Little Things are Big to the #FlaPanthers

SUNRISE — Clearly, finishing off this Atlantic Division race with Boston, Tampa Bay and Detroit won’t be easy. In fact, nothing has been easy this entire six-game homestand, which saw a couple of awful losses, three significant injuries and some spotty overall play at times.

But that’s life in the ultra-competitive Atlantic, where keeping up with the Joneses — in this case the Bruins, Bolts and Wings — is a daily chore. The Panthers sat by this week and watched their lead shrink.

Florida lost two brutal games against St. Louis and Nashville, plus saw Brandon Pirri, Quinton Howden and Jonathan Huberdeau go down to injury. Can’t say confidence was too high going into the final four games at the BB&T Center.

However, as they seemingly have all year, the Panthers responded in the next four games, grabbing seven points of a possible eight to end the home stretch on a high note. Couple that with the fact that Florida finished with the same points lead — five — that it did when it started on Feb. 12 and you’ve got the makings of successful stint in Sunrise.

Not bad considering how this all began against the Blues and Predators.

“It was good. It was a good finish to the homestand,” said Florida coach Gerard Gallant, whose club moved to 77 points after increasing its record to 35-18-7 with a 3-2 win over Arizona on Thursday. “We lost the first two games and weren’t too happy about it. We got back and had three wins and an overtime loss in the next four.

“It’s a good way to finish and we’re a good road team.”

Little things played a big role in the win for Florida, a game in which Gallant said there was “no flow.” The Panthers head out to Columbus and then Minnesota over the weekend for games with 3:00 start-times.

Jussi Jokinen, who was angry over a high stick that left him bleeding butt wasn’t called in the first period, kept the puck in the offensive zone but was leveled by Martin Hanzal in the third. Jokinen’s puck push sent it to Jaromir Jagr, who slipped it back to Aleksander Barkov for his second goal, the ultimate game-winner, and a 3-1 lead.

Earlier in the second, Logan Shaw and finally Barkov won a tough battle in the low slot with Zbynek Michalek and Klas Dahlbeck, with Sasha scoring his 17th goal and sixth in his last six contests — along with a six-game stint sidelined with an injury.

Brian Campbell got a stick on Antoine Vermette’s potential game-tying goal and Roberto Luongo denied him in the game’s final minute. Erik Gudbranson then tied up Shane Doan in front of the crease to send the puck away from Luongo. Derek MacKenzie, Vincent Trocheck and Jussi Jokinen all won faceoffs, which didn’t happen much for the Cats as they lost 59 percent of the draws.

All the game’s little things — all those sticks getting in the way, blocked shots, taking hits to keep a puck in the offensive zone and securing faceoffs when they mattered the most — added up to two huge points to end a homestand that started so poorly but ended so well.

EMPTY-NETTER: Center Nick Bjugstad, one of the three I cast my vote to for the three stars of the game, had his best showing since returning from his injury and was a problem all night for the Coyotes. He drove to the net hard and cut through the Arizona defense seemingly at ease at times, slicing his way through a blue line that features silky skating Olive Ekman-Larsson. However, Bjugstad blew past and got the best of OEL and Michael Stone to draw a pair of penalties.

He laughed when I brought up the subject of whether or not he should have received a penalty shot, especially on OEL’s hooking infraction.

“Yeah, I thought I should have,” said Bjugstad, whose smile stretched like his 6-6 frame. “I was wondering and asking someone on the bench what was the stipulation for getting a penalty shot. I felt good and just need to keep going from here.”

A big boost from Big Nick and a return to his physical dominance will go a long way to improving Florida’s offense on this road trip and in the remaining 22 regular-season games.

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

Advertisements

No Room for Grimaldi Right Now With Cats

By Bill Whitehead

As stunning as the news was last Tuesday that Rocco Grimaldi was being called up from San Antonio so he could help out in Los Angeles, the word Sunday that he had been sent back down was, well, non-stunning. After sparking a rally in Nashville that helped the Panthers shock the Music City faithful and had them staying a little later at Bridgestone Arena than expected, the Cats decided to ship Grimaldi back to the AHL.

No surprise there.

