was its best weapon on most nights. Huberdeau, the only NHLer to score on two penalty shots, also had three assists in the season finale in Tampa and created a few highlight-reel moments that should help him in the voting. Just ask Ilya Bryzgalov.

HubyPS

As for Huberdeau’s competition, both have benefited from playing on far better teams and surrounded by better talent. Gallagher, a 21-year-old winger, had 15 goals and 13 assists in 44 games on a Montreal club that was very good for most of the regular season, though they struggled on defense at the end and are currently being manhandled by Ottawa through three games of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal. Saad, 20, had the good fortune of playing on a stacked team that was the best in the NHL during  the regular season. A native of Pittsburgh, Saad had 10 goals and 17 assists in 46 games.

Gallagher

Saad

The Calder choice will be a close fight and discussed much longer than the brief bout between Conacher and Gallagher, but perhaps native son Huberdeau can garner some of the Quebec media votes away from Gallagher to claim the prize as the league’s top rookie. It would be a nice reward, along with the No. 2 overall pick next month, to cap off a Florida season that was downright wretched.

With what’s on the horizon for the Panthers in terms of young talent — names like Bjugstad, Petrovic, Trocheck, Rau, Grimaldi and whoever gets chosen June 30 in Newark —  Huberdeau might just be starting a new Florida tradition over the next few years.

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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.

“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.

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.

Game Day Preview: Florida at Tampa Bay

By Bill Whitehead

Two words jump out when describing the Florida Panthers’ play over the last two games — “winning streak.” Others come to mind, too, like “gritty hustle,” “thrilling comebacks,” “timely goals” and “finally finishing.” But for now, over a 36-game period when the words haven’t been said often, the mention of a winning streak takes precedence. Granted, it’s only two games, and Florida (11-19-6) had to work like crazy at home to secure both wins.

The Buffalo game appeared to be headed toward a shootout loss after Jason Pominville scored to open the shootout session and Peter Mueller missed, but Jonathan Huberdeau’s fake and shot, which was originally ruled no-goal, did beat goalie Ryan Miller. Jacob Markstrom stopped three of four shots, and Mike Santorelli scored the game-winner by deking Miller silly. The win over New Jersey was authored by Scottie Upshall and Shawn Matthias, then Dmitry Kulikov added the final touches.

So what’s there to cheer for now? Or better yet, what are the rewards of sitting through a brutal, thankfully shortened season?

First, Huberdeau winning the Calder Trophy as the top rookie would be an outstanding achievement for the 19-year-old and the organization. It’s easy to make a case for Huberdeau, too. He leads all rookies in goals and scoring with 13 markers and 25 total points and is second in shots with 96. His chief competition will come from Montreal’s Brendan Gallagher (11-10-21) and Tampa Bay’s Cory Conacher (9-15-24). Both Gallagher and Conacher are great stories, sure, but Huberdeau has done more with much less, especially than Conacher, who plays on a line with super talents Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis. It’s not a knock on the linemates of Huberdeau — Mueller and Drew Shore — but they’re simply not Stamkos and St. Louis.

Also, the incredible play of Matthias is worth watching. The next reward the Ontario forward should get isn’t a goal against some Eastern Conference goalie, but instead a new contract from GM Dale Tallon. A restricted free agent, Matthias has truly proven himself this season and has played strong when most have struggled at times. His drive to the goal and relentless energy have been a constant every game, and it’s that type of play Florida fans need to see out of No. 18 the next three or four seasons.

So there — two things to root for in this dismal year, which only has 12 more games left. The draft will be here before you know it.

But that’s another issue for another time.

THE GREAT EIGHT–TEEN: It takes more than a handful of words to describe what Matthias has accomplished over his last 16 games. There has been hustle galore, plus highlight-reel goals. You want a hustle goal? Ask the Boston Bruins about that diving steal and shot past Tuukka Rask. You want a goal that will have you rewinding a couple of times to figure out how it happened? Ask Winnipeg defenseman Mark Stuart, who was turned inside-out by Matthias then saw the Florida forward rip a shot by Ondrej Pavelec. In all, Matthias has scored 11 times in his last 16 games and leads the Cats with 14 goals, including scoring in three straight games. Matthias joined Pavel Bure as the only Panther to score 11-plus goals in a month; Bure netted 15 in March of 2001.

TUESDAY’S GONE (WITH THE WINS): The second day of the work week hasn’t been good to the Panthers when they take to the road. Florida is 1-3-1 in Tuesday road games. The lone win was at Carolina in a 4-1 win on March 19 to begin its five-game road swing.

STAT THAT MATTERS: For the third time this season, the Panthers will attempt to achieve a three-game winning streak tonight. Florida won consecutive games on Jan. 31 and Feb. 3, at home against Winnipeg and at Buffalo on Super Bowl Sunday. The club also won consecutive road games at Carolina and the New York Rangers two weeks ago. But that’s been it, as both times the streak ended in the next games — both on the road.

