By Bill Whitehead
Two words jump out when describing the Florida Panthers’ play over the last two games — “winning streak.” Others come to mind, too, like “gritty hustle,” “thrilling comebacks,” “timely goals” and “finally finishing.” But for now, over a 36-game period when the words haven’t been said often, the mention of a winning streak takes precedence. Granted, it’s only two games, and Florida (11-19-6) had to work like crazy at home to secure both wins.
The Buffalo game appeared to be headed toward a shootout loss after Jason Pominville scored to open the shootout session and Peter Mueller missed, but Jonathan Huberdeau’s fake and shot, which was originally ruled no-goal, did beat goalie Ryan Miller. Jacob Markstrom stopped three of four shots, and Mike Santorelli scored the game-winner by deking Miller silly. The win over New Jersey was authored by Scottie Upshall and Shawn Matthias, then Dmitry Kulikov added the final touches.
So what’s there to cheer for now? Or better yet, what are the rewards of sitting through a brutal, thankfully shortened season?
First, Huberdeau winning the Calder Trophy as the top rookie would be an outstanding achievement for the 19-year-old and the organization. It’s easy to make a case for Huberdeau, too. He leads all rookies in goals and scoring with 13 markers and 25 total points and is second in shots with 96. His chief competition will come from Montreal’s Brendan Gallagher (11-10-21) and Tampa Bay’s Cory Conacher (9-15-24). Both Gallagher and Conacher are great stories, sure, but Huberdeau has done more with much less, especially than Conacher, who plays on a line with super talents Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis. It’s not a knock on the linemates of Huberdeau — Mueller and Drew Shore — but they’re simply not Stamkos and St. Louis.
Also, the incredible play of Matthias is worth watching. The next reward the Ontario forward should get isn’t a goal against some Eastern Conference goalie, but instead a new contract from GM Dale Tallon. A restricted free agent, Matthias has truly proven himself this season and has played strong when most have struggled at times. His drive to the goal and relentless energy have been a constant every game, and it’s that type of play Florida fans need to see out of No. 18 the next three or four seasons.
So there — two things to root for in this dismal year, which only has 12 more games left. The draft will be here before you know it.
But that’s another issue for another time.
THE GREAT EIGHT–TEEN: It takes more than a handful of words to describe what Matthias has accomplished over his last 16 games. There has been hustle galore, plus highlight-reel goals. You want a hustle goal? Ask the Boston Bruins about that diving steal and shot past Tuukka Rask. You want a goal that will have you rewinding a couple of times to figure out how it happened? Ask Winnipeg defenseman Mark Stuart, who was turned inside-out by Matthias then saw the Florida forward rip a shot by Ondrej Pavelec. In all, Matthias has scored 11 times in his last 16 games and leads the Cats with 14 goals, including scoring in three straight games. Matthias joined Pavel Bure as the only Panther to score 11-plus goals in a month; Bure netted 15 in March of 2001.
TUESDAY’S GONE (WITH THE WINS): The second day of the work week hasn’t been good to the Panthers when they take to the road. Florida is 1-3-1 in Tuesday road games. The lone win was at Carolina in a 4-1 win on March 19 to begin its five-game road swing.
STAT THAT MATTERS: For the third time this season, the Panthers will attempt to achieve a three-game winning streak tonight. Florida won consecutive games on Jan. 31 and Feb. 3, at home against Winnipeg and at Buffalo on Super Bowl Sunday. The club also won consecutive road games at Carolina and the New York Rangers two weeks ago. But that’s been it, as both times the streak ended in the next games — both on the road.
Florida’s shootout winner over Tampa Bay last year in its home-opener:
Florida (11-19-6, 28 pts.) at Tampa Bay Lightning(15-18-1, 31 pts.)
Tues., Apr. 2, 7:30 p.m.
Tampa Bay Times Forum — Tampa, Fla.
BY THE NUMBERS
FLA vs. TB
19.3% (12th) Power play 18.0% (16th)
74.1% (30th) Penalty kill 82.9% (10th)
2.39 (27th) Goals per game 3.21 (3rd)
3.44 (30th) Goals against 3.00 (23rd)
0.64 (30th) 5-on-5 goals F/A 1.13 (7th)
49.8% (19th) Faceoffs 51.4% (7th)
30.2 (11th) Shots per gm 26.5 (28th)
31.0 (23rd) Shots vs. per 29.4 (18th)
Florida has 28 points in 36 games: 37.3 over 48 games.
LOCAL TV BROADCAST
Fox Sports Florida, 7:30 p.m.
Steve Goldstein (PxP), Bill Lindsay (Color)
560 WQAM, 7:30 p.m.
Randy Moller (PxP)