The #FlaPanthers after 5 games

BY BILL WHITEHEAD

Five games or so is really a small sample to figure out how good a team is in an 82-game season. It’s safe to say the Edmonton Oilers (5-1-0) and Vancouver Canucks (4-1-1), who are atop the Pacific Division, are better than expected, but likely for different reasons. The Oilers are so deep with offensive talent they’re playing 2011 No. 1 overall Ryan Nugent-Hopkins as their third line center. Vancouver? Who knows. They were expected to be pretty bad and in a youth rebuild.

But it’s really the Florida Panthers we’re concerned about. At 3-1-1 and embarking on their first real road trip, not a day-trip up I-75, here’s what we can glean so far from this version of the Cats:

STAYING HERE — Denis Malgin and Shane Harper. A few people griped a bit when the 19-year-old Swiss forward and the 27-year-old Californian broke camp with the team, but the lesson the pair has taught is this: Let’s give them a chance before we ship them out to Springfield.

Malgin was a big unknown coming in. With Lawson Crouse and Rocco Grimaldi out of the picture, more talk centered around Kyle Rau, Juho Lammikko, Jayce Hawryluk and even Dryden Hunt, a curious potential “diamond in the rough” signing, among the forwards who were looking to impress. However, Malgin tore it up in rookie camp and showed he belonged with the big club in the preseason.

He still belongs.

Much like Tampa’s 20-year-old Brayden Point, Malgin battles size issues as both are a couple of inches short of six feet. Yet what they’re not short of is talent and determination — you know, those immeasurables — that have put both players on teams that most feel should be in the playoffs. Though he hasn’t beaten an NHL goalie yet, Malgin has outworked defenders and won battles that have led to goals, again showing that the staff’s decision to bring him up was the right call.

I tweeted Saturday night that Malgin was “clearly the most electrifying player who has never scored a goal,” but I think that changes and I’m going to go ahead and call my shot Babe Ruth-style: Malgin scores against Pittsburgh.

Maybe it’s because Malgin sounds like Malkin. Or because Malgin wears No. 62 like the Penguins’ Carl Hagelin, who was instrumental in their Cup run last year. Whatever. I’ll take any off-the-wall connection at all I can use, but it’s time for Malgin to score.

The well-traveled Harper nearly made the club out of camp last year, but that honor went to Connor Brickley. Now it’s Harper’s turn, and the former ECHLer is making the most of it. Unlike most from that league, Harper can flat out score — he’s done it everywhere he’s played.

His finish from nice assists from Greg McKegg and Alex Petrovic on 2-on-1s Saturday are skillful scores we don’t see often from NHL  fourth lines. But again, Harper has scored at all levels, so don’t be surprised when he shoots more often and it happens again.

Quite a few players have bounced in and out of Florida’s bottom six in the past year — some have been dealt, some demoted, some just outright handed their walking papers. Malgin and Harper appear to be good candidates to stay here all year, putting pressure on young players to step up their game if they want to get the call and likely keeping Shawn Thornton out of the lineup.

The lineup decision gets tougher when Nick Bjugstad returns in the near future and Jonathan Huberdeau in early 2017, too.

MUST SEE STs — The Florida Panthers’ special teams have always been interesting to watch and often a work in progress. That’s still the case this year.

First, the good: The penalty kill has been excellent through five games.

The PK is a major asset on a couple of fronts. First, it’s been non-existent much of the time because Florida has shown its discipline by being down a man only 11 times, a 90.9% clip that ranks ninth in the NHL.

The power play is a different story — so far.

Only twice in 18 opportunities (11.1%) has Florida scored on the PP, which is hard to fathom considering there’s a 750-goal scorer and two of the game’s best young centers on the ice.

“So far” is the key here. The PP has only reaped benefits for Jaromir Jagr and Aaron Ekblad, but it has shown signs of life. Look for Reilly Smith, Vincent Trocheck, Jonathan Marchessault and Keith Yandle to start tallying goals with the man-advantage. Florida ices too much offensive talent to sit tied for 23rd in the PP.

