#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

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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

Aaron Ekblad a Can’t-Miss? Some Think So

By Bill Whitehead

After finally making it home from Philadelphia and slogging through a wet NASCAR weekend working at Daytona, I offer up these little leftovers from the City of Brotherly Love. Hopefully, this will get you in the right mood for Florida’s development camp that opens today.

You’re going to love Aaron Ekblad, Florida’s top pick. And I mean absolutely love. It’s that simple really. I’ve had the chance to talk to him a few times and watch how interacts with the media and fans, and the kid’s a natural. Smooth and articulate, Ekblad’s exactly what this franchise needs: A new face that it can build around, a poster boy for the organization. I chatted with him at Citizens Bank Park, the prospects interview and the draft, and the 18-year-old is extremely likable and will quickly be a media and fan favorite.

But forget about my encounters with him. Everyone I spoke with just swooned over the kid and said the choice at No. 1 by Florida GM Dale Tallon was an easy one. At the ballpark before batting practice while waiting for credentials, one hockey radio host told me Ekblad would be a great player for Florida for 15 years and had no flaws – solid on both ends of the rink and dependable. Don’t even think about trading the pick, he stated. The dropoff from Ekblad to everyone else was too steep.

At the draft I sat beside someone who worked with a junior team that was an Ontario Hockey League rival to Ekblad’s Barrie Colts and had watched him play “a hundred times.” He had nothing but positives to say about Ekblad, particularly when it came to his strong character and physical nature. He added that Ekblad (@EK5Colts) has no cockiness or ego about him, just goes about his business. The same OHL source didn’t have such adoration for Brendan Lemieux, Ekblad’s teammate who was selected No. 31 overall by Buffalo, but that’s for the Sabres to deal with.

I guess the most gloating or ego Ekblad showed at the draft was saying he expected to make the team out of camp and contribute right away, but that’s neither gloating nor ego; it’s confidence that comes with being a premier athlete. And you have to expect that self-assuredness by a No. 1 overall pick.

Just a hunch, but I feel that a year from now Florida fans will all be saying, “Hey, remember when we wanted to trade away No. 1 for a package with Edmonton or Vancouver? Man, glad Dale didn’t do that.”

It was a strong, sure move by the Panthers in choosing what amounted to be the consensus best player in the draft.

 

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Two teams who did really well at the draft — Edmonton and Winnipeg. Skating may be a slight issue with Oilers’ No. 3 pick Leon Draisaitl, but he rates high up there on the maturity and skill level. I spent time with him at the ballpark and prospects interviews, and he couldn’t have been a more pleasant person, taking the moment in stride and speaking with me like he was a close friend. He was an immediate favorite of everyone. Jets’ top pick Nikolaj Ehlers, meanwhile, was a mock draft favorite among message board types. Many fans played the role of Tallon and tried to work a deal that would bring the Panthers the electrifying Ehlers, a roster player or two, and a prospect. It didn’t work out for Florida on either of these kids, but I’ll be watching their development closely and hoping they do well because you can’t help but like them.

Here are a couple of shots I took of Draisaitl (left) and Ehlers (right):

 

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PHInally, Philadelphia fans. What else can you say other than that they never fail to deliver when it comes to derisive behavior? They booed everything from start to finish, regardless of conference affiliation or geographical proximity. The only team that escaped unscathed on Friday was San Jose, but that was because the NHL neglected to acknowledge them during the roll call.

The last chorus of jeers from the night came when a league official shut down the festivities by proclaiming that the first round had ended. The boos rang out loudly at the announcement, which had the feel of “Hey, folks, you don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here.” That’s from The Blues Brothers, and blue, especially that of the New York Rangers, doesn’t play well in Philly.

 

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Final point: If you ever get the chance to go to the NHL Draft, you definitely should. It’s a fantastic event and you never know who you’ll run into. The non-Panther highlights were Mike Babcock taking selfies and Joel Quenneville poking in to the Florida media scrum by mistake.

And hey, the Panthers are hosting next year, so you have no reason not to go.

