#FlaPanthers Getting Little Respect

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.

Then Columbus.

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…

And won.

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

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#FlaPanthers notes: Kulikov, Shootouts and Playoffs

By Bill Whitehead

Monday’s suspension of Florida defenseman Dmitry Kulikov was warranted. It’s the kind of dangerous hit the NHL is trying to get away from and put in its past like the era without visors and immovable steel goals that were anchored into the ice.

But don’t kid yourself into thinking there isn’t another name than had an impact on Kulikov receiving a 4-game suspension without pay. And that name?

Tyler Seguin.

If Kulikov’s blow below the waist would have been to the leg of Shawn Horcoff or Travis Moen or almost any other Dallas Star, there’s no way Kulikov would have been hit as hard and received the punishment he did.

But Kulikov hit the Stars’ star.

Seguin, a 29-goal scorer and an exciting point per game player, is one of the league’s stars, and let’s face it, the NHL protects its big names. Kulikov, who has no history of dirty play, was also a bit of a victim of the media on the night after the hit.

During intermission of Saturday night’s Toronto-Montreal tilt, the majority of the Sportsnet crew chose to vilify Kulikov, whose rebound from last year’s terrible play on the back end is one of the Panthers’ best stories this season. His presence was missed in the St. Louis game, though the performance by call-up Shane O’Brien, a steady Alex Petrovic and an increasingly impressive Steve Kampfer became better after a sketchy first period against the physical Blues.

I suggested Sunday night that the Russian defenseman would get five games, then maybe get a game or two reduction. My reasoning for it being as harsh was this: Seguin, the Sportsnet team’s over-the-top persecution of Kulikov, Florida’s tenuous relationship with the NHL’s Department of Player Safety, and, well, Seguin. And Seguin.

But here are some names of players who were scofflaws when it came to dishing out hits that were clearly over-the-line against Cats yet received no suspensions: Anton Volchenkov, Jaroslav Spacek, Mike Richards, Radko Gudas, Rick Nash and Keith Yandle. Surely there are some offenders I’m leaving out.

Kulikov deserved a suspension because the NHL is trying to put that type of dangerous play in the past, like the hit by Brad Marchand on Sami Salo – very similar contact. It’s unfortunate what happened to Seguin, which hurts the Stars’ playoff hopes.

The NHL, though, carried the punishment a couple of games too far.

 

GOING WITH YOUR GUT: Florida coach Gerard Gallant has made it known he plays a hunch at times and goes with a gut feeling, but his Sunday shootout decisions have left many puzzled, myself included.

If you want to find the origin of the recent stretch of misery, look no further than the game against the Nashville Predators. The talk after the game was, hey, playoff teams don’t blow 2-goal leads in the third period at home and make matters worse by losing in the shootout. However, that’s exactly what Florida did.

But what was perplexing was not so much Gallant’s decision to trot out the four shooters he did – Brandon Pirri, Brad Boyes, Nick Bjugstad and Dave Bolland – but the three sharpshooters he didn’t use at all. That would be Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov and Jussi Jokinen. You can make a case for the first three of Pirri, Boyes and Bjugstad, but not Bolland over Huby, Barky or Jussi. Ever.

There was more.

In the 5-round shootout against St. Louis, he failed to call on No. 16 to go out there and win it. Instead he slipped in Jimmy Hayes, a brutish net-front presence who isn’t exactly Phil Kessel-like in his one-on-one skills. Shootouts are about dazzling dangles and dipsy-do. That’s not Hayes’ game. Barkov, who beat Pittsburgh with perhaps the shootout goal of the year, must be wondering what he has to do to crack the top five in future shootouts.

Every Florida 5-rounder should have some combination of Huberdeau, Bjugstad, Boyes, Barkov and Jokinen starting it.

Every. Single. Time.

 

WATCH OUT BELOW: Florida’s focus since the turn of the year has been the Boston Bruins, New York Rangers and Washington Capitals, who linger above the playoff cut line. However, the club just below the Panthers – the Philadelphia Flyers — have made a serious push and trail Florida by just two points with the Cats having a game in hand. Philly (24-22-10) has transformed from sellers to potential buyers as the deadline approaches, buoyed mainly by their current 7-1-3 run. The Flyers open a 3-game home stretch with Columbus tonight then Buffalo on Thursday, so they could put even more pressure on Florida.

As for the Panthers (24-19-12), tonight’s game against a wreck of a Toronto team is not a must win, it’s a must-must win. Very musty. Double musty. The Maple Leafs (23-29-5) have been in a disastrous freefall since the Panthers’ 6-4 victory spurred by a 4-goal third period on Dec. 28, and we’re currently in Day 3 of the Leaf Rebuild that has already seen Cody Franson and Mike Santorelli leave Leaf Nation. Tonight Toronto will play fast as they did in Sunrise, has ex-Cat Olli Jokinen on the roster and called up prospect Brandon Kozun from the the AHL Marlies.

But the Leafs are damaged goods at this point, and anything less than two points tonight will be a huge letdown and leave the #OneUnderTheSun crowd quite upset – which they should be. Florida blew extra points against Nashville and St. Louis and really wasted strong goaltending efforts in their last three contests against Minnesota, Dallas and St. Louis, coming away with just one point.

Yet as Cats’ broadcaster Steve Goldstein said post-game on Sunday, we’re talking the possibility of Florida Panthers playoff hockey as the trade deadline nears. Florida looks now more like buyers instead of sellers, and fans are studying the standings, out-of-town scoreboard and upcoming schedules as if they were cramming for finals.

No one saw that one coming in September.

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