First, understanding the connection with Grimaldi is necessary. The first NHL Draft that I covered was the 2011 one in St. Paul, a weekend that produced Calder Trophy-winning rookie Jonathan Huberdeau, Grimaldi in a second-day shocker, Vincent Trocheck and other exciting prospects like Kyle Rau, Jonathan Racine, Yaroslav Kosov and Logan Shaw.

Being drawn to and liking the 5-foot-6 Grimaldi, a polite, forthright, devout son of parents in law enforcement, proved to be as easy as Florida GM Dale Tallon picking the California native with the 33rd selection overall. Grimaldi was cordial in speaking with the media, had a plan of playing in college at North Dakota and expected to be with the Panthers after that. The one word I left Minnesota with to describe Grimaldi after talking to him was “determined,” which probably has plenty to do with his upbringing, skill level and competitive spirit, perhaps due to his physical stature.

Fans loved him and lined up to meet the 21-year-old forward in camp. His play in the preseason on a line with close friend Trocheck (read about their friendship) and Quinton Howden had fans loving him even more. His play in seven NHL games so far has only fortified Cats fans’ opinions, and their ire at him being sent down again is justified.

But there’s just no room on this roster.

The injured forwards who traveled with the Panthers on their recent 2-1-1 road swing against Western Conference playoff teams are getting healthy. Sean Bergenheim, Brandon Pirri and Dave Bolland all skated and appear close to returning. Bolland has been day-to-day since being injured in the season’s fourth game – Gerard Gallant’s first win – on Oct. 17 in Buffalo. Florida was 1-2-1 after that Roberto Luongo 1-0 shutout; they’re now 7-5-6. That’s how long Bolland has been out.

Yet Bolland has to play. He wasn’t brought in by Tallon just to mentor upstarts Grimaldi and Trocheck at practice and sit in the press box on game night. Earning $5.5 million this year and also the next four, No. 63 must be on the ice. His contract and keen ability to be injury-prone may irk fans, but has he been bad for Florida so far? A fair assessment can’t be made over four games played – four games, mind you, where the Cats were deplorable, when everyone thought the sky was falling, and when all talk of the Panthers around the league usually ended with “McDavid Sweepstakes.”

Bergenheim needs to be in, too. He scored the only goal in that Buffalo win, and when healthy – a big assumption – he’s productive. Same with Pirri, who Heimlich Maneuvered the club when the offense was gagging on early-season fumbling and bumbling. The healthy ones are making their cases as well. Tomas Kopecky contributes a ton, while Tomas Fleischmann played his best hockey at the end of the road trip. Scottie Upshall, who missed the last two games, is an emotional player who leaves it all on the ice, often with good results.

It’s a forward-filled roster that’s bursting at the seams. It’s like a fat man after a cheap lunch-time buffet: swelled, plump, and with few options.

Grimaldi will be back at some point this season. Injuries open up spots all the time, and his talents are undeniable. He’s fast, relentless and low to the ice (naturally). And on a team that’s pass-happy, he’s generally a shoot-first guy. His bond with Trocheck is tight, too, and the duo should be paired up in Florida red sweaters for years to come. Plus, if you’re really upset that he was reassigned to the Lone Star State, find solace in that he’s still in the organization; he possesses the kind of talent that could easily have been the centerpiece in some offseason trade, though there was no talk one was in the works.

My least favorite player quote right now – perhaps of all-time and you hear it often – is, “It is what it is.” I’ve heard it in baseball clubhouses, NASCAR garages, football locker rooms, hockey dressing rooms. You name the sport and designated changing room or interview area and I’ve heard it uttered when, frankly, the athlete had nothing else to say. As an aside, I’d love to hear an athlete say for once, “It’s not what it is. Really, it’s something entirely different that you couldn’t comprehend at all. It simply isn’t what it is.”

But this Florida Panthers’ roster? It is what it is.

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

 

#FlaPanthers 4, #Leafs 2: Bjugstad with a Big Night

By Bill Whitehead

SUNRISE, Fla.Nick Bjugstad and Brandon Pirri had big nights for the Panthers in Florida’s 4-2 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs at BB&T Center on Thursday night.

