#FlaPanthers Worthy of All the Attention

By Bill Whitehead

When the club you’re covering is riding an 11-game winning streak and has suddenly become the media darling in a sport that’s not headquartered in the U.S., there’s plenty to write about. Puh-lenty. Here are just a few Florida Panthers storylines scribes could flesh out today:

A franchise-record/NLH-high winning streak, a franchise-record road winning streak, a 17-3-0 run in their last 20, winning without their top goal scorer for most of the streak, 21-3-2 when scoring first, 15-2-0 when leading after the first period, 13-5-2 when being outshot, trailing for just 14:02 during the run, 5-1 in shootouts, allowing just 32 goals in their last 20 games, sweeping a six-game homestand, leading the NHL in defense, surging to the top of the Atlantic Division and leading by five points, watching them lead NHL On the Fly then being ticked off when they don’t, getting All-Star selections, any Panthers player, even the coach.

Whew.

It’s dizzying what a person can sit down and write about these days with this club. For once, the Florida stories from the second half of this season won’t be about which player to trade to a contender, calling up some hot prospects or analyzing the upcoming draft.

Actually, a couple of observations stand out over the last couple of games Florida has won – winning ugly, the defense and the top line.

If this were, say, the 2011-12 season – the last playoff run – I think it would be a pretty fair assumption to say that Florida would not have beaten either Minnesota or Ottawa in their last two games. These Panthers, the owners of that 11-game streak, brought what amounted to their C or C- game in both of those.

After Jaromir Jagr scored in the first minute against Minnesota, Florida was shut down for most of the game until Jagr unleashed a shot from his heyday in the 90s for his 132nd game-winner, an NHL record, to make a winner out of a strong Al Montoya.

Same with Ottawa. The Panthers scored two quick ones, looked wide awake and appeared ready to blow the Senators right out of the Canada’s capital, yet the Cats had to hang on at the end like they did against the Wild. In fact, Florida had just 16 shots against an Ottawa team that allows 33 per game, most in the league, in a building Florida doesn’t win in often.

Four years ago Florida probably would’ve been taken to overtime after a late goal and perhaps lost in a shootout in both games; the 2011-12 team was 6-11 in shootouts and had 18 overtime losses, earning important “loser points” as they’ve become known as. And that’s no knock on those Cats, who won the Southeast Division. It’s just who they were.

However, the current Panthers improved to 16-2-2 when leading after two periods and 13-3-4 in one-goal games: They hold on to late leads and generally don’t let tight contests go to overtime, and that’s all about coach Gerard Gallant’s defensive system.

Defensively, the Cats have stonewalled opponents. What Roberto Luongo did to Kyle Turris on three occasions and once to Mika Zibanejad was almost a criminal act in Canada. File it under “Goal Theft.” Alex Petrovic’s glitch aside – those plays are going to happen, especially with youngsters – the blue line has been rock solid while the forwards have battled, too.

The top line is simply better, as well.

Sasha Barkov with the third goal on a flip past sprawling good guy Craig Anderson provided a comfort zone. In fact, getting the puck in the hands of Jagr, Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau is always a fine option. Stephen Weiss, Kris Versteeg and Tomas Fleischmann comprised a very good first line; the current one is a great top line consisting of three elite offensive players who can bail Florida out even when they aren’t clicking on all cylinders.

And as for winning ugly when you’re not at your best and somehow boarding the team bus with two points when you were likely driving away with none?

That’s what playoff teams do.

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

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Jagr Signing a Top Priority for #FlaPanthers

By Bill Whitehead

Okay, so there are two weeks left in the season, the Florida Panthers are vying for the final wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference, Dan Ellis has just backstopped the biggest win of the year on the road against another playoff contender, and coach Gerard Gallant said the best player on the ice for Florida in that win was Jaromir Jagr?

Yeah, was one or all three of those part of your September predictions for a club that finished with the second-worst points total in the NHL last year?

The crazy ride gets crazier in Boston in what will again be “the biggest game of the year” and another “Game 7,” but for just a moment, let’s look at what the 43-year-old Jagr has done in 14 games with Florida and how he figures in to future plans in South Florida.

First, let’s go back to the afternoon of Feb. 26. I learned of the Jagr deal, with Florida sending back second- and third-round picks to the Devils, by text. While leaving Starbucks, my phone simply popped up with “Jagr to Panthers.” That was it. No details, no terms, not even the other side of the deal with what New Jersey was getting. It was a venti java-spewing moment, but fortunately I hadn’t started the consumption process.

