#FlaPanthers Roll, #Flyers Have No Answers in 7-1 Mauling

By Bill Whitehead
SUNRISE – Just over one hour into Florida’s season-opener against the Philadelphia Flyers, I tweeted out the following query:

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The answer to that question in a bit.

The first game of my eighth season covering the Florida Panthers was unlike any I’ve seen, maybe ever in my tenure watching the Cats skate around at BB&T Center.

And I didn’t even get to experience the joy of a winning dressing room, with music, smiling faces and good moments between players who had combined to put a 7-1 butt-kicking on one of the most hated teams in the Eastern Conference, the Philadelphia Flyers.

Instead I was working the Flyers’ room, which not surprisingly was a complete contrast to the emotions running rampant on the other side of the arena. Our entrance into the visitors’ room was delayed because the players had decided on a players-only meeting.

Yep, you read that right: In Game 2 of an 82-game season – and I cannot under any circumstance fathom that orange-clad bunch playing more than 82 – the players had decided to close the door and call a meeting without first-year coach Dave Hakstol, whose locked stony glare in the post-game presser looked like it was chiseled out of Mt. Rushmore.

The good of the Philadelphia presser: Goalie Steve Mason, who stopped a whopping four of eight shots in 6:46 and made a huge error that led to the fourth goal, was a stand-up guy and faced the tough questions. That isn’t always the case. Some players become “unavailable,” which works against the spirit of the relationship between the media and team. However, the tall netminder took full responsibility, which he surely didn’t have to do. Florida outplayed more than Mason as they blitzed their way to that NHL record-setting four-goal barrage.

The bad: Captain Claude Giroux had nothing to say. Any team leader is expected to step up and explain the bad as well as the good. Last night was the horrible, and Giroux wasn’t around to talk. Keeping Hakstol locked out doesn’t help relations between the former North Dakota coach and the players he’s trying to get to know. Mark Streit, Philly’s lone goal scorer, seemed dumbfounded by the club’s play and couldn’t believe how they were outskated and outworked.

But enough of the Flyers. We’ll learn more about them and their resiliency Monday in their home-opener against the Panthers.

As for the Cats, what can you say about them that the 7-1 mauling doesn’t tell? Well, some interesting things, actually.

First, I was excited about the Reilly Smith trade when it went down, but his showing has me firmly convinced GM Dale Tallon and the Panthers will come out on top – way on top – when the season ends and Smith’s numbers are put up beside Jimmy Hayes’s, whom Tallon shipped to the Boston Rebuild. That second goal alone on the power play was a slick move Hayes couldn’t dream of pulling off – puck-handling dexterity and a quick flip for a 2-0 lead.

Speaking of the power play, it was a shocking surprise, and improvement in special teams is mandatory if the Cats want to be a special team and play games after April 9. Florida was 3-for-7 in their well-structured time with the man-advantage. The spacing of players displayed a scheme that wasn’t evident last year. The passing was quick, crisp and tape-to-tape, unlike what we’ve seen most seasons.

Finally, the hard-nosed hustling of Vincent Trocheck, playing in his first season-opener with the Cats, led to a career four-point night. On Florida’s first marker of the season, he sprinted and read Jussi Jokinen’s long flip on Steve Mason better than Philly defenseman Evgeny Medvedev did, then beat Mason five-hole.

He returned the favor on the fourth goal when he hustled again and snookered Mason with a steal of a terrible pass from behind the Philly goal. Jokinen then tapped in Trocheck’s shot that caromed off the post. All I’ve seen and heard from hockey insiders is how Trocheck does the little things well – gritty, keeping pucks alive in the zone, winning battles and doing everything to come out on top. Those two goals illustrated that skill and hockey sense.

As for the aforementioned Twitter question, the answer is both. I don’t think anyone will mistake Philadelphia for a playoff team; they’ll more than likely be lumped in with Buffalo, Carolina, Toronto, New Jersey and maybe Boston as clubs more interested in the NHL lottery format rather than the first-round playoff schedule.

Also, these Panthers set the bar high on Saturday – and they set it way up there with some help. They smelled blood early and rode the emotional boost of an enthusiastic crowd, which the coaches and players referenced post-game, so the Flyers were caught in a buzzsaw of sorts that they didn’t expect, and everything just got out of hand.

