Game Day Preview: Florida at Tampa Bay

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)

PANTHERS’ PACE

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)
LOCAL RADIO
560 WQAM, 7:30 p.m.
Randy Moller (PxP)

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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)

Game Day Preview: Tampa Bay at Florida

By Bill Whitehead

Last week was probably the last really good chance to get something going, but as has been the case most of the season other than Opening Night or games in Philadelphia, disappointment ruled with an iron fist like a stubborn dictator over the kingdom of the Florida Panthers. Another night with an opportunity to gain two points, this time against a club that had played less than 24 hours earlier and was ending a five-game road trip. But Florida performed as it did against Carolina in back-to-back losses and Winnipeg on Friday in an overtime defeat.

Starting with Carolina on the road two Saturdays ago, Florida had the schedule set up for them to do some damage in the Southeast Division — a seven-game stretch of games with six against divisional opponents, plus five contests were at BB&T Center. It was time to make hay in the division and start moving up the standings. Ten points in that stretch should do it, right?

It didn’t exactly turn out that way.

The fantasy of 10 points in those first six games — which would have been half of what the club has earned in 26 contests — turned into stark, eye-opening reality: three points, four embarrassing losses and goaltending that left some calling for Florida goalie coach Robb Tallas. Not that he should lose his job, mind you, but that he should suit up and play like he nearly did against Carolina.

The final game of the seven is a meeting between two teams who have been classic underachievers for different reasons. At least the Lightning started hot, sprinting out of the post-lockout era with a 6-1 record and the top spot in the division. Since Feb. 1, though, Tampa Bay is 4-13-1 and is just one point ahead of Florida, who occupies the division’s cellar. A win in regulation by the Panthers would put the Lightning 15th in the Eastern Conference, though it would own a game in hand. With both teams in the second half of the season, there’s very little chance either will play in May, so this is basically a battle to stay out of last place.

THIRD TIME’S A CHARM?: Florida has dropped both contests against the Lightning — a 5-2 defeat on Jan. 29 in Tampa and a 6-5 overtime loss at the BB&T Center on Feb. 16. The latter defeat was extremely demoralizing as the Panthers held a 5-4 lead very late before Teddy Purcell scored with 11 seconds left, then Benoit Pouliot had the game-winner in overtime. The loss was the third straight OT loss at home. Worse still, it marked the second time in three games Florida appeared to have a win with the late lead (the other was against Washington), only to lose and come away with one point. The two teams meet for the final time in the season finale in Tampa on April 27.

POWER TRIO: Florida forwards Tomas Kopecky, Shawn Matthias and Jack Skille have emerged lately as the go-to scorers for the Panthers, who are 24th in the NHL at 2.42 goals per game. Against Montreal on Sunday, Kopecky scored his 10th goal of the season, matching the number of goals in his first year with the club. Kopecky, whose career-high is 15 goals, has recorded 10 points (8-2-10) in his last 13 games. Matthias’s seventh goal, also against the Canadiens, gave the Ontario native a career-high four-game point streak (3-1-4), with four goals in his last six games. Skille also is riding the wave of a point streak, recording a career-high of three (1-2-3).

GREAT COMPANY: Rookie Jonathan Huberdeau elevated himself into some rarified air with his goal against Winnipeg Friday. His 12th goal in his 25th career game put him on a list with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Alex Ovechkin and Teemu Selanne as the only active players to turn the feat.

STAT THAT MATTERS: The Panthers have owned the Lightning in South Florida during its time in the league. Florida carries a 32-9-4-8 mark against Tampa Bay at home. Florida’s last regulation home loss to the Lightning was a 3-1 defeat on April 11, 2010.

Tampa Bay (10-14-1, 21 pts.) at Florida (7-13-6, 20 pts.)
Tues., Mar. 12, 7:30 p.m.
BB&T Center — Sunrise, Fla.

