#FlaPanthers Riding Homegrown Momentum

BY BILL WHITEHEAD

It sounds like an ad for an upcoming ESPN 30 for 30, but what if I told you the Florida Panthers would lose to Toronto on their road trip and it would be a success?

However, if I added that the Cats went 3-1-0 on the trip and took points from Eastern Conference foes and divisional rivals along the way, then it gets much more believable.

Toronto, while having plenty of skilled forwards, isn’t a playoff team. This is a rebuilding year for the Leafs and their batch of young talent up front to get a lot of experience, setting up their future. And their 6-1 win over Florida was an aberration on this trip.

Maybe it was James Reimer back home against his former team or Toronto already having beaten Florida once or a generally crummy Cats’ effort, but the Leafs blew out the visitors for some reason.

But enough of that miserable night.

The stars shined for Florida (10-8-1) in their three wins that changed their Facebook team status from “Middling Mediocrity” to “Playoff Contender.”Aaron Ekblad’s shattered-stick game-winner, Roberto Luongo’s stone wall and Sasha Barkov’s shootout dazzler all will appear in highlight packages when the final touches are put on this season.

Everyone chipped in on those three wins, though.

Barkov’s play has improved dramatically, while linemates Jaromir Jagr and Jonathan Marchessault picked it up as the top line played like one. Vincent Trocheck had strong games on the trip, and the third and fourth lines continue to be fun to watch. The bottom six will  get more talented when someone gets moved down when Nick Bjugstad returns, likely Tuesday.

The defense has been better as well but still needs to establish consistency.

The Rangers’ two goals were on a bad line change and a fluke deflection off a skate. In addition to Ekblad, Mark Pysyk was outstanding in New York, and Keith Yandle fired the blast that gave Florida life against his former team.

And the goaltending must continue to play like it did in three of the four games if Florida has playoff dreams.

While it’s early in the season, probably too early to think playoffs, the standings are there for a reason and are what they are — a slotting of the teams through the one-quarter point of the season.

With 21 points in 19 games, Florida is on pace for roughly 91 points, and that average wouldn’t be good enough to get it done right now. Last week, due to Eastern Conference teams beating up on the West, the cut line appeared to be 101 points, but that will change, especially as injuries mount.

On the plus side, Florida’s start is better than last year’s 103-point season that ended with an Atlantic Division title. Those Panthers opened with an 8-8-3 mark and 19 points, but of course were eventually buoyed by a 12-game winning streak.

Right now Florida’s 21 points has them tied with New Jersey for the second wild-card spot. That’s right, wild-card. That was a little unthinkable about 10 p.m. in Toronto on Thursday night when everyone, including yours truly, was griping about the Cats’ lack of effort against an inferior opponent.

Wins in Ottawa and Madison Square Garden changed that mood.

This Meow Momentum wasn’t found in Canada like something from a Roots store or from inside a Tim Horton’s on a cold morning. The Cats may be playing through a good stretch, but it all started at the BB&T Center two Saturdays ago.

That rally against Jack Capuano’s Islanders and behind Denis Malgin’s game-winning chip past Jaroslav Halak is the seed of what we’re seeing.

It was just nurtured then sprouted in Canada over the period of a week.

It may seem like the Panthers are returning to Sunrise with plenty of momentum, but they actually left the 954 with it.

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

The #FlaPanthers after 5 games

BY BILL WHITEHEAD

Five games or so is really a small sample to figure out how good a team is in an 82-game season. It’s safe to say the Edmonton Oilers (5-1-0) and Vancouver Canucks (4-1-1), who are atop the Pacific Division, are better than expected, but likely for different reasons. The Oilers are so deep with offensive talent they’re playing 2011 No. 1 overall Ryan Nugent-Hopkins as their third line center. Vancouver? Who knows. They were expected to be pretty bad and in a youth rebuild.

But it’s really the Florida Panthers we’re concerned about. At 3-1-1 and embarking on their first real road trip, not a day-trip up I-75, here’s what we can glean so far from this version of the Cats:

STAYING HERE — Denis Malgin and Shane Harper. A few people griped a bit when the 19-year-old Swiss forward and the 27-year-old Californian broke camp with the team, but the lesson the pair has taught is this: Let’s give them a chance before we ship them out to Springfield.