Bjugstad assumed the team lead in scoring with two goals and an assist while Pirri celebrated his birthday by opening the game’s scoring as the Panthers won the season series from the Maple Leafs 3-1. Florida outscored Toronto 14-10 over the four games, with the Maple Leafs’ lone win a 6-3 home victory on Jan. 30.

Bjugstad assisted on Brad Boyes’ goal as the second period came to a close to give Florida (29-44-8) a 2-1 lead. He skated around behind Toronto goalie Drew MacIntyre, making his first NHL start, and fed Boyes, who tapped in the pass for his team-high 21st goal.

Bjugstad, a University of Minnesota alum who had keen interest in the Gophers’ Frozen Four semifinal against North Dakota following the game, scored from behind MacIntyre by fending off Toronto defenseman Paul Ranger for a goal 3:23 into the third. He soon added a shorthanded marker on a pass from Tomas Fleischmann to finish off a 2-on-1 rush less than three minutes later for a 4-1 edge.

“It was a good night. Boyes and (Sean) Bergenheim are great to play with. They talk to me a lot. They’re veterans and guide me through it. They’ve been very positive with me,” said Bjugstad.

The Minnesota native said Florida’s approach was to get pucks in deep and work behind MacIntyre.

“We were doing a lot of stuff down low tonight. We had to get pucks to the net. It was the first game for that goalie. We had to get shots on him. The pass (to Boyes), I saw him on the back door,” he said.

Pirri, a Toronto native, started the scoring when he whipped a shot over MacIntyre’s glove on the high side for a 1-0 lead at 6:06 of the first period. Linemate Quinton Howden set up the score with a pass from the boards to Pirri in the left circle, and Brian Campbell collected an assist on the tally.

“I had a lot of family back home who went to a local bar (to watch), so it was cool. It was good for us to get a good start, and we played well in the first,” said Pirri, who celebrated his 23rd birthday with his 13th goal.

Pirri, acquired from Chicago, has shown the offensive flair that the Cats desperately need.

“Obviously, getting points is nice, but the team won in the end. That’s what’s important. We’re just trying to build every game and get better,” he said.

Toronto tied it when Tyler Bozak fired in a shot off a pass from Jake Gardiner for his 19th goal, beating Florida goaltender Roberto Luongo over his blocker. James Van Riemsdyk also had an assist on the play for the Leafs (38-35-8), who were eliminated from a wildcard playoff spot when Columbus won in Dallas on Wednesday night. Ranger had Toronto’s other goal.

Luongo made 27 saves to earn the win while MacIntyre faced 37 shots from Florida, who closes its season Saturday night at home against playoff-bound Columbus.

NOTES: Pirri has 13 points in 17 games…Boyes has recorded three goals in his last five games…Bjugstad now has 38 points and leads the team in scoring, eclipsing Scottie Upshall’s 37. Bjugstad, who posted the first two-goal and three-point game of his career, is tied as the fourth-highest scoring NHL rookie…By winning its 67th meeting against Toronto, Florida improved to 27-28-7-5 against the Maple Leafs…Toronto starting goaltender Drew MacIntyre was selected in the fourth round by Detroit in the 2001 NHL Draft held at BB&T Center.

Cats End Season on High Note, Look Ahead

By Bill Whitehead

By both mediocre teams’ standards, the season finale between the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning likely turned out for the best, with each club getting the most it could out of the outcome, a 5-3 win for the visiting Cats, who rallied twice in a strong performance.

For Florida, beating its in-state rival is always a good thing, and this season’s games with the Bolts have been particularly frustrating. The Panthers battled back from down 2-0 and 3-2 on Saturday night, scoring three unanswered goals to end the season 2-2-1 against the Lightning. But it could have been much better than that if Florida had taken care of business in its only two meetings with the Bolts in South Florida.

On Feb. 16 at BB&T Center, Florida appeared to be on the way to a 5-4 win but couldn’t clear the puck out of its zone — a season-long problem that hounded the  team — with Tampa’s net empty. Teddy Purcell scored with 11 seconds left in regulation, and Benoit Pouliot tallied the game-winner in overtime.