BY THE NUMBERS

TBL                      vs.               FLA

20.4% (8th)            Power play               18.0% (14th)
82.1% (13th)            Penalty kill             73.3% (30th)
3.40  (2nd)            Goals per game           2.42  (24th)
3.12  (27th)            Goals against            3.73  (30th)
1.11  (12th)            5-on-5 For/Ag.          0.62  (29th)
51.0% (10th)             Faceoffs                 50.2% (15th)
27.2  (27th)            Shots per gm             29.5  (13th)
30.3  (22nd)            Shots ag. per gm        31.0  (23rd)

PANTHERS’ PACE

Florida has 20 points in 26 games: 36.9 over 48 games.

LOCAL TV BROADCAST
Fox Sports Florida
Panthers Live, 7:00 p.m.
Tampa Bay vs. Florida, 7:30
Steve Goldstein (PxP), Bill Lindsay (Color)

LOCAL RADIO
560 WQAM
Panthers Preview, 7:00 p.m.
Tampa Bay vs. Florida, 7:30 p.m.
Randy Moller (PxP)

Game Day Preview: Florida at Carolina

By Bill Whitehead

It has to be fairly obvious to either the most positive or negative Florida Panthers fan that both good and bad elements existed in the Cats’ 4-3 shootout loss at home to Buffalo on Thursday night. After a 2-0 early deficit, Florida battled back, kept up the pressure and eventually tied the game with just over a minute to go. A point was gained, but an extra point was not gained…but Florida could have just as easily had no points at all…or both in regulation. It’s all kind of dizzying, but here you go:

The Good: Florida was relentless in its attack, registering 43 shots against veteran netminder Ryan Miller. The Cats never quit either, as Brian Campbell finally tied it with his sixth goal. And it sounds like a broken record, but Florida did get a point, and that didn’t seem possible for 58 and a half minutes of play. The defense stepped up also in the absence of Mike Weaver, and players like Brian Campbell and Dmitry Kulikov logged extra minutes.

The Bad: Goaltending continues to be the club’s biggest problem. Scott Clemmensen, who was so good in relief against Pittsburgh, was very bad from the start against Buffalo. Jose Theodore was solid in relief against Buffalo, but really, the Sabres had pretty much decided against any kind of offensive push the last two periods. It’s as if they quit caring about scoring and put the outcome all on Miller. Theodore faced just 15 shots in 48:14. That being said, I kidded on Twitter Thursday night that it wasn’t goaltending that was the problem, just starting goaltending. Panthers goalies allowed no goals on 30 shots in 68:14 of relief in the last two home games. The forwards’ inability to finish is also puzzling and surely frustrating to coach Kevin Dineen.

In summary, two points were there for the taking against a Sabres team that had little interest in trying to score, choosing instead to turtle and go into prevent defense mode, while Florida had the most offensive opportunities its had all year but couldn’t beat Miller too often. Given that scenario, it’s frustrating to see Florida get just the one point.

Some notes for tonight’s game against Carolina up in NASCAR country:

CANES WHO CAN: Carolina was blanked 3-0 earlier in the week against Washington in a game that featured current Canes winger Alex Semin squaring off against his former team. Ex-teammate Troy Brouwer provided a few sharp criticisms of the Russian right winger, saying at one point that the Caps weren’t always sure that Semin would show up at Verizon Center — at all. But Semin, on a one-year contract in Raleigh, is second on Carolina with 16 points (4-12-16) in 19 games and had current teammate Tim Brent rebutting Brouwer and showing support for Semin’s play and character. Eric Staal leads the Hurricanes with 10 goals, while Jiri Tlusty and Jeff Skinner, who received a second concussion recently, have nine and eight goals, respectively.

LET’S GET TOGETHER: Florida is, of course, facing a familiar foe in divisional rival Carolina, but the two won’t play as often if the new conference realignment is enacted for next season. Carolina would potentially join the Eastern Conference’s Atlantic Division that would also feature familiar opponent Washington. Meanwhile, Florida would align in the Central Division with Tampa Bay, while Winnipeg would move to the Western Conference. Florida is playing Carolina for the 101st time; the Panthers own a 40-38-11-11 mark against the Canes and have beaten them to close last year and open this one — 4-1 and 5-1.

