#FlaPanthers Riding Homegrown Momentum

BY BILL WHITEHEAD

It sounds like an ad for an upcoming ESPN 30 for 30, but what if I told you the Florida Panthers would lose to Toronto on their road trip and it would be a success?

However, if I added that the Cats went 3-1-0 on the trip and took points from Eastern Conference foes and divisional rivals along the way, then it gets much more believable.

Toronto, while having plenty of skilled forwards, isn’t a playoff team. This is a rebuilding year for the Leafs and their batch of young talent up front to get a lot of experience, setting up their future. And their 6-1 win over Florida was an aberration on this trip.

Maybe it was James Reimer back home against his former team or Toronto already having beaten Florida once or a generally crummy Cats’ effort, but the Leafs blew out the visitors for some reason.

But enough of that miserable night.

The stars shined for Florida (10-8-1) in their three wins that changed their Facebook team status from “Middling Mediocrity” to “Playoff Contender.”Aaron Ekblad’s shattered-stick game-winner, Roberto Luongo’s stone wall and Sasha Barkov’s shootout dazzler all will appear in highlight packages when the final touches are put on this season.

Everyone chipped in on those three wins, though.

Barkov’s play has improved dramatically, while linemates Jaromir Jagr and Jonathan Marchessault picked it up as the top line played like one. Vincent Trocheck had strong games on the trip, and the third and fourth lines continue to be fun to watch. The bottom six will  get more talented when someone gets moved down when Nick Bjugstad returns, likely Tuesday.

The defense has been better as well but still needs to establish consistency.

The Rangers’ two goals were on a bad line change and a fluke deflection off a skate. In addition to Ekblad, Mark Pysyk was outstanding in New York, and Keith Yandle fired the blast that gave Florida life against his former team.

And the goaltending must continue to play like it did in three of the four games if Florida has playoff dreams.

While it’s early in the season, probably too early to think playoffs, the standings are there for a reason and are what they are — a slotting of the teams through the one-quarter point of the season.

With 21 points in 19 games, Florida is on pace for roughly 91 points, and that average wouldn’t be good enough to get it done right now. Last week, due to Eastern Conference teams beating up on the West, the cut line appeared to be 101 points, but that will change, especially as injuries mount.

On the plus side, Florida’s start is better than last year’s 103-point season that ended with an Atlantic Division title. Those Panthers opened with an 8-8-3 mark and 19 points, but of course were eventually buoyed by a 12-game winning streak.

Right now Florida’s 21 points has them tied with New Jersey for the second wild-card spot. That’s right, wild-card. That was a little unthinkable about 10 p.m. in Toronto on Thursday night when everyone, including yours truly, was griping about the Cats’ lack of effort against an inferior opponent.

Wins in Ottawa and Madison Square Garden changed that mood.

This Meow Momentum wasn’t found in Canada like something from a Roots store or from inside a Tim Horton’s on a cold morning. The Cats may be playing through a good stretch, but it all started at the BB&T Center two Saturdays ago.

That rally against Jack Capuano’s Islanders and behind Denis Malgin’s game-winning chip past Jaroslav Halak is the seed of what we’re seeing.

It was just nurtured then sprouted in Canada over the period of a week.

It may seem like the Panthers are returning to Sunrise with plenty of momentum, but they actually left the 954 with it.

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

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Florida Loses Lead Late, Falls 2-1 to Rangers in Shootout

By Bill Whitehead

SUNRISE – Florida’s Tim Thomas and Brad Boyes put themselves in position to be the stars for the Panthers in their New Year’s clash, but the New York Rangers put a damper on the festivities to close out 2013.

Before 16,083 fans at the BB&T Center, New York scored late to tie it and won the shootout 1-0 to earn a 2-1 win over the Panthers in what could only be described as a disappointing loss to the home team.

“It was a hard-fought 65-minute game and they won the shootout. You just have to move on from that. Timmy played pretty well,” interim head coach Peter Horachek said.

Thomas, making his 400th career start, did play well in his return from an eight-game absence due to a groin injury. He made 30 saves on the Rangers, including four in overtime, and put the Panthers (15-20-6) in position to hold a two-game winning streak heading in to 2014.

“I felt really good for a first game back,” said Thomas. “It was one of those nights where if I could see it I could save it. I thought we were going to hang on until the end there, but that’s hockey.

“We’re picking up some momentum and doing some good things. We’re a much better hockey team than we were in October. If we keep making strides, that’s the direction you want to head in.”

However, Dan Girardi blasted a shot from inside the left circle after Tomas Kopecky left the ice after simply dropping his stick while trying to get the puck. Girardi’s third goal on the pass from Derek Stepan with just 2:10 left in regulation sent the game to overtime and left Florida a bit deflated.

