#FlaPanthers Getting Little Respect

By Bill Whitehead

Following Florida’s 2-1 hard-earned shootout win over Columbus to record its fifth straight win and fifth consecutive road victory dating back to that memorable 5-4 shootout win in Tampa on Nov. 14, Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella placed a load of blame on his players for the outcome.

“To me, it was a little lack of respect for the opponent. I don’t understand how we can disrespect an opponent when we’re looking up at all 29 teams,” said the edgy, often irate Tortorella.

Apparently St. Louis bench boss Ken Hitchcock felt similarly after his Blues were handled by the Panthers in perhaps Florida’s best performance of the year, a 3-1 drubbing of a good Blues team in a city where Florida hadn’t won since 2009.

St. Louis defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk was complimentary of Florida, saying the Cats clogged up the neutral zone and prevented the Blues from getting behind the Panthers and working on their forecheck. The Western Conference team thrives on that kind of physical play.

Hitchcock said his team’s mental preparation was bad: “We didn’t give Florida near the respect they deserve.”

The assessments by the two coaches brings up a good question: What’s the value of respect and how does a team like Florida earn it?

The answers don’t seem to matter too much right now, do they?

Florida (13-9-4) is riding an incredible wave of momentum as it looks for six straight in the Garden State against those pesky Devils, a team they are chasing. The emotion of opening night’s 7-1 win over Philly was incredible, but that feeling was nothing like the last seven days.

Five wins coming against four likely playoff teams, though Florida may have something to say about Detroit or the Islanders playing in mid April.

There was a taste of what the Panthers can do when they beat their nemesis Tampa and swept a home-and-home series from the Bolts in thrilling fashion last month, but the ride started with that record-setting shootout against the Islanders.

Since then, it’s been a rally and shootout winner at Detroit, an outstanding overall showing in St. Louis and 21 blocked shots that never challenged Roberto Luongo in another win, this time in Nashville where they had not won since pre-Y2K.

Then Columbus.

A strong first 20 that produced nothing. A lucky bounce on a pass by Vincent Trocheck that turned into his eighth goal—nothing to be ashamed of, by the way—then late penalty-killing and shootout heroics.

The most impressive win to me, all things considered, was Columbus.

Of all 13 wins this year, the victory in the Buckeye State was the kind of game Florida never would have won in years past.

The club held a very brief lead against a Blue Jackets team that was struggling and playing in front of a lifeless crowd. Somehow Florida found a way to win it—thanks largely to the PK unit, Columbus’ awful power play and some timely play by backup goalie Al Montoya and virtuoso shootout artists Jonathan Huberdeau and Sasha Barkov.

Past Florida teams would have wilted against an inferior Columbus, given up a power-play goal or had a bad break go against them as they skated on tired legs from a game the previous night while fresh Columbus had three nights off.

However, these Cats used a good break on Trocheck’s goal, killed off penalties and used their better skill in the shootout to snap the terrible streak of losing in central Ohio.

Instead of outplaying a team for 55 minutes and losing late in some bizarre manner, Florida trotted out its fatigued, “Hey, we played a tough game the night before” C game, went through the motions the last 40 minutes, had their backs against the wall in the shootout after failing to win on an overtime power play…

And won.

That just hasn’t happened much in the years I’ve covered this team. Florida basically won Friday when they shouldn’t have.

As for the answers to the two-part question about what respect is and how does Florida get it?

Right now respect probably means very little to the red-hot Panthers, who aren’t really worried too much about how to go about getting it either.

They’re just worried about winning.

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

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#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

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).

Florida Looking For Answers in Nashville

By Bill Whitehead

This may fall in the “Understatement of the Week” department, but here it goes anyway: The Florida Panthers are suffering from a serious lack of chemistry and effort through their first six games. There, I said it. And trust me, I’m not the only one saying it. In fact, here’s what Kevin Dineen had to say after Florida’s mail-it-in matinee on a Sunday afternoon against the Los Angeles Kings:

“As the game wore on, we got worn down. That’s going to happen. The problem that we have is I think our hockey IQ dropped as well. We thought we could play a fancy game and you cannot play a fancy game against the Kings, the Blues, the majority of the NHL. You can’t play that way and have success. It’s a continuing work in progress for us to play the game the proper way, which isn’t always easy.”