DEJA VU?: Word came down Friday that Panthers winger Jonathan Huberdeau, in what is likely a first of many accolades from the league, had been named Rookie of the Month for February. The Quebec native leads all rookies in goals (8) and shots (57) and is second among rookies in points (13). Rookie center Drew Shore may give Huberdeau, his linemate on the Kid Line, his best competition in March. The University of Denver alum has 10 points this season (2-8-10) and has tallied eight points in his last nine games. The top rookie this month could also be wearing Florida’s red — though No. 15 instead of No. 11.

RED-HOT SOUP: With Mike Weaver getting injured early against Buffalo, Florida fans saw plenty of Brian Campbell skating up and down BB&T Center ice. Campbell, last year’s Lady Byng Award winner, logged 33:16 TOI to help pick up Weaver’s missing minutes. From a goal-scoring standpoint, the 33-year-old Campbell has had a breakout season. He’s tied for first in goals by a defenseman (6) with Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson, who is out for the season after a severe laceration. Five of Campbell’s goals have come on the power play. His career high is 12, which he netted with Buffalo in 2005-2006.

LOOSE PUCKS: D Mike Weaver was hurt in the first period against Buffalo, playing just 2:11 in four shifts, and is expected to miss a significant amount of time with a lower body injury. Brian Campbell and Dmitry Kulikov (25:53 TOI) picked up the slack with Weaver out. Expect Colby Robak in the lineup against Carolina…C Marcel Goc has scored goals in two straight games and has four points (2-2-4) in his last two games…Tomas Fleischmann has a three-game assist streak and five points (1-4-5) in his last three games…Florida plays five straight games against Southeast Division foes — back-to-back contests versus Carolina over the weekend to start it — and the Cats have five games in seven days. Florida will also play red-hot Winnipeg on Tuesday and Friday at BB&T Center, plus a road game sandwiched in between at Washington next Thursday…C Stephen Weiss, who returned against Buffalo after missing the Pittsburgh game due to a death in his family, is one assist short of 250 for his career, five goals shy of 150 and six points from 400.

A banner-winning moment last April:

Florida (6-9-5, 17 pts.) at Carolina (10-8-1, 21 pts.)
Sat., Mar. 2, 7:00 p.m.
PNC Arena — Raleigh, N.C.

BY THE NUMBERS

FLA                       vs.               CAR

20.2% (10th)            Power play               14.7% (23rd)
72.9% (29th)            Penalty kill             78.2% (23rd)
2.50  (21st)            Goals per game           2.84  (10th)
3.60  (30th)            Goals against            2.90  (19th)
0.63  (29th)            5-on-5 For/Ag.          1.00  (17th)
50.4% (13th)             Faceoffs                 51.4% (7th)
29.7  (11th)            Shots per gm             33.0  (1st)
31.3  (24th)            Shots ag. per gm        31.6  (26th)

PANTHERS’ PACE

Florida has 17 points in 20 games: 40.8 over 48 games.

LOCAL TV BROADCAST
Fox Sports Florida, 7:00 p.m.
Steve Goldstein (PxP), Bill Lindsay (Color)

LOCAL RADIO
99.9 KISS FM, 7:00 p.m.
Randy Moller (PxP)

Panther Preview: Pittsburgh at Florida

By Bill Whitehead

After two long days in Daytona covering Speedweeks and eventually DanicaFest (i.e.–the Daytona 500), it’s time to get back to Florida Panthers hockey. I recorded Sunday’s matinee against the Bruins, avoided finding out the score and eagerly awaited watching it when I returned home.

That didn’t turn out too well.

What I saw late Sunday night was more of the same. The Cats (5-9-4) have been exposed as a team that isn’t as good defensively as last year, has much shakier goaltending than that Southeast Division-winning club, loses far too many battles for the puck and commits crucial mistakes by turning over the puck.

But the big problem is the finish — or lack of it. Like last season, the Panthers can’t hit the net at key times and gain the momentum that puts teams away. Other clubs, especially those that win night in and night out and head to the playoffs, take advantage and bury those chances. Only one defenseman has an even-strength goal, Mike Weaver in Pittsburgh. No knock on Weaver because it’s not part of his game, but he shouldn’t lead Florida in any offensive category.

