#FlaPanthers, Bolts Battle for Top Spot

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.

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

 

 

Little Things are Big to the #FlaPanthers

SUNRISE — Clearly, finishing off this Atlantic Division race with Boston, Tampa Bay and Detroit won’t be easy. In fact, nothing has been easy this entire six-game homestand, which saw a couple of awful losses, three significant injuries and some spotty overall play at times.

But that’s life in the ultra-competitive Atlantic, where keeping up with the Joneses — in this case the Bruins, Bolts and Wings — is a daily chore. The Panthers sat by this week and watched their lead shrink.

Florida lost two brutal games against St. Louis and Nashville, plus saw Brandon Pirri, Quinton Howden and Jonathan Huberdeau go down to injury. Can’t say confidence was too high going into the final four games at the BB&T Center.

However, as they seemingly have all year, the Panthers responded in the next four games, grabbing seven points of a possible eight to end the home stretch on a high note. Couple that with the fact that Florida finished with the same points lead — five — that it did when it started on Feb. 12 and you’ve got the makings of successful stint in Sunrise.

Not bad considering how this all began against the Blues and Predators.

“It was good. It was a good finish to the homestand,” said Florida coach Gerard Gallant, whose club moved to 77 points after increasing its record to 35-18-7 with a 3-2 win over Arizona on Thursday. “We lost the first two games and weren’t too happy about it. We got back and had three wins and an overtime loss in the next four.

“It’s a good way to finish and we’re a good road team.”

Little things played a big role in the win for Florida, a game in which Gallant said there was “no flow.” The Panthers head out to Columbus and then Minnesota over the weekend for games with 3:00 start-times.

Jussi Jokinen, who was angry over a high stick that left him bleeding butt wasn’t called in the first period, kept the puck in the offensive zone but was leveled by Martin Hanzal in the third. Jokinen’s puck push sent it to Jaromir Jagr, who slipped it back to Aleksander Barkov for his second goal, the ultimate game-winner, and a 3-1 lead.

Earlier in the second, Logan Shaw and finally Barkov won a tough battle in the low slot with Zbynek Michalek and Klas Dahlbeck, with Sasha scoring his 17th goal and sixth in his last six contests — along with a six-game stint sidelined with an injury.

Brian Campbell got a stick on Antoine Vermette’s potential game-tying goal and Roberto Luongo denied him in the game’s final minute. Erik Gudbranson then tied up Shane Doan in front of the crease to send the puck away from Luongo. Derek MacKenzie, Vincent Trocheck and Jussi Jokinen all won faceoffs, which didn’t happen much for the Cats as they lost 59 percent of the draws.

All the game’s little things — all those sticks getting in the way, blocked shots, taking hits to keep a puck in the offensive zone and securing faceoffs when they mattered the most — added up to two huge points to end a homestand that started so poorly but ended so well.

EMPTY-NETTER: Center Nick Bjugstad, one of the three I cast my vote to for the three stars of the game, had his best showing since returning from his injury and was a problem all night for the Coyotes. He drove to the net hard and cut through the Arizona defense seemingly at ease at times, slicing his way through a blue line that features silky skating Olive Ekman-Larsson. However, Bjugstad blew past and got the best of OEL and Michael Stone to draw a pair of penalties.

He laughed when I brought up the subject of whether or not he should have received a penalty shot, especially on OEL’s hooking infraction.

“Yeah, I thought I should have,” said Bjugstad, whose smile stretched like his 6-6 frame. “I was wondering and asking someone on the bench what was the stipulation for getting a penalty shot. I felt good and just need to keep going from here.”

A big boost from Big Nick and a return to his physical dominance will go a long way to improving Florida’s offense on this road trip and in the remaining 22 regular-season games.

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

#FlaPanthers Rough Up #Blackhawks

By Bill Whitehead

SUNRISE — In a battle of first-place teams Friday night at BB&T Center, the Florida Panthers, atop the Atlantic Division by a single point before the puck dropped, decided on an interesting approach in facing the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.

They decided to get physical.  “Let’s get physical” ala Olivia Newton-John. The “Pow!”, “Bam!” and “Zow!” of the old Batman series from the 1960s starring the incredibly great, talented Adam West.