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

 

Upshall a Standout in Better Play by Panthers

By Bill Whitehead

In what could only be considered a fitting moment Monday night, Scottie Upshall didn’t really address his recent renaissance and fantastic play after Florida’s 3-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers in a game where Sean Bergenheim (two goals) and Tim Thomas (38 saves) were battling over No.1 star consideration. Instead, the 30-year-old Upshall took the time to discuss what was clearly more important to him.

The team.

“There’s a confidence growing within our group. Our goaltending has been outstanding, and Tim’s keeping us in these games. We had a couple of new kids in the lineup that played well. Bergenheim’s back and he’s playing the style of hockey he played in the playoffs. That’s going to help us out huge. I think collectively we’re feeling more comfortable playing tight games against good teams. That’s a good team over there,” said the winger, referencing his former club he played with from 2006 to 2009.

Upshall’s team-first attitude isn’t a surprise. He’s a tremendously likable person, and the day GM Dale Tallon signed him in 2011, TSN joked that the Alberta native acts as if he’s never had a bad day in his life. He’s also a player who when healthy is an asset to any team. And he’s talented, though he often somehow gets grounded by a team, gets hurt or doesn’t fit into their system, and is soon dealt away. On his fifth team since 2006, Upshall found himself in former coach Kevin Dineen’s doghouse this season, and the winger, who has one more year left on a contract that will pay him $3.5 million next season, appeared as a prime candidate to be traded away as Florida seemed to fritter away its season.

Good thing that didn’t happen.

Upshall has been simply dynamic the past month and has undergone a rebirth. In his last 14 games, Upshall has five goals and seven assists, but analyzing his play goes much deeper than scoresheets and box scores. If anything extraordinary or noteworthy has happened lately, it’s a good chance No.19 is involved in it in some way. On the power play Monday, he threw himself head first on a 50-50 puck to chip it into the corner and keep the play alive. He’s repeatedly agitated opposing defenders and goalies, getting in the way, stabbing at loose pucks and bringing emotion to a club that relies on a little something extra to make up for what it might lack in skill.

Late in the game and with the Flyers pushing to tie the 2-1 game, Upshall took over and helped salt away the victory. He gathered a faceoff in front of Philly goalie Steve Mason and rocked the netminder with a hard shot from a sharp angle that banged off his mask. After Brad Boyes stole the puck behind the net from defenseman Erik Gustafsson, Upshall tapped his stick on the ice, asking for the puck. Boyes delivered, and Upshall patiently waited and delivered his own crisp pass – one that Erik Gudbranson banged home with the help of a tricky bounce over Mason.

If you didn’t know what Upshall’s game was all about, you saw it in that moment and the next few. He celebrated with the spirit of a prep player who had just helped his team claim a state title, hugging his teammates and enthusiastically high-fiving the bench. When he sat down, he put his arm around Aleksander Barkov and patted him on the head, encouraging the Finnish rookie who had screened Mason.

“It was a big game, and personally, I played in Philly and I wanted to get this win for us. I knew Gudbranson had it, and it was a big shot for him. He’s a good young player, and gaining confidence like that is going to help him,” Upshall said.

Again crediting his teammates for their outstanding play. Again bringing the enthusiasm that’s needed on a team that needs a little boost every night. Again playing with the extra energy and tenacity of a family dog who’s been cooped up inside and finally gets to go outside and run in a giant yard. Again with the little things that don’t appear in the highlights but that coaches salivate over.

Again and again and again.

That’s Scottie Upshall and that’s the reason he’s been wearing the “A” on his sweater lately.

And he’s well worth holding on to now.

PRICELESS MOMENT: Gudbranson broke a huge drought without a goal when he gave Florida a 2-goal cushion in the last five minutes of the win over Philadelphia. After that media scrum ended, I grabbed a few moments with Gudbranson, who was more than happy to talk about getting back on the scoresheet.

The Ottawa native, who was paired with former World Junior Championship and Under-18 teammate Dylan Olsen, had a great reaction when Sun-Sentinel beat writer Harvey Fialkov asked Gudbranson if he knew how long it had been since he had scored a goal.

“No, I don’t even want to know,” Gudbranson replied.

“On the button…,” Fialkov said.

“You mean it was a hundred? Oh, come on, no,” Gudbranson said, genuinely surprised and putting his hand over his mouth.