Frankly, it wasn’t a typical outing for either team.

If it were a heavyweight championship fight, the game would’ve been stopped on a TKO and all 19,434 fans would’ve filed out at 6:46 after Jokinen netted the fourth goal. Then we in the media wouldn’t have had to worry about deadline too much.

In the end, it’s just one game. One of 82. The only one for Florida in the first week of the NHL season. Likely the only time they’ll win by a six-goal margin.

But what a refreshing, rewarding win it was.

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

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#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

Cats’ 3-2 SO Win Shows Signs of the Future

By Bill Whitehead

SUNRISE — Every Florida Panthers game, even the bad ones like three of the four that resulted in losses on the recent West Coast road trip, gives fans a slight peek at the future. Tuesday at the BB&T Center was not one of those bad showings. In fact, the 3-2 shootout win over the Ottawa Senators gave everyone a few vivid snapshots of what should be a much more promising 2014-15 campaign, such as…

Roberto Luongo – The two goals in 23 seconds was exciting, as were the shootout exploits by two of the club’s young talents, but if Lou doesn’t stand tall in net, especially in a bizarre first period that saw Ottawa fire 20 shots on goal that led to absolutely nothing, then this game goes down as something like a 5-2 loss or worse.

I’ve covered a lot of spring training baseball the last month, and I’ve not seen any ballplayer flash the leather like Luongo did Tuesday. Not speedy center fielder Matt den Dekker of the New York Mets, a Ft. Lauderdale native – just check out this catch in the 2010 College World Series: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zSZf6o7rM58  – or third baseman Ryan Zimmerman or outfielder Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals. Nothing I’ve seen was as good as Luongo was. Repeatedly the Senators tried to beat Luongo high on his glove side, and they failed almost all the time. Fittingly, the game ended with him shutting down Milan Michalek on a backhander that found Luongo’s webbing.

“That’s good for me. That’s where I like to make a lot of saves,” said Luongo, who had 37 of them.

Without Lou’s first-star efforts, Florida (27-38-8) doesn’t beat the desperate Senators. It’s that simple.

Vincent Trocheck and Brandon Pirri – Trocheck’s third career marker on a pass from Scottie Upshall capped a two-goal, 23-second comeback and really got the crowd buzzing. Trocheck has scored on an empty-netter, a wrap-around and now a hard charge to the net on a 2-on-1 break that started with him keeping his feet moving, feeding the puck around behind Luongo and getting on a rush with Uppy. Pirri was solid throughout and appears to have a scorer’s mentality, which is truly needed on this pass-first team that appears rather hesitant to shoot at times like in the 4-on-3 power play in overtime.

The two paired up in the shootout to produce two slick goals and provide the offense that lifted the Cats to the win. Many fans denounce the shootout and call it gimmicky. That’s fine. Regardless, the Panthers are suddenly becoming very good at it and stand at 8-6 in the 1-on-1 skill session. What they’re also doing is creating incredible depth in the shootout. Next year the team’s 1-5 shootout specialists could be Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, all-time NHL leader Brad Boyes, Trocheck and Pirri – and perhaps an additional winger or two most expect the Panthers to go after in free agency on July 1. That group will get you the extra point more often than not, and we all know that’s often the difference in making the playoffs.

“I was shocked to see that I’d go first (in the shootout). When he said I was going first, I was a little nervous, but luckily it worked out. That’s my go-to move. Luckily there’s no video of me doing it in the NHL,” said Trocheck of his first shootout attempt in his 11th game.

Following the contest, Florida interim head coach Peter Horachek had some very complimentary words of praise for Trocheck. The two started the season together in San Antonio, and Horachek said he was impressed by the Pittsburgh native from the start and loved his compete level.

Horachek may or may not be the head of Florida when this season concludes. GM Dale Tallon relieved assistant GM Mike Santos of his duties earlier in the day, and Santos, who joined the organization in 2010 after being directory of hockey operations in Nashville, was instrumental in bringing along Horachek. Who will be behind Florida’s bench next season is an unknown, and probably becomes even more of a dicey decision if Peter Laviolette, Guy Boucher, Claude Noel and other coaches are available and the organization is truly committed to spending money to ice a winning team.