A 4-0 thorough whipping of Chicago later, spurred on by a pair of goals by the defense, 27 saves by Roberto Luongo, strong play on all four lines and a complete team effort, and the Florida Panthers (27-15-5) suddenly don’t look like the team that lost to a mediocre Edmonton club on Monday.

Much of it came from the physical nature of Florida, who will never be mistaken for the punishing L.A. Kings, but who can bring the lumber and lay the wood when they need to.

Such as defenseman Erik Gudbranson’s smash of Finnish forward Teuvo Teravainen in the second and oversleeping left winger Richard Panik in the third. Plus Alex Petrovic’s bout with edgy Blackhawk Andrew Desjardins.

Florida outhit and bruised the Blackhawks 27-18, including a game-high five each by Gudbranson and Petrovic.

“Yeah, that (Gudranson hit) was a good hit, that was a good hit,” said Shawn Thornton, whose blind backhander in the third period nearly beat Chicago’s Scott Darling for a goal that would surely have brought the house down.

“Petro stepping up. We’re not an overly physical team, but we genuinely really like each other in this locker room and we have each other’s back. That stuff’s never been a concern in here, win or lose.”

After his post-game treatment, I caught Gudbranson, who ranked his hit right up there with his blow on Taylor Hall in Edmonton in terms of being his season’s best. As Teravainen entered the offensive end with the puck from the right side in front of Chicago’s bench, Gudbranson leveled the 5-foot-11 No. 86, who went head over heels covered in a swirl of curvy 8s and 6s on his white sweater.

“That’s kind of what I mold my game after,” said Gudbranson when I made the reference to the Kings. “I really enjoy hitting, almost as much as scoring, and I haven’t done much of that. I make my name known that way.

“The ref came up to me afterward and said it was absolutely textbook. I got him through the shoulders, and his head was down and I caught him off-guard. (That hit) or Hall right now. The Hall one was definitely harder. This one was a little more exciting to see him flying through the air.

“We’ve got a lot of skill on this team, but I don’t think at any point we’ve let ourselves get pushed around. If the game gets physical, that’s fine. That’s hockey, and guys are ready to step up.”

Even Luongo joined the fray in the second, roughing Desjardins after the Blackhawks’ left winger ventured into the crease following Luongo’s 14th save.

“There was a little bit of a spear after the whistle and I wasn’t too happy about it,” said Luongo, who authored his 72nd career shutout. “That’s stuff that happens during the game. I really don’t want to go down 4-on-4 in that situation, but I was a little upset with myself there and lost control.”

It’s a skill game at times, but on a night when Florida did almost everything right, was clearly by far the better team through 60 minutes and caught the champs on the second game of a back-to-back, the Panthers brought the hits and let the Blackhawks know they were there.

Old-time hockey style.

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

 

#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**

#FlaPanthers Put Together Textbook Win

By Bill Whitehead

It took a while for the Florida Panthers to get going — or even get the game to get started for that matter — on Thursday, but the Cats put together arguably their best performance of the season against one of the league’s best in the Washington Capitals, who had only lost five times in regulation all year.

From Jaromir Jagr’s record-tying goal in the game’s opening minute to Logan Shaw’s empty-netter, his second goal in as many games, the Cats put together a fantastic performance that focused on following a great game plan, not getting caught out of position and pouncing on any offensive opportunities they had against Caps backup goalie Phillipp Grubauer.

A few points worth considering from a convincing 4-1 win:

  • Team play. From the opening puck drop, Florida seemed faster and much better prepared than they did against Ottawa. Maybe it was  the lull of returning from that five-game road trip or just a poor game against a Sens bunch that has plenty of talented players. Whatever the reason, Florida (14-11-4) played out front the whole game, prevented scoring chances for the Caps and were simply the better team. Florida’s  blocking 16 Washington shots and winning 54 percent of face-offs were keys to getting a victory before starting a four-game road trip.
  • Jagr and Brandon Pirri. Hopefully, Florida fans can look forward to these two key scorers bringing their A game a little more often, especially with fellow netfinder Nick Bjugstad sidelined. Jagr’s goal was the net-presence factor Florida has been lacking; Pirri’s a howitzer that resembled the blasts he fired often last year during a 22-goal season. Florida really needs this pair to contribute nightly.
  • The blue line. With Steven Kampfer and Brian Campbell going out with injuries, the defensemen had to step up and did. Aaron Ekblad, Dmitry Kulikov, Erik Gudbranson and Willie Mitchell picked up the slack, were on the scoresheet some and kept one of the most skillful offenses silent until two minutes left in the game.
  • Skill, skill, skill…Jonathan Huberdeau’s slick saucer pass to Ekblad resulted in one of the best scoring plays of the year and gave Florida a 3-0 lead that left little drama in the contest. When your former Calder winner is leading a 2-on-1 break to your No. 1 overall pick/Calder winner from last year, well, you like your chances of changing the number on the scoreboard. A skill goal all the way around.
  • Good night for Al Montoya. In a rare start, Montoya was very good against the Caps and ran his record to a strong 4-1-1. With back-to-back games in New Jersey and Raleigh next week, the Big Cubano will be back in goal in one of those games. He can hope the defense in front of him only yields 20 shots again by playing a sound defensive game, blocking shots and turning clearings into breakouts and odd-man rushes.