Both special teams must improve into the top half of the NHL in order to have long-term success and make a deep run.

A TOUGH ONE — Like most, you probably feel the Cats gave away a point in the final seconds in Tampa in a game they deserved to win last week. In actuality it’s a three-point swing: the one Florida didn’t get for the win and the two the Bolts got instead of a regulation loss.

Making it worse is that the points transfer happened with a divisional opponent. And if Montreal stays hot and is for real and Florida and Tampa Bay fight but come up in second and third in the Atlantic, those three points could determine home-ice advantage in a Citrus Showdown in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

But it’s a long season, one in which Florida will surely come out victorious in a game or two when they shouldn’t have. It’s a tough, tough season, too.

How tough?

Look at Trocheck’s face in the season’s first week. A pair of scabbed over wounds on each cheek, the Pittsburgh native wears black and blue instead of black and gold right now.But Trocheck won battles, scored a greasy goal and lobbied for a high-sticking call Saturday night after one of the abrasions was re-opened and bubbled blood.

Trocheck’s counenance is a canvas showing the determination and grind that comes with a grueling NHL campaign, with scabs, scratches and scar tissue the paint that splatters the canvas. Meanwhile, bruises, muscle pulls, dental issues and lingering body pain will define the days.

And it’s not even Halloween yet.

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

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#FlaPanthers Let One Slip Away

By Bill Whitehead

SUNRISE —Well, that didn’t go as planned.

In a scene Florida fans have watched much this year, the Panthers (31-15-6) let one slip away in a huge way Saturday, squandering a two-goal lead in the final 10:45 and falling to the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-2 in overtime on a skillful game-winner from Sidney Crosby to Kris Letang.

To say it was disappointing to most of the 20,295 in attendance is an understatement as enormous as the red-clad crowd.

After Sasha Barkov dashed down the ice and retrieved a slick pass from Jussi Jokinen and scored Florida’s third shorthanded goal of the season — a dazzling backhander that beat goalie Jeff Zatkoff 5-hole — the Cats seemed to be in good shape. It appeared all they needed to do was sit back, pack it in, grab puck possession and send it down the ice.

It’s textbook play and what they’ve been doing since Thanksgiving. It’s what fans have come to expect.

But Crosby and Letang changed the outcome almost singlehandedly, hooking up for the first goal on a one-timer by Letang from the bottom of the left circle, then Letang shoveling in the final marker on the power play after a dish from Crosby. Twice now the Pens have beaten Florida in overtime with the man-advantage.

The sudden loss tainted some of Florida’s better numbers on the year.

Florida slipped to 14-3-6 in one-goal games and 26-3-4 when they score first. The Panthers are now 19-2-2 when leading after one period and 22-2-4 when ahead after two periods. And they are now 22-7-4 against the Eastern Conference.

Those stats aren’t the new Twitter algorithm. They’re the numbers — a calculation of hard work in a systematic approach — that illustrate the Panthers are a top hockey club in the NHL.

If Florida had found a way to hold on to the two-goal margin, they would’ve won for the 12th time in their last 13 home games, dating all the way back to early December, with the only loss being to Edmonton in which they were more interested in owning the score with Matt Hendricks than owning the contest’s final score.

Those are the bad numbers — well, the numbers are fine, they just could’ve been finer.

The good number? One, the amount of points they added to their Atlantic Division-leading season.

Unlike the 2011-12 Florida club that won the Southeast Division by grabbing the dreaded loser points in overtime and shootout losses, the current pack of Cats has won games in regulation. A lot of them. Because of that they can afford to lose a game and — voila! — grab that loser point. At this point (there’s that word again), the idea is to keep banking points.

They aren’t chasing a playoff berth and don’t require two points every night; they’re holding one and padding a first-place lead. And they’ve been there for a while. Keep adding points, mostly two at a time but occasionally one, and they’ll be hosting Game 1 of a first-round playoff series in April.

