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

Advertisements

#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

No Room for Grimaldi Right Now With Cats

By Bill Whitehead

As stunning as the news was last Tuesday that Rocco Grimaldi was being called up from San Antonio so he could help out in Los Angeles, the word Sunday that he had been sent back down was, well, non-stunning. After sparking a rally in Nashville that helped the Panthers shock the Music City faithful and had them staying a little later at Bridgestone Arena than expected, the Cats decided to ship Grimaldi back to the AHL.

No surprise there.

First, understanding the connection with Grimaldi is necessary. The first NHL Draft that I covered was the 2011 one in St. Paul, a weekend that produced Calder Trophy-winning rookie Jonathan Huberdeau, Grimaldi in a second-day shocker, Vincent Trocheck and other exciting prospects like Kyle Rau, Jonathan Racine, Yaroslav Kosov and Logan Shaw.

Being drawn to and liking the 5-foot-6 Grimaldi, a polite, forthright, devout son of parents in law enforcement, proved to be as easy as Florida GM Dale Tallon picking the California native with the 33rd selection overall. Grimaldi was cordial in speaking with the media, had a plan of playing in college at North Dakota and expected to be with the Panthers after that. The one word I left Minnesota with to describe Grimaldi after talking to him was “determined,” which probably has plenty to do with his upbringing, skill level and competitive spirit, perhaps due to his physical stature.

Fans loved him and lined up to meet the 21-year-old forward in camp. His play in the preseason on a line with close friend Trocheck (read about their friendship) and Quinton Howden had fans loving him even more. His play in seven NHL games so far has only fortified Cats fans’ opinions, and their ire at him being sent down again is justified.

But there’s just no room on this roster.

The injured forwards who traveled with the Panthers on their recent 2-1-1 road swing against Western Conference playoff teams are getting healthy. Sean Bergenheim, Brandon Pirri and Dave Bolland all skated and appear close to returning. Bolland has been day-to-day since being injured in the season’s fourth game – Gerard Gallant’s first win – on Oct. 17 in Buffalo. Florida was 1-2-1 after that Roberto Luongo 1-0 shutout; they’re now 7-5-6. That’s how long Bolland has been out.

Yet Bolland has to play. He wasn’t brought in by Tallon just to mentor upstarts Grimaldi and Trocheck at practice and sit in the press box on game night. Earning $5.5 million this year and also the next four, No. 63 must be on the ice. His contract and keen ability to be injury-prone may irk fans, but has he been bad for Florida so far? A fair assessment can’t be made over four games played – four games, mind you, where the Cats were deplorable, when everyone thought the sky was falling, and when all talk of the Panthers around the league usually ended with “McDavid Sweepstakes.”

Bergenheim needs to be in, too. He scored the only goal in that Buffalo win, and when healthy – a big assumption – he’s productive. Same with Pirri, who Heimlich Maneuvered the club when the offense was gagging on early-season fumbling and bumbling. The healthy ones are making their cases as well. Tomas Kopecky contributes a ton, while Tomas Fleischmann played his best hockey at the end of the road trip. Scottie Upshall, who missed the last two games, is an emotional player who leaves it all on the ice, often with good results.

It’s a forward-filled roster that’s bursting at the seams. It’s like a fat man after a cheap lunch-time buffet: swelled, plump, and with few options.

Grimaldi will be back at some point this season. Injuries open up spots all the time, and his talents are undeniable. He’s fast, relentless and low to the ice (naturally). And on a team that’s pass-happy, he’s generally a shoot-first guy. His bond with Trocheck is tight, too, and the duo should be paired up in Florida red sweaters for years to come. Plus, if you’re really upset that he was reassigned to the Lone Star State, find solace in that he’s still in the organization; he possesses the kind of talent that could easily have been the centerpiece in some offseason trade, though there was no talk one was in the works.

My least favorite player quote right now – perhaps of all-time and you hear it often – is, “It is what it is.” I’ve heard it in baseball clubhouses, NASCAR garages, football locker rooms, hockey dressing rooms. You name the sport and designated changing room or interview area and I’ve heard it uttered when, frankly, the athlete had nothing else to say. As an aside, I’d love to hear an athlete say for once, “It’s not what it is. Really, it’s something entirely different that you couldn’t comprehend at all. It simply isn’t what it is.”

But this Florida Panthers’ roster? It is what it is.

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