In all, this win was simply as textbook as it gets.

EMPTY-NETTER: The NHL has gone out of its way to bring about more safety to the league, basically protecting the unprotected player along the boards. The five-minute boarding major and game misconduct the Caps’ Tom Wilson received was well deserved, but if the NHL wants to prove it is serious about player safety, it will sit Wilson for a game or two, sending a message to the edgy forward that a thuggish style of play won’t fly in the new NHL. There’s just no place for that hit in this wonderful game.

On to Boston!

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

Aaron Ekblad Enjoying the Moment

By Bill Whitehead

PHILADELPHIA – On a day of hockey prospects playing baseball at Citizens Bank Park on Wednesday, nothing about Friday’s NHL Draft was as certain as a 3-0 pitch being called a strike.

Likely top selection Aaron Ekblad displayed some decent hitting skills from the right side of the plate, the opposite side of the dish where Chase Utley and Ryan Howard helped the Philadelphia Phillies win a World Series in 2008, while some of the other prospects showed that they were better suited for leading a rush. All of them participated in a day-long tour of Philadelphia – part of the time downtown, a stop at legendary Pat’s and Geno’s cheesesteak joints on Passyunk Avenue a little later, and ending at home plate at CBP, one of the top five ballparks I’ve had the pleasure of visiting.

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Ekblad (third from left), the imposing former Barrie Colts defenseman, seemed to be batting cleanup when it came to enjoying the attention.

“This whole week has been pretty exciting. I’ve had a few of my friends like Mark Scheifele go through it. He said it was a pretty cool experience. I’m excited about what’s going to happen this week,” the 6-foot-4, 216-pound Belle River, Ont. native said.

“I’ve never experienced something where you go through a tour of the city. You get to see the baseball stadium and some of the historical landmarks.”

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The Panthers, of course, could take Ekblad at No. 1, though the rumors of trading down have been rampant and will intensify over the course of Thursday, when the elite prospects meet with the media at the National Constitution Center. Ekblad simply described himself as a two-way defenseman.

“That’s kind of what I take pride in. I play good, responsible defense. I play on the penalty kill, power play and I produce offensively as well. I had a lot more power-play (goals) than 5-on-5, but I still support the rush,” said Ekblad, who had 53 points (23 goals, 30 assists) in 58 games during his third season with the OHL club. He also had 91 penalty minutes.

As for his talks with the Panthers: “I met them at the combine and had a short talk with them.”

The media I talked with agreed in unison that selecting Ekblad is the right choice. At worst, he becomes a decent second-pairing defenseman with a strong shot who can inject life into Florida’s abysmal power play. At best? Well, if he and Erik Gudbranson can develop into the kind of bruising blueliners that are needed in this era of defensive strength in the rush to the Stanley Cup, the Panthers could be in much better shape over the next few years.

Whoever picks Ekblad, whether it be Florida, Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver or any of the other teams who’ve apparently inquired, will be getting a great commodity – an extraordinarily physically gifted, tough as nails player who is equally articulate and accommodating. Tallon has pointed out that a defenseman’s development usually takes 300 games, so the organization would have to be patient with Ekblad, especially if he breaks camp with the Cats.

I’m just not sure the Panthers will be there at No. 1 to select him tomorrow night.