— Dineen after Florida’s 2-hour, 13-minute afternoon break

Can’t argue with that assessment much.

In six games, Florida (2-4-0) has put together solid effort in three of their contests – Dallas, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The other three – St. Louis, Tampa Bay and Los Angeles – were dumbfounding, wretched performances that left fans shaking their heads and wondering, “What’s the real Florida Panthers team here – the good one that’s won a couple of games or the bad one that looks like they’re playing together for the first time?”

At this point, Florida’s like Sally Field in the 1976 movie Sybil when Field starred as a meek substitute school teacher who turned out to be schizophrenic with multiple personalities. No one – not Dineen, Dale Tallon, a media member or the greatest Panthers fan out there like (feel free to insert your name here) – knows what team will take the ice Tuesday night in the Volunteer State against the Predators.

I do know this: Nashville can’t score. At all. And it’s always been their MO. The Predators are last in the Western Conference’s Central Division with a 2-3-0 record and have scored just nine goals in those five games while yielding 15. Meanwhile, Florida has given up 24 goals in six games, so you have a team that’s scoring less than two goals a game hosting a team that allows four a game. Something’s got to give.

The X Factor in Tuesday’s game: The Panthers haven’t played well in Nashville in the five-plus years I’ve been covering them. Dineen and Tallon still haven’t found what they’re looking for, but it’s Nashville, the home of country music, not U2, that may hold the answers. I’m waiting to see something new from these Cats that’s as purty as some sappy country-and-western duet featuring twangers like Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers. Maybe it will be the return of Nick Bjugstad that will make the Cats sing.

But Dineen and Tallon will take anything from the game at this point — team identity, good chemistry or a unified hard-working effort would do just fine for starters.

Two points, too.

Brad Boyes on Tim Thomas: “He’s a proven winner.”

By Bill Whitehead

SUNRISE, Fla. – Newly arrived goaltender Tim Thomas is known for his work ethic and competitiveness.

No one in the Panthers’ dressing room knows that more than newcomer Brad Boyes.

BradBoyes

Also in Florida’s camp on a tryout like Thomas, Boyes supported general manager Dale Tallon’s glowing assessment of the former Boston Bruins goaltender, who arrived in South Florida Monday and was seen exiting the BB&T Center before Florida’s doubleheader against the Nashville Predators.

“He’s a proven winner,” said Boyes, who scored a goal in Florida’s 6-3 win in Game 1. “He’s a guy I played with a few years ago, so I know him a little bit. The guy competes. He’s one guy, that of everyone I’ve played with, as a goalie, he’s probably the hardest working as far as practice in not letting guys score on him.

“It’s impressive. A guy like that, a guy with his stature, his experience, to come in here is going to be big.”

Boyes said that feistiness will carry Thomas the rest of training camp and into the season. Florida expects the former University of Vermont goalie to travel with them to Texas and immediately fit in with the club. The Panthers play a pair of games in the Lone Star State this week before returning to Florida for a contest against the Lightning in Tampa on Saturday.

Boyes said the two often had intense battles in practice while with the Bruins.

“He never gives up on anything. It’s impressive. He’ll keep going. He’ll get angry [if you score on him in practice]. It’s good. So, rub it in when you do score,” said Boyes, who played two seasons with Thomas in Boston.

“It shows in the games he plays, the number of highlight saves he’s made. Guys think they have him and Timmy comes across or comes out of nowhere and makes a save. It is good. A guy like that, with his resume, on a team like this is going to be positive.”

Boyes also stated Thomas won’t be coming in to ride the bench behind Swedish goalie Jacob Markstrom and expects to start. He added that the 39-year-old Michigan netminder will be a strong asset to the club.