I don’t know if Horachek will be back, but I do know I want no part of any transaction that would ship out Trocheck and/or Pirri anywhere to bring back anything deemed more valuable. Trocheck has too much upside and should have nights like Tuesday for years to come in a Cats’ sweater. As for Pirri, Tallon’s likely already won that deal with Chicago – and that’s not even mentioning the two other former Blackhawks he dealt for in Olsen and Hayes. That deal looks more than favorable as well.

Again, these are small snapshots in a game in front of just 13,435 fans, but all things considered, the pictures from Tuesday night came out just fine.

#FlaPanthers #Devils pre-game notes

By Bill Whitehead

SUNRISE – Some pre-game observations and notes before the Florida Panthers host the New Jersey Devils tonight at 7:30 here at BB&T Center. Some quick hits below:

DEVILISH TIME: Florida’s game tonight marks the 82nd time the clubs have met. The Cats hold a 26-41-7-7 record against New Jersey and are 15-17-4-4 at home against them. The two teams meet for the final time in New Jersey on Mar. 31.

ON THE SCORESHEET: Florida defenseman Alex Petrovic tallied his first NHL point in Tampa Thursday when he assisted on Brandon Pirri’s goal late in the Panthers’ 5-4 loss.

SCORING LEADERS: Jaromir Jagr leads New Jersey with 57 points (21-36), while Patrik Elias (42 pts., 14-28) and Adam Henrique (38 pts., 23-15) follow. Florida is paced by Scottie Upshall (32 pts., 12-20), Nick Bjugstad (31 pts., 14-17) and Brad Boyes (30 pts., 17-13).

FORMER BUDS: Cory Schneider gets the starter in goal for New Jersey and is ranked third in the NHL with a 2.07 GAA. He faced former teammate Roberto Luongo on Nov. 24 earlier this season when Luongo’s Canucks beat the Devils 3-2 in a shootout.

ONE-TIMERS: Bjugstad has nine points in his last nine games and is riding a career-best four-game point streak…New Jersey’s Henrique, who beat Florida two years ago with the game-winner in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, has 11 points in his last seven games…The Devils currently hold the 10th position in the Eastern Conference while Florida is 15th, leading only Buffalo…Pirri has goals in back-to-back games and has three points in his first five games with the Cats…Jimmy Hayes’s two goals against Boston last Sunday in Florida’s 5-2 loss marked the first multi-goal game and third multi-point game of his NHL career; his seven goals are also a career high…Brian Campbell grids second in the league with 27:20 TOI/per game. He has also registered 28-plus minutes in 13 of his last 28 games played.

Cats’ GM Tallon Looks to Blackhawks in First Trade

By Bill Whitehead

The last 24 hours have not been the status quo for the Florida Panthers and their fans. The blockbuster transaction that came over on Tuesday, of course, was the club re-acquiring former star goalie Roberto Luongo and minor leaguer Steve Anthony from the Vancouver Canucks for Shawn Matthias and Jacob Markstrom.

Briefly on the latter two.

First, Matthias, while hot the last few games, has been a disappointment for most of this season after re-signing with the Panthers. Matty is an effort-over-skill guy, and he’s at his best playing a high-energy type game. That has been lacking this season. As for Markstrom, the Swede had more than his fair set of chances to earn playing time, and he simply hasn’t developed. He routinely seems out of position, and his mechanics appear to have slipped. I’ll recall fondly his 40-save effort in his second career win in early 2011 in a 2-1 win at Montreal, but that’s about it. Time just expired on Marky—at least his time in Sunrise.

Monday’s first trade involving Florida, though, brought over offensively skilled center Brandon Pirri from Chicago for a couple of future picks and is an intriguing deal put together by current Florida and former Chicago GM Dale Tallon. Pirri is a former AHL scoring champ and gifted shooter, and he’ll get the chance to contribute right away.

Skating on a line with Jonathan Huberdeau and Jimmy Hayes, Pirri made his Florida debut just under five minutes into Tuesday’s game against Boston. He made an immediate impact by drawing a penalty on just his second shift of the game against Boston. Pirri, 22, looked like he belonged and mixed it up.

