#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

 

 

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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 Let One Slip Away

By Bill Whitehead

SUNRISE —Well, that didn’t go as planned.

In a scene Florida fans have watched much this year, the Panthers (31-15-6) let one slip away in a huge way Saturday, squandering a two-goal lead in the final 10:45 and falling to the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-2 in overtime on a skillful game-winner from Sidney Crosby to Kris Letang.

To say it was disappointing to most of the 20,295 in attendance is an understatement as enormous as the red-clad crowd.

After Sasha Barkov dashed down the ice and retrieved a slick pass from Jussi Jokinen and scored Florida’s third shorthanded goal of the season — a dazzling backhander that beat goalie Jeff Zatkoff 5-hole — the Cats seemed to be in good shape. It appeared all they needed to do was sit back, pack it in, grab puck possession and send it down the ice.

It’s textbook play and what they’ve been doing since Thanksgiving. It’s what fans have come to expect.

But Crosby and Letang changed the outcome almost singlehandedly, hooking up for the first goal on a one-timer by Letang from the bottom of the left circle, then Letang shoveling in the final marker on the power play after a dish from Crosby. Twice now the Pens have beaten Florida in overtime with the man-advantage.

The sudden loss tainted some of Florida’s better numbers on the year.

Florida slipped to 14-3-6 in one-goal games and 26-3-4 when they score first. The Panthers are now 19-2-2 when leading after one period and 22-2-4 when ahead after two periods. And they are now 22-7-4 against the Eastern Conference.

Those stats aren’t the new Twitter algorithm. They’re the numbers — a calculation of hard work in a systematic approach — that illustrate the Panthers are a top hockey club in the NHL.

If Florida had found a way to hold on to the two-goal margin, they would’ve won for the 12th time in their last 13 home games, dating all the way back to early December, with the only loss being to Edmonton in which they were more interested in owning the score with Matt Hendricks than owning the contest’s final score.

Those are the bad numbers — well, the numbers are fine, they just could’ve been finer.

The good number? One, the amount of points they added to their Atlantic Division-leading season.

Unlike the 2011-12 Florida club that won the Southeast Division by grabbing the dreaded loser points in overtime and shootout losses, the current pack of Cats has won games in regulation. A lot of them. Because of that they can afford to lose a game and — voila! — grab that loser point. At this point (there’s that word again), the idea is to keep banking points.

They aren’t chasing a playoff berth and don’t require two points every night; they’re holding one and padding a first-place lead. And they’ve been there for a while. Keep adding points, mostly two at a time but occasionally one, and they’ll be hosting Game 1 of a first-round playoff series in April.

Honestly, a Florida win, say, 2-1, wouldn’t have been the most artful one of the season, and many would’ve said, “Yeah, they won, but…”. The Panthers had 20 shots in the first periods, but as Crosby, Zatkoff and Pens coach Mike Sullivan said, they weren’t high-quality scoring chances. All of the Pens interviewed seemed to think the shots were misleading, and they ended up 42-35 anyway.

Both teams took way too many penalties, too. Pittsburgh’s overtime power play resulting from Jokinen’s hooking penalty proved to be what is painfully obvious: The 4-on-3 is the true death sentence in the NHL. Rarely do teams kill it off. Too much ice, lack of possession and the long change are brutal to overcome.

On the good side, I posed a question to Crosby about facing Florida this time as compared to the club he saw in Pittsburgh way back on Oct. 20 in the Panthers’ sixth game of the year.

“I thought they possessed the puck,” Crosby said. “It took us a while to climb our way back (in shots). They’re a really deep team. They’ve got a lot of different ways they can beat you. Their D is active, make good plays and come up the ice. Their strong on the puck down low and have good goaltending.

“It’s not a fluke why they’re doing well.”

And, because they’ve been doing well, a non-fluke divisional leader can come away with one point on a night when two seemed so near.

Let’s just not make it a habit.

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

#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

#FlaPanthers notes: Kulikov, Shootouts and Playoffs

By Bill Whitehead

Monday’s suspension of Florida defenseman Dmitry Kulikov was warranted. It’s the kind of dangerous hit the NHL is trying to get away from and put in its past like the era without visors and immovable steel goals that were anchored into the ice.

But don’t kid yourself into thinking there isn’t another name than had an impact on Kulikov receiving a 4-game suspension without pay. And that name?

Tyler Seguin.

If Kulikov’s blow below the waist would have been to the leg of Shawn Horcoff or Travis Moen or almost any other Dallas Star, there’s no way Kulikov would have been hit as hard and received the punishment he did.