Other than Jonathan Huberdeau (eight goals), Peter Mueller (six) and Tomas Kopecky (five), the forwards aren’t putting pucks away either. Tomas Fleischmann shouldn’t have the same amount of markers as Brian Campbell (four), and Campbell’s numbers, while impressive, shouldn’t exceed Drew Shore or Shawn Matthias. Or Stephen Weiss, which is another sore subject. The No. 1 center was benched in the third period against Boston, officially entering coach Kevin Dineen’s doghouse, and the whole top line — so good last season and a primary reason for the playoff appearance — has been a wreck. Weiss (one goal, minus-11) has been very unproductive, Fleischmann isn’t connecting on shots, and Kris Versteeg has one goal in seven games and was hurt after being hit by Alex Ovechkin.

And it doesn’t get any easier.

The Pittsburgh Penguins, the top team in the Atlantic Division, waddle in to South Florida Tuesday, and it will take a stellar effort and finish that has been nowhere to be found of late. Florida’s five wins are the fewest in the Eastern Conference and tied with Columbus for the fewest in the NHL.

NO GENO: The Penguins’ star center Evgeni Malkin has a concussion and was put on injured reserve. The Russian forward, who will miss the next three games, had 21 points (4-17-21) in 18 games before being knocked into the boards by Florida’s Erik Gudbranson on a perfectly clean, hard hit last Friday in Pittsburgh.

SHARP PENS: Sidney Crosby has paced Pittsburgh of late. He has three goals in five assists in his last five games, and he scored a pair in Sunday’s 5-3 win over Tampa Bay. Crosby leads the Penguins in points with 28 (9-19-28), while James Neal tops the club with 12 goals. Second leading scorer Chris Kunitz has seven goals and 14 assists. Pascal Dupuis also has seven tallies.

POWER (PLAY) OUTAGE: Florida’s power play, which was so good to start the season, has been anemic of late. Well, anemic is being kind. Generally at this point, a Florida power play is simply two minutes in which neither team will score. It’s like taking a 2-minute slice of time out of the game. The Panthers have scored one man-advantage goal in its last 24 opportunities in the last eight games. In its 5-game winless streak, the Panthers are 0-for-17 on the power play.

LOOSE PUCKS: Florida sent goaltender Jacob Markstrom back to San Antonio on Monday. The Swedish netminder was 0-2 with a 3.05 GAA and .915 SV% against two of the top Eastern Conference teams, Pittsburgh and Boston…Florida is facing Pittsburgh for the 75th time, holding a 31-30-4-9 overall record…Jonathan Huberdeau is the only rookie to lead his team in goals and is first among rookies in goals and second in points…Fellow rookie Drew Shore has six points (1-5-6) in his last seven games…Tomas Kopecky has three goals in his last five games and is third on the team with 44 shots…Colby Robak posted 14:53 TOI and two shots in his season debut Sunday filling in for Filip Kuba (upper body).

A great moment against the Penguins at home a few years ago. Look out, Geno!

Pittsburgh (13-6-0, 26 pts.) at Florida (5-9-4, 14 pts.)
Tues., Feb. 26, 7:30 p.m.
BB&T Center — Sunrise, Fla.

BY THE NUMBERS

PIT                       vs.               FLA

28.0% (3rd)            Power play               16.2% (21st)
82.2% (17th)            Penalty kill             73.4% (29th)
3.37  (2nd)            Goals per game           2.28  (26th)
2.53  (13th)            Goals against            3.61  (30th)
1.22  (7th)            5-on-5 For/Ag.          0.63  (29th)
52.9% (3rd)             Faceoffs                 49.9% (16th)
30.4  (6th)            Shots per gm             28.6  (18th)
27.6  (7th)            Shots ag. per gm        31.5  (25th)

PANTHERS’ PACE

Florida has 14 points in 18 games: 37.3 over 48 games.

