If Florida Panthers head coach Gerard Gallant drew up a script to play out over the last week — a pivotal seven days in the club’s quest to return to the playoffs — it surely wouldn’t have unfolded the way it did.
The home loss to Detroit on what was unofficially Kevin Spacey Night was a downer and uncharacteristic of the Cats. Blowing a two-goal lead had happened just three games prior against the Islanders. Doing it again on a night that had so much emotion and a franchise-record crowd of 20,817 was a complete surprise. The result in Madison Square Garden wasn’t any better.
However, as they have done all year, these Cats found a way to roll with it and land on their feet. In fact, resiliency may be the team’s best attribute, making what happened in Brooklyn and home against Detroit more of an aberration than anything else. More often than not, those late leads have been safe.
Washington, Los Angeles, Chicago and everyone else slip up occasionally. It’s going to happen over 82 games. Doesn’t mean fans have to accept it, but the good fortune is having another game on the schedule. And the sooner the better to get that stinging loss off your mind.
Which leads us to the good news. You know, the part where the resiliency steps in and saves the week, season and playoff hopes.
It’s also the stretch — just a two-game one — where Vincent Trocheck stepped up and displayed his value and leadership, the top line started clicking and Roberto Luongo demonstrated that he’s still an elite goalie.
There’s definitely a Panthers Team MVP piece down the road, and Trocheck is one of four or five guys a case could be made for. On a two-game losing streak and playing in the House of Horrors that is TD Waterhouse in Boston, then in Tampa Saturday, the Panthers could have folded after trailing early in both. Trocheck provided the spark, though, scoring on a pair of top-shelf laser beams to change the direction in both contests. Plus, his grittiness–whether it’s playing while being high-sticked and without a few teeth, blocking a shot or diving to clear a puck–is unrivaled on the team.
The top line gained some life, too, showing signs of life in Boston and ending with Jonathan Huberdeau skating in for an empty-net goal by way of Sasha Barkov. That carried over against the Bolts when Huberdeau and Jaromir Jagr scored on fantastic shots. Luongo, meanwhile, was far better than Tuukka Rask and Andrei Vasilevskiy, though the Russian goalie really had no chance on goals by Trocheck, Jagr, Huberdeau and Jiri Hudler.
As Miami Hurricane wide receiver Santana Moss said following a win in the Orange Bowl over Florida State: “Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games.”
Florida’s performance in Boston and Tampa after a couple of tough losses and with first place in the Atlantic Division hanging in the balance?
EMPTY NETTER: Minnesota Twins pitcher Phil Hughes (@PJHughes45) likely became a Lightning fan during his tenure with the New York Yankees, who train in Tampa in the spring. Hughes is a passionate fan and was taking in his first Bolts game this year Saturday. To get into the spirit, avid fan Hughes took it upon himself to fire a few feeble attempts at Aaron Ekblad and Jagr, two players with more awards already and a future Hall of Fame induction ahead of one of them, and who are undeniably better on the ice than he is on the mound.
While Hughes’ night started out like a giddy teenager tweeting for the first time, I learned the day after Florida thrashed his Bolts 5-2 while at Mets spring training through my New York media colleagues, one in particular who covered the righty when he wore pinstripes, that Hughes is by far one of the most approachable, nicest guys in sports.
So in summary, Phil Hughes is a bad tweeter, lousy rabbit’s foot for the Bolts, complimentary No. 3 starter (83-69, 4.33), but all-around good guy and one of the most likable blokes we sportswriters cover. Having never spoken with or covered Hughes, I’ll take my fellow scribe’s word on it.
And Hughes is a huge hockey fan, just like Keegan Bradley, the No. 98th ranked golfer in the world, is of the Panthers. Phil’s profile even reads “Way too big of a Lightning fan for my own good.”
His tweeting Saturday night was the “for my own good” part.
Sure, Hughes cheers for the enemy, so he’s misguided. Plus he called out two professional athletes better than him — one a certain Hall of Famer — but he was a decent sport at the end of a tough evening for him. Hughes drove up from Fort Myers the night before his start against the Yankees, his former club, in Tampa on Sunday just to watch his hockey team for the only time this season, then the Bolts get blown out of their own barn in the biggest game of the year so far by their in-state rivals who have now beaten them four out of five games.
Hughes’ hockey passion is what we like.
For that he gets a little bit of a pass, but it just barely touches the black of the plate.
**Follow Bill on Twitter @BillWhiteheadFL and in newspapers at TCPalm.com
Well, the Florida Panthers’ visit to Habsland turned out to be so much better than their visit to NYC, huh? You know, that Monday night fiasco that quickly turned into the Brooklyn Disaster.