Florida’s shootout winner over Tampa Bay last year in its home-opener:

Florida (11-19-6, 28 pts.) at Tampa Bay Lightning(15-18-1, 31 pts.)
Tues., Apr. 2, 7:30 p.m.
Tampa Bay Times Forum — Tampa, Fla.

BY THE NUMBERS

FLA                     vs.           TB

19.3% (12th)        Power play       18.0% (16th)
74.1% (30th)        Penalty kill        82.9% (10th)
2.39  (27th)        Goals per game   3.21  (3rd)
3.44  (30th)        Goals against    3.00  (23rd)
0.64  (30th)        5-on-5 goals F/A 1.13  (7th)
49.8% (19th)        Faceoffs         51.4% (7th)
30.2  (11th)        Shots per gm     26.5  (28th)
31.0  (23rd)        Shots vs. per    29.4  (18th)

PANTHERS’ PACE

Florida has 28 points in 36 games: 37.3 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)

Florida 3, New Jersey 2 (OT)

By Bill Whitehead

SUNRISE — Payback came a little late at BB&T Center on Saturday night, but it arrived nonetheless as the Florida Panthers did something they couldn’t do last April in the playoffs.

Beat the New Jersey Devils in overtime.

Shawn Matthias’s second goal tied the game with just 27 seconds remaining in regulation, and Dmitry Kulikov’s first goal of the year lifted the Panthers by the Devils, 3-2, in overtime at BB&T Center.

The Panthers lost Game 7 to New Jersey last year in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals in double overtime, but in the Devils’ first visit since that season-ending night, Florida exacted a little revenge on New Jersey and future Hall of Fame goaltender Martin Brodeur in front of 18,138 fans.

Down 2-1 late in the third period, Florida (11-19-6) pulled goalie Jacob Markstrom and skated 6-on-5 with the extra attacker. After Tomas Fleischmann’s shot from just inside the blue line ricocheted to Scottie Upshall, a backhanded pass from Upshall deflected off Brodeur. Standing all alone in front of Brodeur, Matthias netted his second goal to tie it at 2-2.

In overtime, Jonathan Huberdeau weakly misfired on a shot toward Brodeur. Kulikov, racing in 1-on-1, beat Brodeur to the loose puck, but the netminder poke-checked it away. A clearing attempt by Travis Zajac hit Brian Campbell, who kept the puck in the zone, whipped it cross-ice to Kulikov, and the Russian defenseman zipped a shot past Brodeur for the game-winner. Kulikov’s last goal was against Vancouver on Jan. 9, 2012.

It was only the Panthers’ second overtime win in the last two seasons, though the club did win a shootout against Buffalo on Thursday. Florida’s last overtime win was a 3-2 decision over the Carolina Hurricanes on Dec. 18, 2011. In that Sunday matinee, Kris Versteeg scooped up a blocked shot off the stick of Stephen Weiss and beat Cam Ward for the goal.

Coach Kevin Dineen on Florida’s efforts against the Devils:

Matthias continued his hot streak, adding the two goals to give him 11 in his last 16 games and team-best 14 overall. Huberdeau’s pass from below the right circle went off Matthias’s skate and by Brodeur for a power-play tally in the first period. It was the fifth two-goal game of his career.

Matthias talks about his play:

Huberdeau, 19, recorded two assists to move him ahead of all rookies in scoring. His 25 points (13-12-25) put him one ahead of Tampa Bay’s Cory Conacher. Huberdeau also has a three-game assist streak and five points in his last three games.

Ex-Florida forward Steve Bernier scored both goals for New Jersey (15-11-9) and has five goals in his last 11 games against his former club, including playoffs. Bernier, who played for current Devils coach Pete DeBoer with the Panthers, had gone 13 games without a goal. However, he tapped in a pass from Ryan Carter, who also played with Bernier in Florida, and later tipped in a shot by Henrik Tallinder for a 2-1 lead. It was Tallinder’s first game back after an 11-game absence.

Still stuck on a devilish 666 career wins, Brodeur was playing in back-to-back contests for the first time this year. He complained to officials about Upshall’s swing-and-miss with a high stick to get the puck in the closing seconds of regulation. But the officials ruled Upshall didn’t make contact, and the Florida winger then sent the backhander at Brodeur that led to the tying goal. Brodeur stands at 2-0-3 since his return.

The loss was a particularly difficult one for New Jersey, who could very easily have left the Sunshine State with four points instead of two if it had closed out either game in the last half-minute. The Devils seemingly had victory in hand Friday in Tampa, but the Lightning’s Alex Killorn scored with 15 seconds left to send it to overtime, where Tampa Bay came out victorious in a shootout. The situation was similar against the Panthers, who evened the game with 27 seconds left.

New Jersey currently slots seventh in the Eastern Conference standings, five points behind Toronto and four ahead of the New York Rangers and New York Islanders, both with 35 points. Carolina has 34 while 11th-place Washington has 33.