“There are different theories to that. It’s a little bit surprising that he would go there. A lot of teams would say go get your stick and hold the ice, but I don’t think that was a great time when the puck was behind the net because if you leave that area obviously there’s a big area open,” said Horachek.

The turning point for Florida occurred when Brad Richards went off for four minutes after high-sticking Nick Bjugstad and drawing blood at 7:47 of the third period. Florida, though, could only muster one shot and generated very little time in front of Lundqvist, rarely coming away with much zone time, which bothered Horachek.

“We don’t relate it to how many shots we had. I’m relating it to puck possession, and they block a lot of shots. I’d say it’s more about how much possession time we had which would be the disappointing part,” Horachek said.

“Whether it’s on the power play or the other 61 minutes of the game…we want to win on the power play, on the 5-on-5. We just want to win. I’m not going to say ‘You’re supposed to win it on the power play.’ You’re supposed to win.”

New York (20-19-2) netted the only goal of the shootout when Richards beat Thomas high on the stick side in the third round after the goaltender had denied Mats Zuccarello and Stepan. Florida failed to score in the shootout as Lundqvist denied Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and Boyes.

The productive line of Boyes, Barkov and Sean Bergenheim – the B Line – had an impressive shift midway in the second period that gave Florida a 1-0 lead. Bergenheim came up short of the red line but sent the puck along the boards and past the Florida bench. Girardi was the first to the puck, but the defenseman flipped it right to Barkov behind the visitor’s net. Barkov fed Boyes, who made a move that opened up Lundqvist and beat him 5-hole at 9:18 for his 10th goal.

New York coach Alain Vigneault had nothing but praise for the Panthers following the game.

“That team is playing real well. They’re playing fast. They’ve got a real strong transition game. I had watched their game against Montreal and we had talked about it prior to the game tonight (that) we had to take away some of that transition,” the first-year Rangers coach said.

“I thought we did a pretty good job of doing that. We stuck with our process, stuck with our game and we were finally able to put one past him with a little bit more than two minutes left.”

NOTES: Florida tied a franchise record for most points in December with 17; it’s the fourth time the Panthers have done turned the feat…Boyes scored for just the second time in his last 18 games…Barkov holds a four-game point streak, the longest of his career…D Dylan Olsen recorded seven hits and five blocked shots…Florida hosts Nashville Saturday night to close out the five-game homestand then embarks for three roads tests – Montreal (1-6, Mon.), Buffalo (1-9) and New Jersey (1-11)…Thomas recorded his 11,000th NHL save against Winnipeg on Dec. 5. He entered the game 14th among NHL goalies with 11,024 saves…Entering the game, Florida had posted their 15 wins against teams with a combined record of 271-165-63.

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

Cats’ Weekend of Losses Not a Lost Weekend

By Bill Whitehead

 

I’m a fan of older movies. If a Hitchcock flick comes on, there’s a good chance I’m going to record it for later. I particularly enjoy The Lost Weekend by director Billy Wilder, and I couldn’t help but think of that 4-time Academy Award-winning picture as the Florida Panthers skated to two losses over the weekend. The movie centers on the failures of a drunken writer in New York City, and the Panthers have been adrift in a similar fashion of late, dropping nine straight.

 

But if this past weekend is any indication of how the rest of this season is going to play out, maybe things will improve soon.

 

In Saturday’s matinee game against Ottawa and Sunday’s evening tilt versus the New York Rangers – the beginning of the Post-Dineen Era, also known as the Peter Horachek Era – the Panthers made some of the same mistakes they made under Dineen. Florida put goaltender Tim Thomas behind the eight ball early with some poor defensive play when defensemen Matt Gilroy and Dmitry Kulikov committed turnovers that led to two goals 19 seconds apart. The game in newly remodeled Madison Square Garden was a winnable one in which the Panthers snapped the Rangers’ 9-game streak of allowing two goals or less. Florida deserved a fate better than another 1-goal loss, its fifth in its last seven games, but this team right now can’t do enough to win or even put itself in position to win.

 

The weekend for Florida (3-11-4) did have some bright spots. In fact, the Panthers could look for inspiration in the Rangers, who started out 2-5-0 and have moved to 9-8-0 in its first season under coach Alain Vigneault.