“I think he will. He’s very competitive. He’s going to want to win. He’s going to want to play, so he’s going to be a guy who pushes other guys. As a goalie, he’s going to give his team a chance to win every night. That’s something that is huge. You win in this league with good goaltending and that’s a positive with him winning a Stanley Cup, Vezinas,” said Boyes, who has bolstered his chance of making the roster with his scoring touch.

“He’s a very competitive guy, and that’s what he brings.”

Put your money on Boyes and Thomas chirping one another again in practice. Only this time it will be in Coral Springs.

Tallon Expects Thomas to Compete for Starting Job

By Bill Whitehead

SUNRISE, Fla.–The spirit of “Let’s play two” was in the air at the BB&T Center on Monday, but it was what happened before and during Game 1 against the Nashville Predators that had the media  buzzing.

Before Game 1 as I was entering the press entrance of the arena, I spotted 2-time Vezina and 1-time Conn Smythe Trophy winner Tim Thomas – last seen on the ice leading the Boston Bruins to a Stanley Cup title 17 months ago; this time clad in shorts in warm South Florida – walking out of the building and getting ready to drive up to the practice facility. It was later announced that Panthers GM Dale Tallon would speak after the first intermission. The Predators built a 3-1 lead at the break of the first game of the doubleheader, but all the attention was in meeting Tallon outside Florida’s dressing room.

He quickly confirmed that Thomas had accepted a tryout offer from the Panthers and then outlined where the 39-year-old former University of Vermont netminder fit in with the club, which lost backup Scott Clemmensen to minor knee surgery earlier this month.

TimThomas

“He won a Stanley Cup the last time he played. He had a big responsibility in that. He’s a two-time Vezina Trophy winner. We need goaltending. We need someone to help us go where we need to go. Right now, it’s Tim Thomas. He’s going to get an opportunity,” Tallon said.

Rumors surfaced last week that the Panthers, needing to shore up its goaltending situation, has made tryout offers to both Thomas and former Philadelphia goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, who was an amnesty buyout by the Flyers in the offseason.
The Thomas rumors proved to be real, in fact becoming reality. When Thomas was last on the ice, he led the Bruins to the Stanley Cup title with a 4-0 Game 7 shutout of Vancouver. He was phenomenal in the series, stopping 238 of 246 shots by the Canucks. He posted a 1.98 goals against average the entire postseason.

While 23-year-old Jacob Markstrom appeared to be the incumbent in Florida’s crease, Tallon said he expects Thomas, who took last year off to spend with family, to come in and make a strong bid for the starting spot.

“He’s in good shape. He’s eager to go. He’s been working hard all year. Mentally, physically, he’s strong. He’ll compete for a starting position. That’s so important. You want to bring in people who really care, who will work hard and will show the young guys the way. He’s a prototypical professional who works extremely hard in practice and off the ice. He’s very dedicated to his profession,” Tallon said.

“He’s got a great pedigree. He’s worked hard all his life to get to where he is. He’s going to continue to work hard. We’ve had great discussions. I believe in what he says. I trust him. He’ll be a valuable asset to us.

“He wants to be the starter. He wants to be the guy. That’s what I want from all our players. I want them to all think they’re the guy and be the guy. I don’t want guys who want to be backups or third- or fourth-line guys. I want them to be the best they can be, battle for positions to be the best player on the team.”

Widely regarded as a tireless worker, Thomas should set a strong example to the young players like he was to current Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask, Tallon said.

“That’s why he’s here. He’s here to help show the way to the young guys. Let he and Markstrom and Clemmensen battle for position. Whoever wins the position will be the starter…So that will be a good lesson for all our young players,” Tallon added.

“He really wants to play. He really wants to lead and he really wants to be the starter. He wants to win, and he wants to win now. I was very impressed with him. His attitude is terrific. I liked everything he had to say, and I like his approach. It’s something we try to strive to get better every day.

“A good Tim Thomas will make us a better team.”