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

 

Panthers have ties to Toronto

The Florida Panthers (28-44-8) host Toronto (38-34-8) tonight here at BB&T Center (7:30, FSN). As I sit here being entertained by the Union College-Boston College Frozen Four semifinal – featuring Cats’ prospects Michael Matheson and Ian McCoshen – here are a few notes for Florida’s 81st game of the season:

 

FACING THE HOME TEAM: Six current Florida players and two coaches have their roots in Ontario, the home of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Captain Ed Jovanovski, Krys Barch, Jesse Winchester, Brad Boyes, Brian Campbell, Brandon Pirri and Erik Gudbranson are all Ontario natives, as are interim head coach Peter Horachek (Stoney Creek) and assistant John Madden (Barrie).

 

THE LONE GUY: Barring an incredible finish by Sean Bergenheim, Scottie Upshall or Nick Bjugstad, right winger Brad Boyes will end the season as the only Cat with a 20-goal effort. Boyes had 20 markers through 76 games and has been one of Florida’s most reliable scorers after being brought in on a tryout during camp. Bergenheim is the next highest goal-scorer with 16, then points leader Upshall (15 goals, 22 assists) and Bjugstad (14 goals).

 

ONE-TIMERS: Florida is 2-1 against Toronto, outscoring the Leafs 10-8 with six of the Toronto goals coming in a 6-3 home win on Jan. 30…Entering Thursday night’s game, Florida held an overall record of 26-28-7-5 against the Maple Leafs…The Panthers own a winning record against Toronto in South Florida, posting a 14-13-5-2 mark…Florida recalled G Scott Clemmensen earlier on Thursday…Florida had lost 283 man games before Thursday’s game…D Dmitry Kulikov is just one point shy of 100 NHL points…F Brandon Pirri has 12 points (6-6-12) in his last 16 games, including a four-game point streak from Mar. 31 to April 6 (3-2-5).

 

THIS DATE IN CATS’ HISTORY: Defenseman Bryan McCabe, currently the team’s manager of player development, tallied his 1,000th NHL point by recording an assist in a 4-3 loss to Tampa Bay on April 10, 2010.

QUICK TAKES: #FlaPanthers pound #Pens, 5-1

By Bill Whitehead

When this road trip popped up on the schedule, I thought Florida could come away with four points – win two and drop one, likely at Pittsburgh against the top team in the Eastern Conference.

Saturday’s dreadful showing in that House of Horrors in my home state left little optimism about the remainder of the trip. Pittsburgh had won 13 straight, and Sidney Crosby had scored a point in 17 straight games at Consol. With goaltender Tim Thomas out because of illness, the odds seemed slim.

I guess we never saw this one coming, huh?

Considering the level of the competition, Florida likely played their best game of the season in the 5-1 win over the Penguins. Drew Shore, who had so many breaks go against him last season, scored twice and set the tone. Dmitry Kulikov, who was rumored to be on the trading block last month, was aggressive and skated hard in on Marc-Andre Fleury a few times, and scored the third goal that gave the Panthers (19-23-7) a 3-0 lead.

Oddly, Jonathan Huberdeau, desperately in need of a goal, didn’t get screwed out of a goal when the War Room in Toronto likely set the season-high for time spent reviewing a goal. Shawn Matthias had that Matty Moment I’ve been waiting for and simply outskated Matt Niskanen for the final tally 12 seconds after Huberdeau’s.

Here are my multiple stars from tonight’s win, in no particular order:

  • Scott Clemmensen, 35 saves. Had little faith in Clem going in, but he was outstanding. In fact, I bet he would admit the only goal he allowed was a bad one, but it doesn’t matter because he made so many great saves and was solid.
  • Drew Shore, two goals. His goals left Cats’ fans more surprised than Fleury after the roof shot on the shorty. He gave Florida momentum it never let go.
  • Jesse Winchester, three assists, plus-4. For someone who hadn’t played since Dec. 15, Winchester was sharp and is a welcome addition as a hard worker.
  • Dmitry Kulikov, goal. He’s been a big disappointment for most of the year, but he played headstrong and with purpose tonight. Also had a lethal howitzer that went high over Fleury. Maybe he’ll turn this around and live up to the potential.
  • Marcel Goc, one assist, 67 percent in the circle. Sure, his helper on Kulikov’s goal was fine, but winning 2 of 3 faceoffs kept Pittsburgh off balance.

