By BILL WHITEHEAD
With the Florida Panthers sitting at 19-22-6 yesterday heading into their game in Brooklyn, many turned to thoughts of tanking – I’m not even going to mention the P word — especially on the heels of a 3-game losing streak right before the All-Star break.
Then the Cats turned around against the Islanders and played what defenseman Michael Matheson said may have been their best game of the season.
He’s probably right.
With goalie Harri Sateri seeking his first NHL win, Florida’s defensive scheme against the Islanders was pretty clear: Take care of the crease and the slot, protect against rebounds and clean up loose pucks around the Finnish netminder.
When the clubs met two years ago in a first round playoff series, the Islanders and then-coach Jack Capuano had one game plan in mind, which was to get pucks in front of the Panthers’ goal, whether by defensemen Nick Leddy and Thomas Hickey firing from long range and creating rebounds or sliding pucks in front of the crease from behind Florida’s net for John Tavares and company.
Not much of that happened Tuesday night. Little at all, in fact.
As the Islanders were blanked through the game’s first 45 minutes, it became evident the Panthers were the better team on that night, and at 3-1 the breaking of the 3-game losing streak never seemed in jeopardy.
Was anyone worried Sateri’s first win would suddenly slip away?
No, the Islanders didn’t have that push necessary to overcome such a deficit. And the firepower was there: The Islanders are one of only two teams (Pittsburgh’s the other) that has three 50-plus point players, Tavares, Josh Bailey and Mathew Barzal.
The Cats turned in some clunkers before the break, in particular the embarrassing performance in Dallas. The team lost its composure and allowed the Stars to do whatever they wanted.
That shouldn’t have happened after an overtime win against Vegas at home and a pretty good effort in Nashville in the previous two games.
Islanders coach Doug Weight said Florida “outworked” his team. With everything on the line for New York – they’re on the outside looking in at the playoffs – they turned in the home clunker. The credit for that goes to coach Bob Boughner and the Panthers.
Credit where credit is due like the win in Brooklyn, and criticism when it’s warranted for games like the one in Texas.
Now what, though, as they head to face the worst team in the Eastern Conference?
The unexpected performance and unknown result may be the great mysteries of these shorthanded Panthers.
(UNFORTUNATELY) JUST SAY NO: When word came out over the weekend that the Calgary Flames were out of the Jaromir Jagr business, Cats fans naturally floated the notion of GM Dale Tallon going out and acquiring the legendary winger yet again.
The move could have worked on a couple of levels: young players could have learned from the work ethic of the 45-year-old, and the organization could have used him in its marketing plans, possibly seeing an attendance boost.
Ultimately, though, taking on Jagr again would have filled a position in the team’s top 9. That’s a spot that could have kept Henrik Haapala, Dryden Hunt, Maxim Mamin and Jayce Hawryluk (oddly not called up yet) down in Springfield instead of logging NHL minutes.
The Panthers want to get younger, faster and prepare for the future. Having Jagr in the lineup accomplishes none of those goals.
On a personal note, my fellow scribes and I made a note in game stories of Jagr’s achievements on a seemingly nighty basis, as he rolled over number after number and updated the record book. It was an incredible run, especially the evening when his butt-assist on Sasha Barkov’s goal pushed him past Mark Messier and into second place on the NHL’s all-time points list with 1,888.
I’m lucky enough to say I covered Dale Earnhardt’s last career win – his 76th — at Talladega in October of 2000. On the flip side, with Jagr only scoring one goal for Calgary, I missed out on covering 68’s last NHL goal by, well, one goal.
I guess I’ll catch him in two or three year when he returns to the NHL.
Safe travels and best of luck to Jagr and the Traveling Jagrs!
Bill Whitehead writes for the Associated Press. Follow him @BillWhiteheadFL