 

The play of the Florida forwards has been improved for the most part. Scottie Upshall has been a whirling dervish since returning after Dineen scratched him. Upshall has repeatedly kept pucks alive, thrown his body around – potentially hazardous for him — and been a nuisance around the net for opposing goaltenders. The emergence of Nick Bjugstad has been the most pleasant surprise. Sidelined in camp with a concussion, the Minnesota native has demonstrated in the last week that he belongs in the NHL, not playing at San Antonio. He’s using his body to his advantage and keeping the puck away from defenders, plus winning faceoffs and being creative, which has been seriously lacking. Aleksander Barkov also got on the score sheet, and the forward play will certainly improve even more when Jesse Winchester, the Cats’ best player so far, returns from his 3-game suspension.

 

The pressure Florida applied in the first 10 minutes of the Ottawa game also was a new look. If you watch NHL Tonight and see highlights of where goals are being scored, the answer is obvious: Right in front, in close. When Florida beat Dallas in the season opener, the first three goals by Scott Gomez, Barkov and Marcel Goc were all scored on the edge of the blue paint. The combined distance of the three goals may have totaled 15 feet. Florida attacked the Rangers like that as well, outshooting the Blueshirts 10-3 to open the game despite the Panthers playing the day before. Brian Campbell’s second goal, a putback shot with his team trailing by two, looked similar to the Dallas goals. On a team without snipers, it’s mandatory for Florida to get in tight and try to clean up loose pucks.

 

It’s hard to get too excited over a pair of losses, but the team showed some fire under Horachek, and you’ve got to give the new coach a few practices to get his system in place. The positives overall were better, faster team play, finally scoring a power-play goal and having some players step up their play. One of the most glaring negatives is the mindless turnovers and mental lapses by Dmitry Kulikov, a talented defenseman who hasn’t shown much progress at all. Ultimately, the biggest negative is losing two more games and continuing to let the season slip into the abyss.

 

It was a weekend of losses for the Panthers, but it certainly wasn’t a lost weekend.

 

In fact, maybe they actually found a little something.

Florida 3, New Jersey 2 (OT)

By Bill Whitehead

SUNRISE — Payback came a little late at BB&T Center on Saturday night, but it arrived nonetheless as the Florida Panthers did something they couldn’t do last April in the playoffs.

Beat the New Jersey Devils in overtime.

Shawn Matthias’s second goal tied the game with just 27 seconds remaining in regulation, and Dmitry Kulikov’s first goal of the year lifted the Panthers by the Devils, 3-2, in overtime at BB&T Center.

The Panthers lost Game 7 to New Jersey last year in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals in double overtime, but in the Devils’ first visit since that season-ending night, Florida exacted a little revenge on New Jersey and future Hall of Fame goaltender Martin Brodeur in front of 18,138 fans.

Down 2-1 late in the third period, Florida (11-19-6) pulled goalie Jacob Markstrom and skated 6-on-5 with the extra attacker. After Tomas Fleischmann’s shot from just inside the blue line ricocheted to Scottie Upshall, a backhanded pass from Upshall deflected off Brodeur. Standing all alone in front of Brodeur, Matthias netted his second goal to tie it at 2-2.

In overtime, Jonathan Huberdeau weakly misfired on a shot toward Brodeur. Kulikov, racing in 1-on-1, beat Brodeur to the loose puck, but the netminder poke-checked it away. A clearing attempt by Travis Zajac hit Brian Campbell, who kept the puck in the zone, whipped it cross-ice to Kulikov, and the Russian defenseman zipped a shot past Brodeur for the game-winner. Kulikov’s last goal was against Vancouver on Jan. 9, 2012.

It was only the Panthers’ second overtime win in the last two seasons, though the club did win a shootout against Buffalo on Thursday. Florida’s last overtime win was a 3-2 decision over the Carolina Hurricanes on Dec. 18, 2011. In that Sunday matinee, Kris Versteeg scooped up a blocked shot off the stick of Stephen Weiss and beat Cam Ward for the goal.

Coach Kevin Dineen on Florida’s efforts against the Devils:

Matthias continued his hot streak, adding the two goals to give him 11 in his last 16 games and team-best 14 overall. Huberdeau’s pass from below the right circle went off Matthias’s skate and by Brodeur for a power-play tally in the first period. It was the fifth two-goal game of his career.

Matthias talks about his play:

Huberdeau, 19, recorded two assists to move him ahead of all rookies in scoring. His 25 points (13-12-25) put him one ahead of Tampa Bay’s Cory Conacher. Huberdeau also has a three-game assist streak and five points in his last three games.

Ex-Florida forward Steve Bernier scored both goals for New Jersey (15-11-9) and has five goals in his last 11 games against his former club, including playoffs. Bernier, who played for current Devils coach Pete DeBoer with the Panthers, had gone 13 games without a goal. However, he tapped in a pass from Ryan Carter, who also played with Bernier in Florida, and later tipped in a shot by Henrik Tallinder for a 2-1 lead. It was Tallinder’s first game back after an 11-game absence.