A month later at home, the Cats turned in easily its most frustrating performance of the season in another loss — a defeat that truly defined the team’s shortcomings in the shortened season. Florida completely outhustled and outshot Tampa for the first 40 minutes, spending almost the entire time in front of Lightning goaltender Anders Lindback. Despite holding a 30-6 shot advantage after two periods and its opponent to a season-low 13, Florida dropped a 3-2 decision.

The Panthers (15-27-6) exacted a little revenge at the Tampa Times Forum, leaving the Cats fans who made the trip feeling a little better about the drive up I-75. The team showed a resilience that has been absent most of 2013, plus a snapshot (key word there) of its skill. Nick Bjugstad scored the first goal of his career. Alex Petrovic looked like a true NHL blueliner. T.J. Brennan looked like he had played with the Cats all year. Drew Shore and Quinton Howden were aggressive and had scoring chances. Eric Selleck scored his first NHL point by stealing the puck from Vincent Lecavalier in the third period and speeding toward Lindback, resulting in a tying goal by Scottie Upshall. And the prized rookie Jonathan Huberdeau strengthened his bid in his quest to win the Calder Trophy with three assists, including one on the empty-net goal by Marcel Goc that shut out the lights on Tampa’s season that started so promisingly but spiraled out of control.

The Lightning (18-26-4) started 6-1 and pulled out wins early in dramatic fashion, appearing to be a playoff team, but they only won 12 more times, fired mad genius coach Guy Boucher, traded away fan-favorite Calder candidate Cory Conacher for yet another goalie (Ben Bishop) and ended the season with a fizzle. This despite having flashy Art Ross Trophy winner Martin St. Louis and sharpshooter Steven Stamkos, who both had fantastic campaigns.

More significantly, though, for the Bolts is that it didn’t completely blow the season by beating Florida to close the year. In fact, St. Louis’ possible game-tying shot with the Tampa net empty that rang off the iron before Goc’s goal may have been a godsend. A win or overtime loss would have moved Tampa out of the top three draft spots (a club outside the top three could also do that Monday night by winning the draft lottery, with the Lightning then drafting fourth).

The top three selections in the draft, in some order, should be defenseman Seth Jones, center Nathan MacKinnon and left winger Jonathan Drouin. Unless it wins the lottery or makes a trade, Tampa won’t get Jones, which would be a huge asset to a club bereft of defense, but GM Steve Yzerman could walk away with MacKinnon or Drouin when he leaves the podium in Newark on June 30. That wouldn’t have happened if the Bolts had beaten Florida or even lost in overtime or a shootout if St. Louis had scored in the last 90 seconds.

Both teams’ futures look good. No team in the NHL showcased more top-shelf, highly drafted talent than Florida this year. Kris Versteeg likely won’t be healthy enough to open next season, but his and Sean Bergenheim’s return, plus some roster tightening — and maybe a deal or two at the draft — and the Cats should be a far better team next year. Adding one of the three top picks or trade out of the top spot for an impact player will just make them stronger.

The Lightning, meanwhile, will bring back all that offensive wizardry and a coach who has produced winning teams, but until it strengthens its blue line and finds a legit No. 1 goalie, Tampa won’t be a serious postseason contender. Both Lindback and Bishop have been backups during their careers. With Nashville having Pekke Rinne, who wasn’t going to be beaten out by Lindback, and Ottawa icing ex-Panther Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner, both Lindback and Bishop were expendable. One of the tall goalies will have to step up and win the job in camp, not in a season-long tryout each night.

It was locker cleanout day on Sunday, but next season likely can’t get here soon enough for both teams.

Game Day in the Big Apple: Panthers at Rangers

By Bill Whitehead

Stuck on seven wins and 20 points for what seemed like an eternity, the Florida Panthers produced Tuesday’s total team effort in a streak-snapping 4-1 win in Raleigh over the Carolina Hurricanes. The Panthers displayed a relentless offensive attack that still missed some finish over the first 40 minutes, strong defense and goaltending, and excellent play on special teams, which included killing off a double-minor penalty and scoring two power-play goals. The only thing missing was Jacob Markstrom recording the first shutout by a Florida goalie, but it was a fine effort overall with some unusually good results in a building that hasn’t been Cat-friendly.