But Kulikov hit the Stars’ star.

Seguin, a 29-goal scorer and an exciting point per game player, is one of the league’s stars, and let’s face it, the NHL protects its big names. Kulikov, who has no history of dirty play, was also a bit of a victim of the media on the night after the hit.

During intermission of Saturday night’s Toronto-Montreal tilt, the majority of the Sportsnet crew chose to vilify Kulikov, whose rebound from last year’s terrible play on the back end is one of the Panthers’ best stories this season. His presence was missed in the St. Louis game, though the performance by call-up Shane O’Brien, a steady Alex Petrovic and an increasingly impressive Steve Kampfer became better after a sketchy first period against the physical Blues.

I suggested Sunday night that the Russian defenseman would get five games, then maybe get a game or two reduction. My reasoning for it being as harsh was this: Seguin, the Sportsnet team’s over-the-top persecution of Kulikov, Florida’s tenuous relationship with the NHL’s Department of Player Safety, and, well, Seguin. And Seguin.

But here are some names of players who were scofflaws when it came to dishing out hits that were clearly over-the-line against Cats yet received no suspensions: Anton Volchenkov, Jaroslav Spacek, Mike Richards, Radko Gudas, Rick Nash and Keith Yandle. Surely there are some offenders I’m leaving out.

Kulikov deserved a suspension because the NHL is trying to put that type of dangerous play in the past, like the hit by Brad Marchand on Sami Salo – very similar contact. It’s unfortunate what happened to Seguin, which hurts the Stars’ playoff hopes.

The NHL, though, carried the punishment a couple of games too far.

 

GOING WITH YOUR GUT: Florida coach Gerard Gallant has made it known he plays a hunch at times and goes with a gut feeling, but his Sunday shootout decisions have left many puzzled, myself included.

If you want to find the origin of the recent stretch of misery, look no further than the game against the Nashville Predators. The talk after the game was, hey, playoff teams don’t blow 2-goal leads in the third period at home and make matters worse by losing in the shootout. However, that’s exactly what Florida did.

But what was perplexing was not so much Gallant’s decision to trot out the four shooters he did – Brandon Pirri, Brad Boyes, Nick Bjugstad and Dave Bolland – but the three sharpshooters he didn’t use at all. That would be Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov and Jussi Jokinen. You can make a case for the first three of Pirri, Boyes and Bjugstad, but not Bolland over Huby, Barky or Jussi. Ever.

There was more.

In the 5-round shootout against St. Louis, he failed to call on No. 16 to go out there and win it. Instead he slipped in Jimmy Hayes, a brutish net-front presence who isn’t exactly Phil Kessel-like in his one-on-one skills. Shootouts are about dazzling dangles and dipsy-do. That’s not Hayes’ game. Barkov, who beat Pittsburgh with perhaps the shootout goal of the year, must be wondering what he has to do to crack the top five in future shootouts.

Every Florida 5-rounder should have some combination of Huberdeau, Bjugstad, Boyes, Barkov and Jokinen starting it.

Every. Single. Time.

 

WATCH OUT BELOW: Florida’s focus since the turn of the year has been the Boston Bruins, New York Rangers and Washington Capitals, who linger above the playoff cut line. However, the club just below the Panthers – the Philadelphia Flyers — have made a serious push and trail Florida by just two points with the Cats having a game in hand. Philly (24-22-10) has transformed from sellers to potential buyers as the deadline approaches, buoyed mainly by their current 7-1-3 run. The Flyers open a 3-game home stretch with Columbus tonight then Buffalo on Thursday, so they could put even more pressure on Florida.

As for the Panthers (24-19-12), tonight’s game against a wreck of a Toronto team is not a must win, it’s a must-must win. Very musty. Double musty. The Maple Leafs (23-29-5) have been in a disastrous freefall since the Panthers’ 6-4 victory spurred by a 4-goal third period on Dec. 28, and we’re currently in Day 3 of the Leaf Rebuild that has already seen Cody Franson and Mike Santorelli leave Leaf Nation. Tonight Toronto will play fast as they did in Sunrise, has ex-Cat Olli Jokinen on the roster and called up prospect Brandon Kozun from the the AHL Marlies.

But the Leafs are damaged goods at this point, and anything less than two points tonight will be a huge letdown and leave the #OneUnderTheSun crowd quite upset – which they should be. Florida blew extra points against Nashville and St. Louis and really wasted strong goaltending efforts in their last three contests against Minnesota, Dallas and St. Louis, coming away with just one point.