Others were great, too. Erik Gudbranson sliding to make a block was just courageous and shows what a tough kid he is, and Mike Weaver was a plus-5. The PK killed off all three Pens power plays, making it 28 straight and 42 of their last 43 on the road. More importantly, the team stayed within the game plan and didn’t stray from it once the Penguins cut the lead to 3-1. Pittsburgh never was able to put together that “Five Minutes of Hell” I expected.

Mike Weaver, who was a plus-5, tweeted this after the game:

weaver

The goal in Buffalo: Score on the power play, get a marker from Flash and play with the intensity from tonight that will help the Cats come away with two more points.

Which wouldn’t be the way it was expected to go down when this 3-game road trip started.

Jovanovski, Upshall Elevate Panthers’ Play

By Bill Whitehead

A big “Welcome Back” is in order for Florida Panthers Ed Jovanovski and Scottie Upshall after a successful return to the lineup, wouldn’t you say? Both played Saturday night in the Cats’ 5-4 win over Nashville, and while the pair’s arrival may not be a “put them over the hump” moment, it should signal some improvement as the club heads to Montreal for its third game against the Canadiens in three weeks.

How long has Jovo been gone? So long that his name didn’t even pop up under “Tags” when I started typing it. That long. Longer than this blog’s existence.

The captain Jovanovski was rock solid in his season debut after being sidelined with a hip replacement. Jovo logged 15:54 of ice time and was a plus-3 for the Panthers (16-20-6). The most telling moment for me was when Jovo grabbed the puck and led a headstrong 3-on-2 rush in the third period. With Florida up 4-2 at the time, Jovo displayed the knowledge of a veteran who was aware of the game’s situation: He dished the puck to one of his forwards, let them move in on Predators’ goal and quickly backed out, choosing not to get caught too low on the play.

His performance against Nashville is the type of play Florida needs from Jovo, especially with Florida’s most interesting pairing, Erik Gudbranson and Dylan Olsen, out with injuries. On Saturday night against the Capitals, Minnesota’s Ryan Suter stole the show by becoming the first Wild defenseman to every record a hat trick in the team’s 5-3 win. Jovo does not have to be that guy. He just needs to be a reliable leader.

If Saturday’s play is the standard this new and surgically improved Jovo has set, interim coach Peter Horachek will be just fine with that. Jovo’s presence as a leader is immeasurable, but his addition to the blue line is sorely needed. Florida’s defensive corps has demonstrated a tremendous inability to clear the puck at times, and turnovers like Dmitry Kulikov’s that led to Nashville’s second goal by Mike Fisher will haunt the offensively challenged Cats. Jovo should help remedy those problems.

Upshall’s return after a three-game absence should be just as significant as Jovo’s. The winger put together a strong November, scoring 12 points in a sizzling 11-game stretch late in the month. Uppy wears his emotions on his sleeve and has benefited the most by the departure of former coach Kevin Dineen and arrival of Horachek, and his importance to the club runs deep.

Sure, Uppy’s going to take an untimely penalty on occasion, but he’s also more than likely to keep a play alive, do some of the dirty work that’s often necessary to turn close losses into close wins and is an emotional leader. He may be the most hot-headed Cat on the squad (and occasional water bottle squirter from the bench), but every team needs a player like that.

Welcome back, guys. Florida is already better for it.

FITTING END: Kopecky’s game-winner in the shootout was his second in less than a month. And Saturday night’s ending was only fitting after the way a strange New Year’s Eve played out at BB&T Center.

That game against the New York Rangers was an odd one, starting with the 5:00 start. Florida seemed to have victory in hand and led throughout before Kopecky made the horrible mistake of vacating his defensive position in front of Tim Thomas to go get a stick from the bench after dropping his. New York’s Dan Girardi blasted the tying goal past Thomas from the spot where Kopecky was.

The scene in the dressing room afterward was also strange. While interviewing Brad Boyes, the media was interrupted by new owner Vincent Viola, who wanted a word with his players to close out 2013. While the media questioned Kopecky’s decision – one that Horachek called “a little bit surprising” – the interim coach came across somewhat uncharacteristically short with the media.

It’s understandable considering the circumstances of the loss, and let’s face it, you just don’t expect a two-time Stanley Cup winner and player who’s approaching a decade in the NHL to make such a rookie gaffe.

So from a redemptive standpoint, it just made sense that Saturday’s game-winner came, like it did against Washington last month, deep in the extra session from Kopecky, who improved his shootout record to 3-for-7 when he roofed his shot in the bottom of the sixth round over goalie Marek Mazanek’s glove.