Honestly, a Florida win, say, 2-1, wouldn’t have been the most artful one of the season, and many would’ve said, “Yeah, they won, but…”. The Panthers had 20 shots in the first periods, but as Crosby, Zatkoff and Pens coach Mike Sullivan said, they weren’t high-quality scoring chances. All of the Pens interviewed seemed to think the shots were misleading, and they ended up 42-35 anyway.

Both teams took way too many penalties, too. Pittsburgh’s overtime power play resulting from Jokinen’s hooking penalty proved to be what is painfully obvious: The 4-on-3 is the true death sentence in the NHL. Rarely do teams kill it off. Too much ice, lack of possession and the long change are brutal to overcome.

On the good side, I posed a question to Crosby about facing Florida this time as compared to the club he saw in Pittsburgh way back on Oct. 20 in the Panthers’ sixth game of the year.

“I thought they possessed the puck,” Crosby said. “It took us a while to climb our way back (in shots). They’re a really deep team. They’ve got a lot of different ways they can beat you. Their D is active, make good plays and come up the ice. Their strong on the puck down low and have good goaltending.

“It’s not a fluke why they’re doing well.”

And, because they’ve been doing well, a non-fluke divisional leader can come away with one point on a night when two seemed so near.

Let’s just not make it a habit.

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

Ex-Cat Goc Sees Improvement in Young #FlaPanthers

By Bill Whitehead

SUNRISE – Pittsburgh Penguins center Marcel Goc isn’t surprised by the development of the Florida Panthers and the position they’re in.

“They played well against us (Saturday). They came hard at us with a strong forecheck, and every time they had a chance they threw the puck at the net. They tried to create trouble for us,” said the former Panther Monday following morning skate.

“But I see a few faces I don’t recognize from when I played (there).”

Goc will play in his first game back at BB&T Center after being traded Mar. 5 for third- and fifth-round picks. The German center said he isn’t shocked at how quickly Florida (14-9-8) has transformed from lottery team to a potential playoff club.

“Their young guys – Barky and Bjugstad – they play well, and they try to play them a lot so they get more confident,” Goc said. “What are they, 21, 22ss or something like that? I think they have a bright future ahead of them. They have more consistency from last year than they did in their first year, but that’s the case with everybody. They’re going to be a big part of this organization.

“I worked on faceoffs with them a lot together. It’s funny taking them across from them now.”

Goc has three points (1-2) in his 30 games played with the Penguins this year.

MORE MUMPS – Pittsburgh, who has been saddled with a bout of the mumps, sent three more players home before the game against Florida. Centers Steve Downie and Brandon Sutter and goalie Thomas Greiss all flew back to Pittsburgh to undergo further testing.

Pittsburgh iced just 18 skaters at morning skate, with goaltending coach Mike Bales tending net opposite Marc-Andre Fleury. As of morning skate, the Penguins featured 11 forwards, seven defensemen and one goalie.

The Penguins called up goalie Jeff Zatkoff from Wilkes-Barre in the afternoon to back up Fleury. The AHL team last played Saturday and won’t playing again until this Saturday.

FEISTY FOLLOW-UP? – The two clubs combined for 76 penalty minutes Saturday night in Pittsburgh’s 3-1 home win, but Florida coach Gerard Gallant and players from both teams said they didn’t expect a flare-up in what should be Florida’s biggest home crowd of the season. The Panthers racked up 32 penalty minutes, the most accumulated since 37 against Toronto on April 10, 2014.

“What ‘tonight’?” Gallant answered when asked if Florida would miss Shawn Thornton’s toughness. “We’re playing the best team in the league, and I don’t think it’ll be about toughness tonight. It’s going to be about working hard, speed, competing and playing hard. You don’t see those games anymore.”

Emotional Florida winger Scottie Upshall, usually in the middle of the fray, received just two minutes for tripping Evgeni Malkin. Upshall and his teammates said staying penalty-free was more important than settling the score in a playoff-style matchup.

“We hope to stay out of the box. Penalties are going to hurt you. I actually like the 2-game series. I kind of think they’re fun. I like the way they lead up. It’s a little mini playoffs series, and guys really hone in on the little things,” Upshall said.