Pirri chose to wear No. 73 for Florida, saying he just switched around his former No. 37. Here are some of the highlights from 1973, the number that corresponds to Pirri’s new number:

  • Aerosmith released their debut album, while Pink Floyd dropped Dark Side of the Moon
  • The Dolphins defeated the Redskins 14-7 in Super Bowl VII to complete the only undefeated season
  • George Foreman pounded Joe Frazier in Jamaica to win the heavyweight title. Remember Howard Cosell’s “Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!” call?
  • The World Trade Center officially opened. The Sears Tower was finished, too.
  • The Knicks defeated the Lakers in five games to claim the NBA title.
  • Yankee Stadium closed for a two-year, $160 million renovation, with the club playing at Shea Stadium the following two seasons.
  • The A’s beat the Mets in the World Series in seven games
  • OJ Simpson became the first running back to rush for over 2,000 yards
  • I turned eight and watched all those sporting events (OK, that’s really a personal achievement)

Those are just some of the highlights from the year closely related to that odd hockey number. No. 79 would have been a decent choice because the Cats could fire up “1979” by the Smashing Pumpkins, but hey, we’ll go with 73. And Pirri should score or be in the middle of goals or offensive highlights somehow, regardless of the number he’s wearing or goal call by the announcer at BB&T Center.

That’s the plan, right?

Surprising Offense a Bright Spot for Dylan Olsen

By Bill Whitehead

Late in Florida’s 3-2 shootout win over Washington Friday night, I turned to press box seat mate Erin Brown (@rinkside on Twitter) and made a pretty accurate but not so fresh observation about a certain Panther on the ice. “You know,” I said, watching the Panthers’ blueliners skate, “there’s a whole lot to like about Dylan Olsen’s game.”

That assessment comes after watching Olsen for just nine games with the Panthers following his trade along with fellow former Blackhawk Jimmy Hayes, also playing impressively, for Kris Versteeg. Later while all of the media was drawn to the forward side of the room because of the 10-round epic shootout, I kept peering over to the defensive side where Olsen was nowhere to be found. After talking to Jonathan Huberdeau about his Barkov-like move and listening to Tomas Kopecky describe his game-winning shot that beat Washington’s Philipp Grubauer, I finally saw Olsen and headed over.

Olsen, who has seven points (3 goals, 4 assists), is known as a defensive-oriented defenseman, but you wouldn’t have known it early in second period. After Huberdeau and Nick Bjugstad kept the puck in the Caps’ end, Kopecky took a pass from the Calder winner and had his shot from the slot deflected by Alex Ovechkin. Olsen corralled the puck and fired the game’s first goal past Grubauer from a bad angle near the bottom of the left circle.

The goal gave Olsen, a 2009 first-round draft pick (28th overall), a 5-game point streak, which is quite a surprise for a player who had two goals during his 69-game AHL career. Olsen has brought a physical, responsible defensive game and has stood out with partner Erik Gudbranson, whom he played with at the U18 tournament at Fargo in 2009 and in the World Junior Championships at Buffalo in 2011.

For a moment, forget about the deal with Chicago that current Panthers GM Dale Tallon made with his former organization. Olsen and Hayes have been exceptional with Florida in their brief time, while Chicago has Versteeg in their bottom six. The Panthers made out well in the deal, and the Blackhawks are super talented and won’t miss Olsen and Hayes — right now at least.

I finally made my way to Olsen and asked straightforwardly, “Should we have just expected this offense all along?”

“It’s kind of weird,” Olsen replied with a chuckle. “This has never happened to me before, having put up points like this. I guess you could call it kind of lucky, but it’s been going really well. The forwards are dominating down low and grinding out their players. Obviously, playing with Gudbranson and shutting down other teams’ top lines and playing well defensively is really contributing to our offensive success.

“The puck popped out, nobody was there, I figured take it to the net. Sure enough, nobody came out to block it or anything. I just saw an opening and put it on net.”

After watching NHL Tonight, I realized why Olsen wasn’t immediately available. He was doing an Arena Cam interview with anchor Kathryn Tappen for the late night wrap-up show. At one point before Olsen’s spot came on, a graphic popped up promoting the 22-year-old Calgary native: Coming Up…Dylan Olsen.