Yet as Cats’ broadcaster Steve Goldstein said post-game on Sunday, we’re talking the possibility of Florida Panthers playoff hockey as the trade deadline nears. Florida looks now more like buyers instead of sellers, and fans are studying the standings, out-of-town scoreboard and upcoming schedules as if they were cramming for finals.

No one saw that one coming in September.

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

#FlaPanthers: Five Things Learned in Five Games

By Bill Whitehead

We’re only five games deep into the 2014-15 season, but the Florida Panthers have already given their fans some dire concern but with glimpses of hope, moments of worry tempered by anticipation. A 1-2-2 start has alternately been decent but disappointing (Tampa Bay), abjectly miserable (New Jersey), utterly embarrassing (Ottawa, in a home attendance “sit-anywhere-you-want-to, hell-nobody’s-here” Internet/Twitter mess), and good-but-could’ve-been-better (win over Buffalo, shootout loss to Washington). It’s just a five-game snippet, but something can be and has been learned in that time.

Here are five observations over five games, some positive, some not:

 

  1. The defense is better than expected. The Cats gave up five goals against the Devils, but throw those out (I know, they all count) and the defense has allowed just five goals in four games, excluding the shootout marker. Of course, a large part of that lies with Roberto Luongo, who blanked Buffalo for coach Gerard Gallant’s first win, and Al Montoya, who has been exceptional in both appearances, though he failed in the shootout against the Caps. Granted two of those wins are against mediocre Ottawa and awful Buffalo clubs, but Tampa Bay and Washington are likely playoff teams. This defense should keep Florida in many close games.
  2. The top six can’t be any worse. The top two lines of Aleksander Barkov, Jussi Jokinen, Brad Boyes, Nick Bjugstad, Jonathan Huberdeau and Scottie Upshall have combined for exactly four points, and only two – Huberdeau and Boyes – have goals. Worst still, top centers Barkov and Bjugstad are scoreless, as is Jokinen, the club’s major offensive acquisition in the offseason. Jokinen, who has shown some nice passing, was the lone missed shot in the shootout in DC. No team wins in the NHL consistently without production from its top six.
  3. Willie Mitchell has been well worth the money. The 2-time Stanley Cup winner has been a solid addition to the blue line, adding a calming presence and making all the small plays necessary of a player who has competed in over 900 NHL games. He’s also served as a fine replacement for Ed Jovanovski, another defenseman who was the previous captain. Another trait the two blueliners share: They will speak at length – at incredibly fantastic length – about their play and the state of the game or team. Mitchell’s value will continue to increase as strengthens relationships with his defensive unit and learns his teammates’ characteristics. A great stabilizing, experienced addition by GM Dale Tallon.
  4. Brandon Pirri must play. A team that struggles so mightily to score and appears goal-challenged most of the time cannot – simply can’t — repeatedly scratch the one player on the club who can snipe a bit. Shoot first instead of pass? That’s Pirri. One-time a pass, an amazing feat for this group? That too is Pirri. Win draws, push the play forward and put the puck on net? Pirri. Clearly, he has some faults that Gallant doesn’t like. At the Philadelphia draft, one Western Conference beat writer told me Pirri felt like he deserved more playing time in Chicago’s top six and was upset he wasn’t getting it, so maybe that’s why he was expendable to the talented Blackhawks. However, the Cats need him and must have him in the lineup.
  5. Aaron Ekblad belongs here, as does Derek MacKenzie. Ekblad, the 18-year-old rookie and No. 1 overall pick, has transitioned well into the NHL and has shown a flare for offense. He’s defensively responsible, solid in all aspects of his game and likes to shoot the puck – just like he repeated to us in Philadelphia – and should be here for the long haul this season. MacKenzie, a fourth line scrapper, wins face-offs and is as gritty as a Burning Man Festival attendee after a week spent in the Nevada desert. He hits and hits and hits, and physicality is infectious along a team’s bench. Florida already appears to be a much more physical club than in previous years. A large part of that credit goes to the feisty MacKenzie.

Also, the season is not over. The hockey world appeared bad after New Jersey humiliated Florida last weekend, but it’s equally bad or worse with other teams. Edmonton, a team loaded with top talent, has scored six more goals than Florida but is 0-4-1 and has one point. Buffalo is as bad and dismal as a horrible winter storm in western New York, and Carolina’s not much better. As for scoring deficiency, Winnipeg tallied one goal over a three-game stretch and has two in its last four games.