As bad as Monday’s inexplicable 3-2 loss was to the Islanders was — and it was right up there as worst of the year, maybe because of its terrible timing with the postseason looming — the Cats’ bounceback 4-1 win over the Montreal Canadiens was a 60-minute effort. Granted it came against a Habs team that resembled an AHL club, but, really, who cares at this point about the circumstances surrounding any of these games?
Did anyone really feel sorry for a rag-tag Florida (39-22-9) group that scratched Derek MacKenzie, Erik Gudbranson and Jussi Jokinen? Gudbranson’s absence was no surprise as he was seen limping around the dressing room following the loss in Brooklyn, but Jokinen’s ailment is just another in a slew of injuries and was a surprise. However, for Florida to compete at top level and succeed, key contributors 17, 44 and 36 need to be in the lineup. This is especially important in the pursuit of the Atlantic Division.
Just as Super Tuesday resulted in a four-candidate field being reduced to three on the Republican side, mainly because of the Sunshine State no less, I’ve said for weeks that I feel the three-team race in the Atlantic will eventually be trimmed to two. Florida and Tampa appear to have an easier path to achieving the divisional title as compared to the Boston Bruins.
Take Boston’s upcoming slate of games into consideration — and I write this as they lead San Jose 2-1 in the second period. Yet after that it gets no easier for Boston in its last 11 to end the season. Back-to-back games in Anaheim and Los Angeles at the end of the week, then traveling to face the Rangers next Wednesday. Florida rolls into Beantown the next night on a Bruins’ back-to-back. However, the real kicker is Boston going to St. Louis and Chicago to start April. The penultimate game is home against Detroit, who is fading and scrounging to hold onto the final wild-card spot.
In total, Boston faces seven playoff teams in its final 11 contests. The Bruins will face five of those seven teams currently holding a playoff spot away from TD Garden. The Bs have been the NHL’s best on the road, but that’s a tall task ahead of them.
I expect Florida and Tampa to reap the benefits of that, meaning the Atlantic winner would play Pittsburgh right now and the divisional runner-up would host Boston if the Bruins slip to third in the division. That will be a tough matchup for either Florida or Tampa.
In short, I just don’t think the Cats and Bolts meet in the first round.
But we still have a few weeks to figure that out.
EMPTY-NETTER: Jonathan Huberdeau was given the A on his No. 11 sweater as he returned home to Quebec. The Saint-Jerome native showed he was worthy from the get-go, engaging in some rough stuff right away and eventually leaving a mark on the game when he slid a beautiful pass over to Sasha Barkov for the game’s final goal. It was Huberdeau’s 35th assist, second on the team to Jokinen. Interestingly, the Montreal fans seemed to cheer loudly when the primary assist from one of their hometown lads was announced in French.
Say what you will about Montreal fans — they dress funny, they’re cocky bordering on arrogant, they feel entitled because of their rich history — but one thing is also worthy of mention: They are passionate about their hockey. That passion often translates into appreciation, which is why they cheered for their homey Huberdeau after he helped bury his childhood favorite team.
**Follow Bill on Twitter @BillWhiteheadFL and in newspapers at TCPalm.com
By Bill Whitehead
After a pair of games in eastern Canada, the Florida Panthers (25-12-4) take to the other end of the Great White North with a 9:30 game against the suddenly better Edmonton Oilers (17-22-3). Florida will be trying to extend their NHL season-long 11-game winning streak against the Oilers, who are 8-2-0 in their last 10 against the Cats.
After watching the Oilers lose Saturday night’s game against Tampa Bay in a game they completely dominated – Tampa had all the puck luck in the world, scoring three goals in the third on shots that all bounced off Oilers — I’ve come up with a couple of areas Florida should focus on in an effort to get to a dozen consecutive wins.
Don’t run-and-gun: Edmonton is young and talented, icing highly skilled forwards, some who were No. 1 overall or lottery selections. That youth likes to get out and go to demonstrate their abilities. Florida doesn’t need to get caught up in matching the fast pace of the game and should just take the opportunities presented. Hey, I’ll take Jonathan Huberdeau or Sasha Barkov against Cam Talbot or Anders Nilsson in a breakaway all day over Taylor Hall against Roberto Luongo or Al Montoya, but the Panthers don’t need to play at Edmonton’s pace.
Stay within the system: Coach Gerard Gallant has utilized a tight defensive system that clogs up the neutral zone, creates traffic in the shooting lanes on attempted shots and allows breakouts to get possible odd-man rushes. If Florida can demonstrate their system works better than first-year Edmonton coach Todd McLellan’s, the young Oilers and Barkov-like Leon Draisaitl (by far my favorite non-Cat player from the 2014 draft) may become frustrated and slip into some bad habits. This could lead to breakdowns and offensive chances.