Good to see the kid getting the publicity for the contributions and impact he’s made with the Panthers.

Thanksgiving Feast Highlights Panthers’ Week

By Bill Whitehead

I write this at the beginning of every Thanksgiving week, but I’ll do it again: The annual Thanksgiving Feast of Panthers hockey will go quite a ways toward defining Florida’s season and determining its direction.

Always eagerly anticipated, the Thanksgiving games have had interesting outcomes the past five seasons. Last year, of course, we all starved as there was no feast at all due to the lockout. Two years ago in Florida’s division-winning campaign, the Panthers went 3-0-1 on a 4-game homestand beginning with a 3-2 win over Pittsburgh. In Pete DeBoer’s last season in 2010-11, Florida was 0-3-0 and scored just three goals in the losses. Festive Florida fans watched DeBoer’s Panthers go 0-1-2 in 2009-10 after posting a 1-0-2 holiday record the previous year in DeBoer’s first season. In total, Florida is 4-4-5 over the last five years with two coaches.

Two weeks into this season Florida would have relished the chance to play any of the teams it faces this week. Philadelphia was so disjointed as the season opened that the organization fired coach Peter Laviolette after an 0-3-0 start, replacing him with Craig Berube. The Flyers won its first game under Berube, a 2-1 win over Florida in a contest where the Panthers outplayed Philadelphia for much of the game but still lost. It was also significant because of goaltender Tim Thomas getting injured on the Flyers’ game-winning goal by Braydon Coburn.

Much has changed since that night. Florida stumbled for most of the time, and coach Kevin Dineen was fired less than a month later. The Panthers have played better of late under new bench boss Peter Horachek, but it pales in comparison to what the Flyers have done. Philly is 10-7-2 since the first meeting with Florida and currently occupies the 10th spot in the Eastern Conference standings – a far cry from when Laviolette was behind the bench.

Plenty has changed for Wednesday’s opponent, the Rangers, too. The Blueshirts have had a renaissance of sorts similar to the Flyers, regaining their winning form at 12-11-0 after a similar slow start and sitting eighth in the standings. Questions surround Michael Del Zotto – new coach Alain Vigneault seems to have lost faith in him – and a trade involving the 23-year-old defenseman appears inevitable, but the Rangers have received a boost from the return of big scorer Rick Nash.

The Penguins, Florida’s opponent next Saturday, are a likely lock for the playoffs, yet the Panthers’ best performance – at least the most offensively productive – was against the Pens in a 6-3 home-opening win on Oct. 11, which stood as Florida’s only win until one month later. This Saturday night’s game should cap off a good week of hockey and be played in front of an enthusiastic crowd at BB&T with Crosby, Malkin and company in town. Maybe Malkin won’t get sunburn like last April in Sunrise and get scratched – okay, it was officially an “upper body injury,” wink, wink.

Regardless, it’s three games against three quality clubs coming to South Florida. The Panthers have played much better under Horachek and need to keep any momentum they have and make it translate into two points each game night this week. It’s got to start Monday night in a payback game against the Flyers.
Time for the Cats to start feasting.

LOOSE PUCKS: D Dylan Olsen was called up by Florida, but Mike Weaver is available to play Monday against Philadelphia. Acquired with F Jimmy Hayes from Chicago in the Kris Versteeg trade, Olsen has played in 28 NHL games and recorded one assist and six PIMs. A native of Calgary, the 22-year-old first-round pick from 2009 will don the No. 4 worn previously by former defensemen Keaton Ellerby and Jay Bouwmeester…According to a story in The New York Times, U.S. Olympic team general manager David Poile and his staff have included Tim Thomas as one of six candidates who could be in goal in Sochi in February. Joining Thomas for consideration are Jonathan Quick, Ryan Miller, Cory Schneider, Jimmy Howard and Ben Bishop…The three opponents this week have a combined record of 37-30-2.

SOUNDING OFF: “We’ve had a little bit of a slide lately. Take away that Florida game and we’ve played some good hockey.” – Canucks defenseman Kevin Bieksa on Hockey Night in Canada during first-intermission interview of Chicago-Vancouver game