By Bill Whitehead
Following Florida’s 2-1 hard-earned shootout win over Columbus to record its fifth straight win and fifth consecutive road victory dating back to that memorable 5-4 shootout win in Tampa on Nov. 14, Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella placed a load of blame on his players for the outcome.
“To me, it was a little lack of respect for the opponent. I don’t understand how we can disrespect an opponent when we’re looking up at all 29 teams,” said the edgy, often irate Tortorella.
Apparently St. Louis bench boss Ken Hitchcock felt similarly after his Blues were handled by the Panthers in perhaps Florida’s best performance of the year, a 3-1 drubbing of a good Blues team in a city where Florida hadn’t won since 2009.
St. Louis defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk was complimentary of Florida, saying the Cats clogged up the neutral zone and prevented the Blues from getting behind the Panthers and working on their forecheck. The Western Conference team thrives on that kind of physical play.
Hitchcock said his team’s mental preparation was bad: “We didn’t give Florida near the respect they deserve.”
The assessments by the two coaches brings up a good question: What’s the value of respect and how does a team like Florida earn it?
The answers don’t seem to matter too much right now, do they?
Florida (13-9-4) is riding an incredible wave of momentum as it looks for six straight in the Garden State against those pesky Devils, a team they are chasing. The emotion of opening night’s 7-1 win over Philly was incredible, but that feeling was nothing like the last seven days.
Five wins coming against four likely playoff teams, though Florida may have something to say about Detroit or the Islanders playing in mid April.
There was a taste of what the Panthers can do when they beat their nemesis Tampa and swept a home-and-home series from the Bolts in thrilling fashion last month, but the ride started with that record-setting shootout against the Islanders.
Since then, it’s been a rally and shootout winner at Detroit, an outstanding overall showing in St. Louis and 21 blocked shots that never challenged Roberto Luongo in another win, this time in Nashville where they had not won since pre-Y2K.
A strong first 20 that produced nothing. A lucky bounce on a pass by Vincent Trocheck that turned into his eighth goal—nothing to be ashamed of, by the way—then late penalty-killing and shootout heroics.
The most impressive win to me, all things considered, was Columbus.
Of all 13 wins this year, the victory in the Buckeye State was the kind of game Florida never would have won in years past.
The club held a very brief lead against a Blue Jackets team that was struggling and playing in front of a lifeless crowd. Somehow Florida found a way to win it—thanks largely to the PK unit, Columbus’ awful power play and some timely play by backup goalie Al Montoya and virtuoso shootout artists Jonathan Huberdeau and Sasha Barkov.
Past Florida teams would have wilted against an inferior Columbus, given up a power-play goal or had a bad break go against them as they skated on tired legs from a game the previous night while fresh Columbus had three nights off.
However, these Cats used a good break on Trocheck’s goal, killed off penalties and used their better skill in the shootout to snap the terrible streak of losing in central Ohio.
Instead of outplaying a team for 55 minutes and losing late in some bizarre manner, Florida trotted out its fatigued, “Hey, we played a tough game the night before” C game, went through the motions the last 40 minutes, had their backs against the wall in the shootout after failing to win on an overtime power play…
That just hasn’t happened much in the years I’ve covered this team. Florida basically won Friday when they shouldn’t have.
As for the answers to the two-part question about what respect is and how does Florida get it?
Right now respect probably means very little to the red-hot Panthers, who aren’t really worried too much about how to go about getting it either.
They’re just worried about winning.
Follow Bill on Twitter@BillWhiteheadFL and in Treasure Coast newspapers at TCPalm.com