It almost made the two-goal lead that evaporated late in regulation forgettable.

Almost.

HIGH FIVES: The number five played a prominent role in Florida’s win to close out – yes – it’s five-game homestand that ended 2-2-1 after starting with regulation losses to Tampa Bay and Detroit, a good win over Montreal, the extremely disappointing shootout loss to the Rangers and the weekend win over Nashville.

Sean Bergenheim has five goals in last five games. His linemate and fellow Finn Aleksander Barkov carries a five-game point streak to Montreal for Monday’s game. The pair’s line – the B Line – had five points in the win over Nashville. Finally, Jonathan Huberdeau tallied the fifth multi-assist game of his career.

KICK SAVES: The Panthers are facing the Atlantic Division-rival Canadiens for the 77th time, holding a 36-26-6-8 career advantage. Florida is 16-12-3-5 in Montreal…Florida is 6-3-1 in both their last 10 games and last 10 road games, and is 9-4-1in their last month of play…Barkov’s five-game point streak is tied with Upshall and Olsen for the longest this season…Brad Boyes has a three-game point streaking (2-2-4).

Earnhardt’s Theory Shows Up in Cats’ Win in Ottawa

By Bill Whitehead

About 15 years ago at Daytona International Speedway, I heard the late great Dale Earnhardt tell a throng of us media types what the difference was between a winning team and a second-tier one. What Earnhardt was basically doing was laying out the blueprint for champions and describing how some teams routinely come up short. Hey, a seven-time champ was talking, so it was well worth the listen to get his perspective.

The salient point of Earnhardt’s theory – and when he held court, he truly was running the show – was that it’s easy to earn championship points when you have a car capable of running in the top five. It’s even easier to hoist a trophy as a race winner, but those days pretty much speak for themselves – a great driver and a super-fast car leaving the competition in the mirrors and racing to the checkers. However, he went on to say that it’s really not what winners do on those memorable days, it’s how they perform in races when they don’t have their best equipment. The true gains, he acknowledged, were when he took a car that should have finished 20th or worse and clawed his way into the top 10, turning a potentially disastrous, championship-ruining day into a respectable one.

Earnhardt was saying it all comes down to how a driver, team or players perform when they don’t have their A game.

Despite riding a 4-game winning streak as the puck dropped in Ottawa against a reeling bunch of Senators, Florida didn’t have their A game early. Florida failed on early offensive chances to beat ex-Cat Craig Anderson, who has struggled like every netminder has for Ottawa. Florida’s defense also put hot goalie Scott Clemmensen in a perilous predicament or two when the Sens put together a couple of 2-on-1 rushes, but Clemmensen was up to the task. When the first 20 minutes were over, Florida had been outshot 14-9, something that hasn’t happened to them often lately.

Though they weren’t playing at the level they did against Washington, Montreal and Toronto, Florida kept grinding. Aleksander Barkov tipped in a shot from Tom Gilbert for the second period’s only goal, and when the horn sounded, Cats’ fans had to like their chances of being tied with the Senators and Anderson (who came in 10-1-1 against his old team) in Ottawa, where the Sens have owned Florida lately.

Florida (14-17-5) took over in the third period, and while I’m sure many will point to Ottawa having playing in New Jersey the night before, the Panthers deserve all the credit and then some because they really had to earn it. They killed off a tripping penalty by Erik Gudbranson, then found themselves on the power play when Jean-Gabriel Pageau high-sticked Dylan Olsen with 4:30 left to play. One of the great mysteries of the game was how Pageau didn’t get a double-minor when Olsen was clearly cut on the forehead and the defenseman went up to the referee to show him. The end result: Gilbert bailed out Florida’s anemic power-play with a blast past Anderson, and Kopecky later put the game away with the club’s first shorty this season.

Simply, the Panthers fought and fought all night in Canada’s capital – through the fatigue of a weary road trip in bitter cold, against failed opportunities, against an overturned goal and a missed penalty by Ottawa that would have sealed a win with another goal or at least taken more time off the board. Despite all of that, the Panthers won their fifth straight, have taken seven out of eight, and certainly arrived in brutally freezing Winnipeg with the warmth of confidence to rely on.

They overcame and persevered in Ottawa.

That’s what Earnhardt was describing and what the Cats were able to do.