LOCAL TV BROADCAST
Fox Sports Florida, 7:30 p.m.
Steve Goldstein (PxP), Bill Lindsay (Color)

LOCAL RADIO
560 WQAM, 7:30 p.m.
Randy Moller (PxP)

Huberdeau Dazzles, Clemmensen Strong in Florida’s 5-2 Win over Flyers

By Bill Whitehead

Just when you thought you had these Florida Panthers figured out, the club turns around and plays an outstanding game like it did on Thursday night.

The Panthers, fresh off being shut out to cap off a dismal four-game homestand, received 32 saves from Scott Clemmensen, and Jonathan Huberdeau and Peter Mueller each scored two goals, breaking a five-game winless streak and beating down the Philadelphia Flyers 5-2 at the Wells Fargo Center.

Huberdeau, 19, put the Panthers (5-7-4) up early when his centering pass found Peter Mueller skating through the slot. Mueller’s snap shot pass Ilya Bryzgalov put Florida up 1-0, but it didn’t stay that way long.

Just 29 seconds later, Mike Weaver sent a long pass to Tomas Kopecky, who fired another shot past Bryzgalov. The goal was Kopecky’s fourth of the season.

Then Huberdeau, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2011 NHL Draft in Minnesota, showed off his creative ability after he was wrapped up by Kimmo Timonen on a breakaway against Bryzgalov. The Quebec native was awarded a penalty shot, giving Florida a chance to extend its lead.

Huberdeau skated in and half-turned against the Russian goalie, faked on his forehand, opened the goaltender and slid the puck between his legs off the backhand. Bryzgalov then tossed his stick against the glass in frustration.

While the penalty shot may have been a major body blow to Bryzgalov’s night, Huberdeau put the netminder out by TKO with the only goal in the second period. Erik Gudbranson’s blast on the power play, which resulted in a shattered stick, was recovered by Drew Shore. The rookie flipped it toward Huberdeau, who tucked the puck near the post past Bryzgalov on his second poke at it.

The two goals gave Huberdeau, the only first-year player leading his club in goals, eight tallies on the year to go along with five assists. Brian Boucher replaced Bryzgalov, who again tossed his goalie stick — this time while stomping down the tunnel to the dressing room.

Clemmensen, something of a surprise starter in goal for Florida, denied the Flyers (8-10-1) until Luke Schenn scored from the point late in the third period. Jakub Voracek scored his seventh of the season on a wrap-around 62 seconds after Mueller scored following up a miss by Shore off a neat feed from Huberdeau on a play that started with the Florida winger outworking Philadelphia defenseman Nicklas Grossmann for puck possession at center ice. Clemmensen had solid support from his defense, who cleaned up numerous loose pucks in front of the Iowa native.

After a 7-1 rout by the Flyers at the BB&T Center on Jan. 26, Florida won the season series with a pair of wins in Philadelphia. The first one was a 3-2 win in a shootout on Feb. 7. In that one, Mueller and Huberdeau again were the culprits, beating Bryzgalov in the first two shootout rounds. It was just the second time in franchise history that Florida had swept the season series in Philadelphia.

It was a strong night in the Southeast Division standings for Florida as well. Carolina and Tampa Bay, both with 17 points and atop the division, lost in regulation, while Winnipeg gained two points in the 4-3 win over the Hurricanes. Last-place Washington lost 3-2 to New Jersey in the first of two games in D.C. in 48 hours; the two teams meet again Saturday.

The Panthers return to action Friday night in Western Pennsylvania, where goaltender Jacob Markstrom is expected to make his first start of the season against the Pittsburgh Penguins (11-6-0), a 6-5 loser to the Flyers on Wednesday.

Time for Florida to Salvage the Stand

By Bill Whitehead

When considering this four-game home stand — so promising a week ago but now just a reminder of decent play at times that yielded bad results — I think of one word: salvage. Really, that’s all the Panthers have left going for them in this stretch of four home games — two in which they led by two goals, plus one scoreless contest. All ended in overtime losses — three points (the minimum) instead of six (the maximum). A difference of three.

What’s three points, right?