Plenty of hockey remains in this season, but it’s up to Gallant and the real quality drafted talent – Bjugstad, Barkov and Huberdeau – plus high-dollar acquisitions like Dave Bolland and Jokinen to give Florida the offensive punch it needs and turn these close losses into wins.

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

Cats Looking to Win Series from Penguins

By Bill Whitehead

With their 7-2 drubbing courtesy of the Jets left behind in Manitoba, the Florida Panthers will take to the ice tonight for home game No. 22 of 24, and they will be attempting to do something they have already accomplished at BB&T Center — beat the Pittsburgh Penguins, which they did, 6-4, on Feb. 26.

Florida (13-21-6, 32 pts.) stands in stark contrast to the Penguins, who earlier this week, to no one’s surprise, clinched the Atlantic Division crown in a 5-3 win at Carolina. Pittsburgh (31-10-0, 62 pts.) still has the competitive edge despite clinching, though, and will need it in the remaining seven games. The Penguins hold a five-point lead over Montreal and six-point edge on Boston in the race for the top spot in the Eastern Conference, and both of the Northeast Division teams have a game in hand over the Penguins. Pittsburgh also trails Chicago by four points for the overall No. 1 spot in the league, and the Blackhawks also have an extra game to play.

Some of the numbers between Pittsburgh and Florida are striking. As far as goals for and against, simply invert the numbers. The Penguins have tallied an NHL-best 138 goals this season, while the Panthers have yielded a league-high 139. The Pens haven’t been too charitable, allowing just 101 goals to the 98 netted by the Cats. And this stat sums up the clubs’ season in a nutshell: Pittsburgh didn’t lose in March, posting a 15-game winning streak; Florida has won 13 games…on the season.

The three-time Stanley Cup champions have been playing without Sidney Crosby since the captain broke his jaw and lost multiple teeth after being hit by a slap shot from teammate Brooks Orpik on March 30. Still the Hart Trophy favorite, No. 87 was recently given clearance to fly with the team to Florida, and he was in the press box during the club’s 6-3 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday. Crosby, who isn’t skating yet, will join the team in Sunrise in their effort to win the season series from Florida (Pittsburgh won at home, 3-1, on Feb. 22), though there’s no time table for his return. Also, defenseman Kris Letang (broken toe, groin) returned to the lineup against the Lightning; Letang (3-25-28) has missed 12 games this season with numerous ailments but still is third in scoring among defensemen behind P.K. Subban and Ryan Suter. Fellow blueliner Paul Martin (broken hand) has resumed skating.

Panthers fans will be seeing some new faces wearing the black and gold. Pittsburgh’s Ray Shero was the most active general manager near the trade deadline and made it known his intention is for his club to win the Stanley Cup now. He acquired forwards Jarome Iginla, Jussi Jokinen and Brenden Morrow, plus added rugged defenseman Douglas Murray. While Jokinen appears to be the minor acquisition, Shero was able to trade with Carolina for Jokinen, who was placed on waivers last month. By trading for him instead, Shero put the Hurricanes on the hook for a portion of Jokinen’s contract.

For Florida, Tomas Fleischmann and T.J. Brennan both had a goal and an assist against Winnipeg, and Brennan has been impressive since being acquired from Buffalo. Fleischmann has a seven-game point streak and 11 points in his last 12 games. The Panthers will head to the metropolitan New York area after the game, embarking on a four-game road trip beginning on Long Island on Tuesday against the playoff-primed New York Islanders.

The puck drops tonight at 7:30 in the final meeting between the two teams and will be broadcast on Sun Sports and 560 WQAM.

FRIDAY NIGHT ‘LIGHTS: In Calgary, the Flames allowed a late goal by Phoenix to force overtime, but Mark Giordano’s shot from the high slot with 23.1 seconds left in the extra session beat goalie Mike Smith and lifted Calgary to the win. The victory pulled the Flames out of a three-way tie for last in the league standings with Florida and Colorado and into a tie with Carolina with 34 points…In Newark, the Ottawa Senators continued their surprisingly strong season, despite playing without stars Jason Spezza and Erik Karlsson, by beating the New Jersey Devils 2-0 behind a 33-save showing by former Panther goalie Craig Anderson. The ninth consecutive loss by the Devils and ex-Florida coach Pete DeBoer likely ended the team’s quest for the playoffs. New Jersey, who ousted Florida in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals last year, trails ninth-place Winnipeg and the eighth-place New York Rangers by four points…