The Hurricanes, meanwhile, didn’t follow the blueprint set out by Florida GM Dale Tallon but did make major acquisitions of their own last offseason. GM Jim Rutherford traded for Jordan Staal at last year’s draft in Pittsburgh while the ex-Penguin was getting married. He then took a gamble on Alexander Semin — a one-year, $7 million bet on the quirky Russian winger — and both have paid dividends. Semin is second in scoring and has a team-high 22 assists, while Staal is fourth in scoring.

Now, Carolina is getting a dose of what Florida has fought all year — mounting injuries. Defenseman Justin Faulk was injured Tuesday and will miss 2-4 weeks with an MCL strain. Carolina, also without starting goalie Cam Ward, had problems in calling up a defenseman from Charlotte since both Marc-Andre Gragnani and Michal Jordan are hurt; instead, they brought up Brett Bellemore for his first NHL recall. With Winnipeg winning and Carolina losing, the Jets reassumed the top spot in the Southeast Division, while the Eric Staal-led team has struggled in an 0-3-1 stretch. Carolina will have a tough fight on its hands with the Jets the rest of the way.

But enough Hurricane talk. Time for Florida to take over the Big Apple and Tortorellaville:

THE NEW GUYS:  When Eric Selleck made his debut in Florida’s win over Carolina, it marked the sixth time this year a Panther had made his NHL debut, matching the number put up by Tampa Bay. Two of the Panthers’ first-timers have stuck around for good — Jonathan Huberdeau and Drew Shore — while Mike Caruso, Quinton Howden, Jon Rheault and Selleck have spent more time at the club’s AHL affiliate in San Antonio.

DEEP-SIXING THE SIX:  Florida broke its six-game losing streak (0-5-1) in the win over the Hurricanes, who the Panthers have struggled with historically but won’t face as a divisional foe next season. The losing streak dated back to March 5 against Winnipeg, also a 4-1 win but at home. In that one, Shawn Matthias scored his fifth goal of the season on a wicked inside-out move on defenseman Mark Stuart, and Matthias added his ninth, his first power-play marker, against Carolina when he shoved in a rebound off a shot by Filip Kuba.

GET USED TO IT:  Florida will face extensive travel next year when it shifts out of the Southeast Division and becomes part of a division that includes Detroit, Boston, Tampa Bay, Buffalo and the three eastern Canadian teams clubs. Currently in the second game of a season-high five-game road trip, the Panthers will have traveled approximately 1,960 miles when it returns from next Tuesday’s game against the Maple Leafs.

STAT OF THE DAY:  Florida, ranked 24th in the league in scoring, broke open a scoreless game by scoring four times in the third period against the Hurricanes. It was the third time this season the Panthers have accomplished at least a four-goal period, also connecting four times in the first period in the season-opener against Carolina and five times in a 6-3 win over Winnipeg on Jan. 31.

HOT CATS:  Matthias, who had flu-like symptoms and rested all day in Raleigh, has six goals in his last 10 games. Tomas Kopecky, who assisted on Tomas Fleischmann’s goal, now has 13 points (9-4-13) in his last 17, while Marcel Goc has scored in consecutive games for the first time this year.

Florida (8-16-6, 22 pts.) at New York Rangers (15-12-2, 32 pts.)
Thurs., Mar. 21, 7 p.m.
Madison Square Garden — New York City, N.Y.

BY THE NUMBERS

FLA                     vs.           NYR

18.2% (15th)        Power play       14.3% (26th)
73.4% (30th)        Penalty kill     83.2% (9th)
2.43  (24th)        Goals per game   2.31  (27th)
3.63  (30th)        Goals against    2.34  (4th)
0.63  (30th)        5-on-5 goals     1.07  (12th)
49.6% (20th)        Faceoffs         51.2% (9th)
30.3  (9th)         Shots per gm     30.0  (10th)
30.4  (23rd)        Shots vs. per    28.8  (16th)

PANTHERS’ PACE

Florida has 22 points in 30 games: 35.2 over 48 games.

LOCAL TV BROADCAST
Fox Sports Florida, 7 p.m.
Steve Goldstein (PxP), Bill Lindsay (Color)

LOCAL RADIO
560 WQAM, 7 p.m.
Randy Moller (PxP)