Don’t get caught up in the streak: The team and Gallant have handled the winning streak and its attention like true pros instead of newcomers being fawned over as media darlings – actually, like they’ve acted like they’ve been here before. That said, there’s no reason to press and gamble against Edmonton. A look at the standings says Florida is five points ahead of second-place Detroit in the Atlantic, and for once Florida isn’t chasing the divisional leader. Going to overtime in Rexall Place against a Western Conference club and being assured of at least one point in the standings isn’t the worst thing in the long run.
EMPTY-NETTER: Florida immediately treks to Vancouver for a game Monday night against the Canucks. I watched all of the Vancouver’s game Saturday against Tampa – an overtime loss to the Canucks – and this version of Luongo’s old club isn’t that special. The Sedin twins didn’t stand out in the loss to the Bolts, and none of the veterans, including winger Radim Vrbata (who may be a rental target for a playoff team, maybe in South Florida), stood out at all.
What Vancouver does have is a nice young core. Jake Virtanen has exceptional speed and flair to his game, and Bo Horvat is fun to watch, too. Also, former Panther goalie Jacob Markstrom, once thought to be the netminder of Florida’s future, played a strong game against Tampa (aside from his flopping effort on Nikita Kucherov’s game-winner), though it would be hard to picture him as Vancouver’s future No. 1.
Staggeringly, Vancouver has scored two goals or less in 26 of their 42 games, not exactly the high-flying numbers put up by the team over the last decade or so. Florida’s defense could be the difference.
It will be a hard test in British Columbia, but don’t be confused into thinking this is the Vancouver that Luongo suited up for.
**Follow Bill on Twitter @BillWhiteheadFL and in newspapers at TCPalm.com
By Bill Whitehead
It would probably be asking too much for Aaron Ekblad to wax too sentimentally over returning to Philadelphia, site of where he was drafted just six months ago. Ekblad went through all the fanfare then of being the likely No. 1 pick – visiting downtown, hitting Pat’s and Geno’s for cheesesteaks and taking batting practice at Citizens Bank Park.
But it’s unlikely the emotions of coming back to the City of Brotherly Love (it’s actually his second time back, having played in Florida’s 4-1 loss on Nov. 6) will faze the 18-year-old defenseman because, well, we’ve learned that not much affects Ekblad at all.
Not the media and fan attention, not the immediate success, not recently being named the third star for the first week of this month, and not being thrust into the Calder Memorial Trophy race for the season’s top rookie, likely led by Nashville’s 20-year-old Swede Filip Forsberg and his 12 goals, 18 assists and point-a-game pace.
In fact, Ekblad’s fantastic story from heralded, can’t miss prospect to rookie blueliner who’s fitting right in should have added another chapter Tuesday in Florida’s epic, almost neverending 20-round shootout win over the Capitals. After Tom Wilson missed to open the top of the fifteenth round, Ekblad had a chance to win it, and while few have been able to deny the Ontario native this year, Washington goalie Braden Holtby managed the feat. No knock on fellow blueliner Dylan Olsen – one of five Cats shooters who kept victory possible — but if you were betting on which defenseman would be successful late in the shootout, the smart money would’ve been on Ekblad, not Olsen.
All of this credit goes to Florida GM Dale Tallon.
Tallon’s phone rang constantly with the proposal of deals in June when the Panthers’ brass was deciding on whom to take. Yet Tallon said the day before the draft he knew the name of the player he was drafting and felt confident that wouldn’t change over the next 24 hours. Of course, he wasn’t tipping his hand.
On the day of the draft, the rumors kept floating. Vancouver really wanted in, and defenseman Jason Garrison and the Canucks’ first-round pick at No. 6 (eventually Jake Virtanen) were involved. The Maple Leafs popped up in the conversation, too, and Toronto’s pick at No. 8 seemed like a prime spot with Tallon having praised the offensive wizardry of William Nylander and Nikolaj Ehlers, who were expected to be taken in that range. The Flyers, trying to incite the home crowd, also made pitches, one rumored to include Vincent Lecavalier among others. Heck, maybe even a Schenn or two could have been had in the right deal.
Tallon, though, stuck to his guns and took the BPA – Best Player Available – and went with Ekblad. He did create a little drama by mentioning the Ontario Hockey League – the league of both Ekblad and Sam Bennett – but ultimately no one was shocked by the pick.
Now, 29 games and 18 points into Ekblad’s first season, not a soul in Florida would do anything differently at that draft if there were a do-over. No one would take ex-Cat and current Tampa Bay 30-year-old defenseman Jason Garrison and his 3-point, 13-assist performance in four more starts, plus the pick and other spare parts from Vancouver, over Ekblad. Lecavalier is 34 and played in just 16 games and has fewer goals than Ekblad. Brayden Schenn is on pace for a nice 20-plus goal season, but he and the Flyers’ pick at No. 17 wouldn’t have been worth it, so that would be a no as well. Nylander and Ehlers were chosen by Toronto and Winnipeg at eighth and ninth, respectively, but Ekblad’s contributing to Florida’s playoff push right now while those two are still working on their NHL futures.