The fallout of the Jagr trade orchestrated by Florida GM Dale Tallon may be the other memorable moment from that day. Hockey pundits and web sites had their instant analyses ready for rollout, and most viewed the Jagr acquisition as pure desperation by Florida, who was trailing Boston in the wildcard hunt by two points. As a letter grade, many doled out the Panthers a Bart Simpson-like “D” rating, while some called Jagr a borderline retired player who would just fade away into the South Florida sunset like most Floridians past their prime. By most, the trade was a stinker.

Fourteen games later, those same naysayers are writing different stories. Jagr has 12 points (4-8) in those games. The Panthers have been in the thick of every one of them, and easily could have beaten the Stars, Rangers, Canadiens and Lightning with a bounce here or there. Florida has made its share of mistakes but has played with or clearly outplayed most clubs during the brief Jagr Era in Sunrise.

Which brings us to this: How brief will that era be?

Tallon caught plenty of flak for the Dave Bolland signing, much of it is warranted. Now, talks between the Panthers and Jagr’s camp have begun. A potential Jagr deal is Dale’s do-over, a mulligan the golfing Tallon would enjoy swinging at in light of the Bolland criticism. However, the reality is that Jagr, a UFA who is making $3.5 million this season, can just walk after these next two weeks.

But I don’t think that happens.

I’ve arrived early to the BB&T Center press box a couple of times the last month, looked through binoculars and watched a lone Panther get on the ice and skate around, working his way through pre-game preparation. Each time it has been the grizzled, gray-stubbled Jagr.

Now that the love affair with the Hamburglar has cooled as Ottawa goalie Andrew Hammond has come back to earth after an incredible run, Jagr’s resurgence and Florida’s last-ditch run at a wildcard berth may be the best story in hockey.

Jagr scoring two goals only added to the narrative on Sunday in Canada’s capital. Both were pure goal scorer’s markers – the first a clever shot on the short side against the play’s flow after cutting back against Sens defenseman Mark Methot, the other an incredible wraparound that left ex-Cat Craig Anderson way out of position and the Senators blue line helpless. The latter goal was the kind that happens to the Cats, not the type they net.

With every clang of the crossbar and potential goal that has rolled off a stick in front of a gaping net, Florida fans have clamored louder and repeatedly for a legit finisher to join the Panthers. Well, he’s here. Jagr, now with 720 career goals, is obviously not the player he was 10 years ago, but he’s also obviously more worthy of the minutes he’s getting with Florida than he did with New Jersey. His points pace would be 70 for a season, and let’s not forget that Nick Bjugstad topped the Panthers last season with an NHL team record-low 38 points.

Jagr’s line consisting of center left winger Jonathan Huberdeau and center Aleksander Barkov has produced 13 goals and 25 assists since 68 has arrived. The top line is the centerpiece of a promising young team that many view as a Cup contender for years to come.

“They’re so talented,” Jagr said of his linemates after the 4-2 win over Ottawa. “They’re going to surprise the league in two years. They may win the Cup.”

Tallon needs to make sure that Jagr is here for that.

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

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

By Bill Whitehead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Earnhardt’s Theory Shows Up in Cats’ Win in Ottawa

By Bill Whitehead

About 15 years ago at Daytona International Speedway, I heard the late great Dale Earnhardt tell a throng of us media types what the difference was between a winning team and a second-tier one. What Earnhardt was basically doing was laying out the blueprint for champions and describing how some teams routinely come up short. Hey, a seven-time champ was talking, so it was well worth the listen to get his perspective.

The salient point of Earnhardt’s theory – and when he held court, he truly was running the show – was that it’s easy to earn championship points when you have a car capable of running in the top five. It’s even easier to hoist a trophy as a race winner, but those days pretty much speak for themselves – a great driver and a super-fast car leaving the competition in the mirrors and racing to the checkers. However, he went on to say that it’s really not what winners do on those memorable days, it’s how they perform in races when they don’t have their best equipment. The true gains, he acknowledged, were when he took a car that should have finished 20th or worse and clawed his way into the top 10, turning a potentially disastrous, championship-ruining day into a respectable one.

Earnhardt was saying it all comes down to how a driver, team or players perform when they don’t have their A game.

Despite riding a 4-game winning streak as the puck dropped in Ottawa against a reeling bunch of Senators, Florida didn’t have their A game early. Florida failed on early offensive chances to beat ex-Cat Craig Anderson, who has struggled like every netminder has for Ottawa. Florida’s defense also put hot goalie Scott Clemmensen in a perilous predicament or two when the Sens put together a couple of 2-on-1 rushes, but Clemmensen was up to the task. When the first 20 minutes were over, Florida had been outshot 14-9, something that hasn’t happened to them often lately.