“We know that Pittsburgh’s a great team and if you give them power plays they’re going to win. We need to stay disciplined tonight and play hard. That (killing off six Pittsburgh power plays) isn’t going to happen in back-to-back games against those guys.”

Nick Bjugstad likes playing in the high-tension games where it gets a little chippy, and even had a few in college at Minnesota.

“It was more gritty than I expected it to be…That game was just more intense. This game might not be as intense, you just never really know. You never expect something like that last game, but they’re fun because everyone’s into it, everyone’s battling,” he said.

“We’d always get into it with North Dakota, but there’s no fighting so that changes (things).”

Added former Barrie Colts defenseman Aaron Ekblad: “Obviously, you want to keep calm and try to get the game back in your control. You want to find a calm center to your game and not take calculated risks.

The nose is just fine

The nose is just fine

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“I didn’t have many games like that in the OHL, maybe one or two a year. Usually against London or someone like that, but not even close to the caliber it is in the NHL.”

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

New Cat Shawn Thornton Knows Role, Excited to be with Florida

By Bill Whitehead

New Florida fourth-liner Shawn Thornton is well aware of his role on his new team. It’s a position he’s been locking down since his days in the Ontario Hockey League.

“I’m not really good at a lot of things, to be completely honest. I probably strive to be a little better than average at most things. But taking care of myself…I’ve had a fairly tough upbringing. I’ve always been able to take care of myself,” said Thornton, 37, on Thursday.

“The fighting role started when the Peterborough Petes drafted me. They basically said, ‘If you’re going to play here, you’re not going to be a defenseman any more. You’re going to play forward on the fourth line, and if you’re playing on the fourth line, you’re going to have to stick up for everybody.’”

Two decades later full of seasons that usually had triple-digit PIMs, Thornton has taken his talents to the Panthers, where he will be arm’s length or closer and in a bellicose state from opposing tough guys who dare to take a run at the likes of Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Nick Bjugstad or any other player wearing Panthers red.

Thornton started boxing at 16 in his hometown of Oshawa, and he continued to do so in the early 2000s when he developed a shoulder problem while playing for the Norfolk Admirals. He still boxes and will be in California next week working on his skills in the ring.

However, the immediate impact of boxing – the literal impact of smashing one’s fist into a fellow pugilist’s face – isn’t the allure of the sport.

“I never had any amateur fights. I never really did it to help me in hockey fights. It doesn’t translate. But the conditioning aspect of it is superb and that’s why I do it. I’ve always taken pride in my conditioning my whole life. And being able to contribute in more ways than just my fists,” Thornton said.

“I’ve worked very hard over the last 16 yrs to become more than a one-dimensional hockey player. I bring other things to the table. I’m fairly smart defensively, pretty good positionally. Winning a couple of Cups helps.

“Being an enforcer and an agitator are too different things. Usually I have to clean up the mess of the agitators.”

Thornton has a strong friendship with Krys Barch, the player he’s essentially replacing on the fourth line, though he added that Barch is a better hockey player than fans give him credit for. Thornton actually helped Barch learn to fight in the minors and estimates they’ve tangled 10 times. Thornton also is close to Travis Moen: The pair roomed together for five years and were invited to each’s wedding.

“That’s part of the job,” Thornton said of fighting with friends. “We’re not the WWE where we’re pulling punches. It’s either me or him (out there). It’s understood and part of the job.”

The genuine nature of Thornton was evident when he discussed his regret on the hit on Brooks Orpik last Dec. 7 in Boston. After Orpik kneed Loui Eriksson, Thornton tried to fight the former Penguin defenseman. When he refused, Thornton used a sneak attack similar to another on Dec. 7, Pearl Harboring Orpik with a slew foot and hitting him twice in the head, which resulted in a concussion and the current Washington Capital being taken off the ice on a stretcher.

“It was unfortunate. I’m friends with Brooksy. My intention was never to knock him out or hurt him. If I were going to take a (15-game suspension), it wouldn’t have been on him, believe me. I still don’t like it. I did my 6 weeks. I lost a good amount of change,” said Thornton, who lost over $84,000 in salary.