Malgin was a big unknown coming in. With Lawson Crouse and Rocco Grimaldi out of the picture, more talk centered around Kyle Rau, Juho Lammikko, Jayce Hawryluk and even Dryden Hunt, a curious potential “diamond in the rough” signing, among the forwards who were looking to impress. However, Malgin tore it up in rookie camp and showed he belonged with the big club in the preseason.

He still belongs.

Much like Tampa’s 20-year-old Brayden Point, Malgin battles size issues as both are a couple of inches short of six feet. Yet what they’re not short of is talent and determination — you know, those immeasurables — that have put both players on teams that most feel should be in the playoffs. Though he hasn’t beaten an NHL goalie yet, Malgin has outworked defenders and won battles that have led to goals, again showing that the staff’s decision to bring him up was the right call.

I tweeted Saturday night that Malgin was “clearly the most electrifying player who has never scored a goal,” but I think that changes and I’m going to go ahead and call my shot Babe Ruth-style: Malgin scores against Pittsburgh.

Maybe it’s because Malgin sounds like Malkin. Or because Malgin wears No. 62 like the Penguins’ Carl Hagelin, who was instrumental in their Cup run last year. Whatever. I’ll take any off-the-wall connection at all I can use, but it’s time for Malgin to score.

The well-traveled Harper nearly made the club out of camp last year, but that honor went to Connor Brickley. Now it’s Harper’s turn, and the former ECHLer is making the most of it. Unlike most from that league, Harper can flat out score — he’s done it everywhere he’s played.

His finish from nice assists from Greg McKegg and Alex Petrovic on 2-on-1s Saturday are skillful scores we don’t see often from NHL  fourth lines. But again, Harper has scored at all levels, so don’t be surprised when he shoots more often and it happens again.

Quite a few players have bounced in and out of Florida’s bottom six in the past year — some have been dealt, some demoted, some just outright handed their walking papers. Malgin and Harper appear to be good candidates to stay here all year, putting pressure on young players to step up their game if they want to get the call and likely keeping Shawn Thornton out of the lineup.

The lineup decision gets tougher when Nick Bjugstad returns in the near future and Jonathan Huberdeau in early 2017, too.

MUST SEE STs — The Florida Panthers’ special teams have always been interesting to watch and often a work in progress. That’s still the case this year.

First, the good: The penalty kill has been excellent through five games.

The PK is a major asset on a couple of fronts. First, it’s been non-existent much of the time because Florida has shown its discipline by being down a man only 11 times, a 90.9% clip that ranks ninth in the NHL.

The power play is a different story — so far.

Only twice in 18 opportunities (11.1%) has Florida scored on the PP, which is hard to fathom considering there’s a 750-goal scorer and two of the game’s best young centers on the ice.

“So far” is the key here. The PP has only reaped benefits for Jaromir Jagr and Aaron Ekblad, but it has shown signs of life. Look for Reilly Smith, Vincent Trocheck, Jonathan Marchessault and Keith Yandle to start tallying goals with the man-advantage. Florida ices too much offensive talent to sit tied for 23rd in the PP.

Both special teams must improve into the top half of the NHL in order to have long-term success and make a deep run.

A TOUGH ONE — Like most, you probably feel the Cats gave away a point in the final seconds in Tampa in a game they deserved to win last week. In actuality it’s a three-point swing: the one Florida didn’t get for the win and the two the Bolts got instead of a regulation loss.

Making it worse is that the points transfer happened with a divisional opponent. And if Montreal stays hot and is for real and Florida and Tampa Bay fight but come up in second and third in the Atlantic, those three points could determine home-ice advantage in a Citrus Showdown in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

But it’s a long season, one in which Florida will surely come out victorious in a game or two when they shouldn’t have. It’s a tough, tough season, too.

How tough?

Look at Trocheck’s face in the season’s first week. A pair of scabbed over wounds on each cheek, the Pittsburgh native wears black and blue instead of black and gold right now.But Trocheck won battles, scored a greasy goal and lobbied for a high-sticking call Saturday night after one of the abrasions was re-opened and bubbled blood.

Trocheck’s counenance is a canvas showing the determination and grind that comes with a grueling NHL campaign, with scabs, scratches and scar tissue the paint that splatters the canvas. Meanwhile, bruises, muscle pulls, dental issues and lingering body pain will define the days.

And it’s not even Halloween yet.

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