Though they weren’t playing at the level they did against Washington, Montreal and Toronto, Florida kept grinding. Aleksander Barkov tipped in a shot from Tom Gilbert for the second period’s only goal, and when the horn sounded, Cats’ fans had to like their chances of being tied with the Senators and Anderson (who came in 10-1-1 against his old team) in Ottawa, where the Sens have owned Florida lately.

Florida (14-17-5) took over in the third period, and while I’m sure many will point to Ottawa having playing in New Jersey the night before, the Panthers deserve all the credit and then some because they really had to earn it. They killed off a tripping penalty by Erik Gudbranson, then found themselves on the power play when Jean-Gabriel Pageau high-sticked Dylan Olsen with 4:30 left to play. One of the great mysteries of the game was how Pageau didn’t get a double-minor when Olsen was clearly cut on the forehead and the defenseman went up to the referee to show him. The end result: Gilbert bailed out Florida’s anemic power-play with a blast past Anderson, and Kopecky later put the game away with the club’s first shorty this season.

Simply, the Panthers fought and fought all night in Canada’s capital – through the fatigue of a weary road trip in bitter cold, against failed opportunities, against an overturned goal and a missed penalty by Ottawa that would have sealed a win with another goal or at least taken more time off the board. Despite all of that, the Panthers won their fifth straight, have taken seven out of eight, and certainly arrived in brutally freezing Winnipeg with the warmth of confidence to rely on.

They overcame and persevered in Ottawa.

That’s what Earnhardt was describing and what the Cats were able to do.

Panthers 3, NY Rangers 2

By Bill Whitehead

SUNRISE — Florida Panthers goaltender Jacob Markstrom showed the New York Rangers a glimpse of what they can expect in future divisional play, halting the Blueshirts’ quest for a playoff spot in the process — for now.

Markstrom stopped 36 shots, and Tomas Fleischmann, Marcel Goc and Drew Shore scored goals to help the Panthers break a six-game losing streak and get past the Rangers, 3-2, in front of 17,758 fans at BB&T Center on Tuesday night.

Following a scoreless first period in which Florida (14-26-6)  was outshot 10-2 by the visiting Rangers, Filip Kuba’s shot from above the left circle was tipped by Fleischmann at 5:04 into the second period, resulting in the Czech winger’s 10th goal. Defenseman Mike Weaver also recorded an assist on the play, and the Panthers held a 1-0 advantage after 40 minutes.

“We know the Rangers focus on blocking our shots so we’re not trying to mess around with it on the blue line. I had a good screen and maybe Fleischmann tipped it, I’m not sure,” said Kuba, who was originally credited with the goal, following the second period.

After Taylor Pyatt was awarded a goal when his shot was accidentally kicked in by Colby Robak, Florida defenseman T.J. Brennan jumped up after a loose puck, forcing New York’s Brad Richards to commit a tripping penalty as Brennan broke into the Rangers’ defensive zone. Florida went on the power play, and Goc, standing in the slot, broke the 1-1 tie by redirecting a pass from Fleischmann past New York goalie Henrik Lundqvist for his eighth goal with 7:37 left.

Drew Shore broke a 22-game streak without a goal, including 18 without a point, by scoring shorthanded and into an empty net with 1:23 remaining in the game, his third tally. With Lundqvist pulled in the last minute of play, New York watched newly acquired center Derick Brassard cut the lead to 3-2 with 32.9 seconds left. However, Florida fought off a pair of good attempts by New York in the closing seconds to preserve the win.

Drew Shore on his night’s work and the season:

Florida has two games remaining and still sits in last in the league’s standings. A loss to either Toronto at home on Thursday or in Tampa on Saturday in the season finale would slot the Panthers with the best chance of securing the top overall pick and assure them of picking no worse than second in the June 30 draft in Newark.

Panthers coach Kevin Dineen discusses his defense, rookie
Alex Petrovic and beating the New York Rangers:

The Rangers (24-18-4) outshot Florida 38-16 but wasted a chance to clinch its third straight playoff appearance and are just one point ahead of Winnipeg, who lost 5-3 in Washington. The Jets have one game remaining, at home against Montreal, while New York travels to Carolina on Thursday and rounds out the season at home against New Jersey. The Rangers and Ottawa Senators are tied for the final two playoff spots in the Eastern Conference, with the Jets just the one marker in arrears.

Florida won the season series 2-1 from the Rangers, also beating them 3-1 behind Markstrom on March 21. New York defeated Florida 6-1 last week.