Still stuck on a devilish 666 career wins, Brodeur was playing in back-to-back contests for the first time this year. He complained to officials about Upshall’s swing-and-miss with a high stick to get the puck in the closing seconds of regulation. But the officials ruled Upshall didn’t make contact, and the Florida winger then sent the backhander at Brodeur that led to the tying goal. Brodeur stands at 2-0-3 since his return.

The loss was a particularly difficult one for New Jersey, who could very easily have left the Sunshine State with four points instead of two if it had closed out either game in the last half-minute. The Devils seemingly had victory in hand Friday in Tampa, but the Lightning’s Alex Killorn scored with 15 seconds left to send it to overtime, where Tampa Bay came out victorious in a shootout. The situation was similar against the Panthers, who evened the game with 27 seconds left.

New Jersey currently slots seventh in the Eastern Conference standings, five points behind Toronto and four ahead of the New York Rangers and New York Islanders, both with 35 points. Carolina has 34 while 11th-place Washington has 33.

Shanahan Swings, Misses in Nash-Kopecky Ruling

By Bill Whitehead

Among all of the sportswriting gigs I get to do — from hockey to preps to pro baseball to college football and many others — the sport that started my career was auto racing, almost exclusively NASCAR. In fact, I’ve covered very few other forms of motorsports than the stock car racing governed by NASCAR.

I got my feet wet in the late 1990s and was fortunate enough to cover the 1998 Daytona 500 when Dale Earnhardt won an emotional race. I jumped into the deep end in the early 2000s by chronicling about one-third of the schedule, mostly at great Southern tracks like Martinsville, Darlington, Charlotte and Rockingham, plus the Florida venues. Now I sit on the concrete edge with my feet submerged in the water as I’ve scaled back my schedule to include just the Florida races and an occasional one or two more.

After the lack of any form of punishment to Rick Nash after his hit on Tomas Kopecky in Florida’s game against the Rangers in Madison Square Garden, I’m convinced the NHL has become quite like NASCAR in the way it metes out its punishment.

If you’re no fan of NASCAR, you’re missing some top-shelf crummy rulings. Most recently, driver Denny Hamlin was fined $25,000 by NASCAR for criticizing its new Generation 6 style car, which it invested a ton of money in producing. In 2007, Kyle Busch won at Bristol in the first race featuring the Car of Tomorrow, was asked his opinion of the car and replied, “It sucks.” Mind you, he said this from Victory Lane, where he should have been happy and not so controversial. The punishment for criticizing the COT car that was spawned by numerous deaths in NASCAR, including Earnhardt, Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin Jr.? Nothing. Not a penny, not a point in the standings.

That’s just the very tip of NASCAR’s bad governance — and don’t get me started on its nonsensical, inexplicable use of caution flags. I’m not going to spend more time detailing questionable calls. If you need more proof, just email me or DM me on Twitter. I’m up to about one million examples.

On Friday, NHL Department of Player Safety chief Brendan Shanahan made a terribly bad decision and looked like NASCAR in the process. He let Nash, a top-line superstar in the league, get away with a hit that most in the league would likely have been suspended over. Frustrated as his team struggled against the last-place Florida Panthers, Nash left his feet to come across and hit winger Kopecky in the back of his head with his left elbow. Shanahan told Nash it was “a rotten hit” but also said he didn’t think the hit was to the head.

Decide for yourself:

Right now while watching this Washington-Winnipeg game, I can’t help but think of Patrice Cormier’s hard-hitting (and cheap-shotting) history as his name is mentioned by the Jets’ announcers. The hit below in January of 2010 resulted in Cormier being suspended for the remainder of the season and post-season while playing for the QMJHL’s Rouyn-Noranda Huskies:

What would that hit warrant in Shanahan’s NHL today? Likely, the answer would depend on who did the hitting. Top line player or fourth line grinder? Respectively speaking, I’d expect that number to be ridiculously low to relatively high. The Nash hit is exactly what the league is trying to get away from, and frankly, it was probably at least equal to or maybe worse than Joffrey Lupul’s on Victor Hedman the night before in Toronto. And if the situation had been reversed and Kopecky had leveled the high-paid Nash, No. 82 would have been gone for a few games at least.

If someone can explain the decisions on what warrants a suspension and what doesn’t, please let me and the rest of guys know. —  Joffrey Lupul on Twitter Friday night

Lupul doesn’t know. The players in general don’t know. Coaches don’t know. Fans don’t know.

Just like with NASCAR, it’s starting to look like Shanahan doesn’t know.