“It probably took a few weeks after that to get back into it and start playing the same way. It was unfortunate and I shouldn’t have done it.”

Of the Panthers, Thornton pointed to the obvious talent and youth.

“The skill level is obviously second to none. I was asking Tuukka about Barkov last year because I didn’t know much about him. But playing against him, you definitely notice him. Playing again (Erik Gudbranson) the last couple of years, he was extremely hard to play against. Every time I dug into a corner, I knew it was going to be a rough one coming out. These guys are starting to come into their own…and play the game the right way. Hopefully the guys Dale has brought in for leadership will help out along the way,” he said.

“Willie Mitchell and David Bolland have both won (the Stanley Cup) twice, so I guess I won’t come in to the locker room and say, ‘This is how I did it, this is how I did it.’”

When late June rolled around and the free agent period was looming, I made a short list of UFAs I felt the Panthers should pursue. Making the top five was Thornton – a leader, a winner, an enforcer and veteran who will show these young Cats how the game is supposed to be played for the most part, minus any water squirting, of course.

“I was talking to (Florida GM) Dale (Tallon) a few days before, and Florida was my first choice. I like where the team’s going. I like the moves they’ve made in the offseason. I’ve been down there with the wife. We’re really excited to be a part of it,” Thornton admitted.

“At this point, I know my role and my job fairly well and he didn’t need to stress too much to me. We’ve known each other a long time and he knows how self-aware I am. There wasn’t too much to be said other than he was excited that I was excited to come there. I was very pleased that they were as interested.

“I’m excited for the next chapter.”

Florida fans should be equally excited, too, because no opponent will run any Panther with impunity like Rick Nash did to Tomas Kopecky and Mike Richards did to David Booth.

Shawn Thornton won’t stand by idly and simply watch that take place.

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

QUICK TAKES: #FlaPanthers pound #Pens, 5-1

By Bill Whitehead

When this road trip popped up on the schedule, I thought Florida could come away with four points – win two and drop one, likely at Pittsburgh against the top team in the Eastern Conference.

Saturday’s dreadful showing in that House of Horrors in my home state left little optimism about the remainder of the trip. Pittsburgh had won 13 straight, and Sidney Crosby had scored a point in 17 straight games at Consol. With goaltender Tim Thomas out because of illness, the odds seemed slim.

I guess we never saw this one coming, huh?

Considering the level of the competition, Florida likely played their best game of the season in the 5-1 win over the Penguins. Drew Shore, who had so many breaks go against him last season, scored twice and set the tone. Dmitry Kulikov, who was rumored to be on the trading block last month, was aggressive and skated hard in on Marc-Andre Fleury a few times, and scored the third goal that gave the Panthers (19-23-7) a 3-0 lead.

Oddly, Jonathan Huberdeau, desperately in need of a goal, didn’t get screwed out of a goal when the War Room in Toronto likely set the season-high for time spent reviewing a goal. Shawn Matthias had that Matty Moment I’ve been waiting for and simply outskated Matt Niskanen for the final tally 12 seconds after Huberdeau’s.

Here are my multiple stars from tonight’s win, in no particular order:

  • Scott Clemmensen, 35 saves. Had little faith in Clem going in, but he was outstanding. In fact, I bet he would admit the only goal he allowed was a bad one, but it doesn’t matter because he made so many great saves and was solid.
  • Drew Shore, two goals. His goals left Cats’ fans more surprised than Fleury after the roof shot on the shorty. He gave Florida momentum it never let go.
  • Jesse Winchester, three assists, plus-4. For someone who hadn’t played since Dec. 15, Winchester was sharp and is a welcome addition as a hard worker.
  • Dmitry Kulikov, goal. He’s been a big disappointment for most of the year, but he played headstrong and with purpose tonight. Also had a lethal howitzer that went high over Fleury. Maybe he’ll turn this around and live up to the potential.
  • Marcel Goc, one assist, 67 percent in the circle. Sure, his helper on Kulikov’s goal was fine, but winning 2 of 3 faceoffs kept Pittsburgh off balance.