Panthers Notes: Language Barriers

By Bill Whitehead

A couple of quick notes from the end of Florida’s developmental camp:

SEASONAL FRENCH: If any of Florida’s English-speaking-only prospects is going to learn French simply by the company he keeps, look no further than forward Rocco Grimaldi, who hears plenty of French during summer camp.

The 5-foot-6 University of North Dakota player roomed with Jonathan Huberdeau in a previous camp, and the pair playfully kidded one another often, even taking the joking to Twitter. Grimaldi took shots at the Quebec-born Huberdeau’s troubles with English – though in reality it’s quite good – while Grimaldi’s short stature was a source of Huberdeau’s Twitter teasing.

In this year’s camp, Grimaldi was paired with Sorel-Tracy, Quebec, native Francis Beauvillier. On the last day of camp following the scrimmage, Beauvillier was casually chatting with the media about how certain English words were borrowed from French – the word petard, from “hoisted by one’s own petard,” for example – when Grimaldi came by.

Upon hearing Beauvillier’s explanation in English, Grimaldi couldn’t resist a final dig before exiting: “Most of the English he speaks, I taught him.”

NO TRANSLATION: Speaking of linguistic strides, forward Alexander Delnov was seen doing one-on-one for interviews without an interpreter. When Florida drafted Delnov in the fourth round in Pittsburgh last year, Delnov spoke broken English and needed the assistance of Vadim Podrezov, Florida’s scout in Russia.

It’s no surprise that Podrezov came to the rescue. He and Delnov hail from Mytischi, a town just northeast of Moscow. Podrezov helped put the Panthers on to Delnov, vouching for the speed and talent of the 19-year-old who idolized former Panther great Pavel Bure.

Florida hopes Delnov (below, left) becomes one of two Russian major finds. Two years ago in Minnesota, the Panthers drafted Delnov’s countryman Yaroslav Kosov (right), who completely bypassed the interview room because of the language barrier. A fifth-round selection, the 6-foot-3, 220-pound right winger has played two seasons for Magnitogorsk Mettalurg in the KHL and scored a hat trick against Germany on the way to earning a bronze medal in this past WJC tournament held in Kosov’s homeland. Scott Luce, Florida’s scouting director, said in St. Paul at the draft that he felt the organization had found a hidden gem in Kosov, who just turned 20.

Delnov                Kosov

SIZING HIM UP: One Panther who meandered in and out of the dressing room was Huberdeau, whose name slotted low on the list for the exit meetings the team was conducting with each player. Huberdeau said he had received a smaller replica of the Calder Trophy, but what stood out the most about Huberdeau, in his third year in the organization, was the muscle he had added on his 6-foot-1 frame.

No one will ever confuse Huberdeau with any winners of the Mr. Universe contest, but he’s also no longer the lanky lad who showed up to camp in 2011 and who’s biggest advice was that he needed to add weight.

Look for a slightly bulkier red No. 11 sweater flying toward opposing goalies next season.

SCANT FEW: The best deal in hockey is heading toward the finish line as the Panthers announced that its new $7 season ticket offer, which it implemented during Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final last month — has nearly sold out. Sunrise Sports & Entertainment announced Tuesday that less than 50 tickets remain.

Fans who sign up will receive a free jersey, free parking, four free concerts at the BB&T Center, a $25 Duffy’s gift card and more for just $7 per game.

Interested fans can call 954-835-PUCK or got to FloridaPanthers.com to order their tickets.

LOOSE PUCKS: Florida announced its preseason schedule Tuesday afternoon. The team opens with a doubleheader on Monday, Sept. 16, against Nashville at 2:30 and 7 at the BB&T Center.  Florida then travels to Dallas to face the Stars two days later, and again in San Antonio on Sept. 20. The Panthers then play three games against the Lightning — Sept. 21 in Tampa, Sept. 26 in Estero at Germain Arena and two days later at home…Florida inked center Greg Rallo and defenseman Michael Caruso to one-year, two-way contracts.