Three more in the points column would have put them at 15, solely positioned in second just two points behind Southeast Division leader Carolina. Fifteen points would have also had Florida in the eighth to ninth spots, the important playoff cusp, in the Eastern Conference standings instead of 13th.

Under any other circumstance than the one that has occurred this homestand, Florida would gladly accept five points out of a possible eight. If the club tallied points at that pace from opening night, the Panthers would end with 60 and most definitely secure a playoff spot. But while they did start with a win, the Cats have been 3-6-4 since the home win over Carolina and aren’t in a position to let points get away.

Sure, all of that falls into the “What If” category, but it illustrates how important these points are, and their value increases doubly when you play just over half a season to figure out who will battle for the Stanley Cup.

Right now, Florida should forget about points — strike the word “points” from the vernacular. And don’t anyone say, “Hey, at least we got a point.” Just get a win over Toronto to boost morale, leave South Florida on a good note and try to regain some mojo in the Keystone State.

LIMPING LEAFS — Just like every team in this short season, Toronto has been nagged by injuries, and the news didn’t get any better last week. Second-leading goal scorer Matt Frattin (knee) and starting goaltender James Reimer (knee) were both placed on injured reserve and won’t play against Florida. They join defenseman Carl Gunnarson (hip) and forward Joffrey Lupul (forearm), who have played in seven and three games, respectively. Toronto called up goalie Jussi Rynnas to back up new starter Ben Scrivens. Rynnas, a native of Finland, has yet to make a start.

TOP SCORERS — James Van Riemsdyk leads Toronto in goals with eight, and all I can say is this: For the sake of the Florida writers’ spelling skills, let’s hope JVR stays off the scoresheet. Despite playing in just 10 games, Frattin still places second with seven, while Tyler Bozak and Nazem Kadri have five and four, respectively. Phil Kessel tops with nine assists and Kadri has eight. Jonathan Huberdeau leads the Panthers with six goals — the only rookie to lead his team — and is second with nine points.

LEAFING HOME — The Maple Leafs are off to a solid start and much of the success has to do with the way the club has played away from the Air Canada Centre. Toronto is 6-2 on the road and currently rides sixth in the Eastern Conference standings. The Leafs are 7-3 in their last 10 and 1-0 in overtime. Toronto is one of three NHL teams not to participate in shootout yet, the other team being Carolina and Washington.

NUMBERS GAME — Florida RW Alex Kovalev needs one assist to reach 600 for his career. His 599 helpers grid him sixth, and he’s sixth in points with 1,029. Stephen Weiss sits at 249 assists for his career and linemate Tomas Fleischmann has 99 goals.

RAKING THE LEAFS — Florida owned Toronto last season, sweeping the four games in the season series — they also did it in 2008-2009 — and outscoring them 20-9. Florida has won the last five in the series and garnered points in 16 of the last 19, going 13-3-3. The Panthers are 24-24-7-5 against the Ontario club.

Ex-Leaf Bryan McCabe with some great highlights as a Cat. Stay to the end to see how to finish an overtime win:

Toronto (9-6-0, 18 pts.) at Florida (4-6-4, 14 pts.)
Mon., Feb. 18, 7:30 p.m.
BB&T Center — Sunrise, Fla.

BY THE NUMBERS

TOR                       vs.               FLA

14.5% (24th)            Power play               17.9% (14th)
80.0% (20th)            Penalty kill             74.6% (26th)
2.87  (9th)            Goals per game           2.43  (23rd)
2.40  (10th)            Goals against            3.79  (30th)
1.30  (5th)            5-on-5 For/Ag.          0.64  (29th)
52.2% (6th)             Faceoffs                 49.8% (17th)
27.7  (23rd)            Shots per gm             28.1  (21st)
31.7  (27th)            Shots ag. per gm        30.6  (22nd)

PANTHERS’ PACE

Florida has 12 points in 14 games: 41.1 over 48 games.

LOCAL TV BROADCAST
Fox Sports Florida, 7:30 p.m.
Steve Goldstein (PxP), Bill Lindsay (Color)

LOCAL RADIO
560 WQAM, 7:30 p.m.
Randy Moller (PxP)