Others were great, too. Erik Gudbranson sliding to make a block was just courageous and shows what a tough kid he is, and Mike Weaver was a plus-5. The PK killed off all three Pens power plays, making it 28 straight and 42 of their last 43 on the road. More importantly, the team stayed within the game plan and didn’t stray from it once the Penguins cut the lead to 3-1. Pittsburgh never was able to put together that “Five Minutes of Hell” I expected.

Mike Weaver, who was a plus-5, tweeted this after the game:

weaver

The goal in Buffalo: Score on the power play, get a marker from Flash and play with the intensity from tonight that will help the Cats come away with two more points.

Which wouldn’t be the way it was expected to go down when this 3-game road trip started.

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

“Just Win, Baby” Doesn’t Apply to Panthers

By Bill Whitehead

Riding a streak of four wins in five games with each contest being decided by one goal, the Florida Panthers need to address this question: What exactly is the team playing for as this shortened season winds down? After tonight’s game with Winnipeg, the last between the two clubs as divisional and even conference rivals, the Panthers (13-20-6) will have just eight games remaining — three at home, with the first being this Saturday against the Atlantic Division champion Pittsburgh Penguins.

So what’s Florida’s goal at this point? To get out of the Southeast Division cellar, where it has been buried for the majority of the season? That’s possible, especially when considering that three of the bottom five teams in the entire NHL called the Southeast Division home this week. Three of five.

Tampa Bay won five of its first six this season and seemed to be the hot team on the rise when the year started, but it’s old nemesis — defense, particularly goaltending — reared its ugly head. It cost Lightning head coach Guy Boucher his job, plus sent Calder candidate Cory Conacher and a fourth-round pick packing and heading northbound for, you guessed it, another goalie.

Carolina sat atop the division at 15-9-1 on March 12 to begin a home-and-home series with Washington. But following that game, the Hurricanes (16-21-2) have been outscored 56-21 since its contest against Washington two night later in the nation’s capital. Against Pittsburgh on Tuesday, Carolina lost its franchise-record eighth straight home game, and let’s face it, real playoff teams don’t lose a snowman of games consecutively in their own barn.

At Winnipeg tonight, Florida will be facing a team that is truly schizophrenic, like Sally Field in the movie Sybil if you can remember that far back, but it was in color. The Jets (20-19-2, 42 pts.) have the ability to handle teams with ease or lose to inferior ones, such as the Panthers, who are 2-0-2 against Winnipeg this year. While the Jets may be as tough to figure out as a math equation with a lot of numbers and letters, their playoff hopes aren’t as confusing. The Jets are two points out of sixth place with fewer games remaining than the three clubs ahead of them with 44 points. Simply put, Winnipeg needs wins, and it wouldn’t hurt a bit if the suddenly surging Caps laid an egg or two. Like four of the five other teams in the Southeast, Winnipeg has had its time at the top, but Washington has come alive, led by Alex Ovechkin, who seemingly has emerged from hibernation. A desperate team counting on putting two points into the postseason bank at MTS Centre tonight, Winnipeg will likely give the Panthers its best effort.

Florida has nine games left, but hard reality is that it would probably be in the team’s best interest not to play better than 3-6-0 to close the season. Any more winning than that would pile on to the absurdity of this season and be self-defeating, but who draws up Xs and Os on performing poorly? Every team outlines a plan to win, and when executed properly it’s a beautiful thing. Coaches and players respond with, “Good hard work is rewarding, and this was our goal.” But no one sets in motion a plan for failure and achieving losses. It just happens.

When Al Davis owned the NFL’s Oakland Raiders, his famous rallying cry was, “Just win, baby” The Panthers, though, don’t need to adopt that mantra. It would’ve played well last year, though in reality that one was, “Just tie, baby, and take it to overtime” And it would’ve worked well when this season started after Florida’s 5-1 season-opening win over Carolina on Jan. 19.

However, Florida’s cry now should be, “Just play, baby.”

And whatever happens, happens.