Ekblad’s been that good. Just ask his teammates.
“I call his stick a slingshot because (the shot’s) off so quick and pretty hard. He’s a good defenseman to have. He’s always getting pucks through and always making good plays,” Nick Bjugstad said recently after Ekblad’s 3-assist game against Buffalo.
Added Tomas Kopecky: “He’s such a smart player. He kind of reminds me of Nick Lidstrom. He’s so quick on that blue line, and every shot is getting through. For the guys standing in front (of the net), it’s so easy when you know that puck is going to arrive. They all get there.”
When Ekblad was reminded that he was among the league’s leading scoring defensemen, he put that all into perspective, too, saying, “Those guys are great players. I’m sure they’ll surpass me again. I don’t want to get too cocky or anything like that. I’m happy to be producing…our guys are making great plays and giving me that opportunity.”
Tallon praised Ekblad’s character and all-around game over the summer in Philadelphia. And the former Barrie Colts defenseman, as humbly as possible, assessed his game by saying he was solid in every phase of play. He reiterated this in every interview, whether it was the first time we talked to him or third or fourth.
In 2006 after a loss on Monday Night Football, Arizona Cardinals coach Dennis Green lashed out at the media after his club blew a lead to the Chicago Bears. Green yelled emphatically and repeatedly that the “Bears are what we thought they were.”
Aaron Ekblad definitely is who Dale Tallon thought he was and who we are learning he is.
Follow Bill Whitehead on Twitter @BillWhiteheadFL and in Scripps newspapers online at TCPalm.com
By Bill Whitehead
There is a little bit of trouble in DC. And by trouble, no, I don’t mean the federal budget vote in the House of Representatives, which passed without the line brawl that was expected by the talking heads at MSNBC, CNN and FoxNews. This problem has to do with the Washington Capitals, the district’s enigmatic but talented team that routinely comes up short despite having arguably the best player on the planet. But Alex Ovechkin – the Great 8, as it were – isn’t a goaltender, nor is he on the blue line. A couple of problems:
GOALTENDING: For years, this has been a sore subject for the Caps (17-12-2, 2nd in the Metropolitan Division), and this season has been no different. While the high-powered offense, ranked seventh in the NHL at 2.94 goals per game, has no problem pressuring opposing goalies and is third in the league on the power play, Washington backstops Braden Holtby, Philipp Grubauer and Michal Neuvirth have shown intermittent moments of brilliance overshadowed by lengthy lapses of sketchy play, allowing 2.84 per game (22nd) and failing to hold leads.
In the Caps’ 6-5 shootout win over Tampa Bay on Tuesday night, Holtby (13-9-1, 2.82 GAA, .920 %) was the latest to succumb to an all-out attack. The Lightning chased the starting goalie early, knocking Holtby out by scoring three times in the first 11 minutes. If you saw the game’s highlights, you saw Holtby in the Caps’ walkway to the dressing room, sans mask, stunned and looking like a disbelieving Kurt Cobain. Grubauer won the game by allowing just two more goals the rest of the way.
Florida’s first job in the first 10 minutes Friday is to test whoever is in goal for Washington. Holtby is riding no confidence whatsoever and is likely ripe for the picking. Grubauer is untested, only appearing in five career games in the NHL. Michal Neuvirth, who sprained his right ankle stepping on a puck in warmups, is in Hershey on a conditioning assignment. Grubauer will get the start against the Panthers, who will go with backup Scott Clemmensen due to the injury suffered by Tim Thomas at Thursday’s practice.
A manic Cats’ attack like the one that created the final power play near the end of regulation against Detroit would dictate the game’s tone against the inexperienced Grubauer.
MIKE GREEN: From just about whatever standpoint you take, the reality of Mike Green is this: the Washington defenseman has been disappointing. Whether injured and unavailable or committing defensive or mental errors, the 28-year-old Calgary native has drawn the ire of many Washington fans who have grown tired of his erratic play. Against Tampa Bay, the offensive-minded Green, who has one goal this year, received 18 penalty minutes, including a 10-minute misconduct, in the game’s first 11:42. The infractions led to a pair of Lightning power-play goals.
Florida’s second job Friday should be to keep the pressure on No.52. Hit him as often and as hard as possible, agitate and rattle him at every opportunity, and generally make his night in the BB&T Center a miserable one. Green doesn’t like the contact and is easily shaken up. A few hard hits should knock him off his feet – and maybe his game.
The Panthers had a pair of terrible, embarrassing trips to DC last year, losing 5-0 and 7-1. The Cats have won three of its last four games against a good Detroit team and a decent Winnipeg club. To make it four of five, the Panthers will have to establish some strong pressure early and create nice momentum at home.
I don’t know who wins the former Southeast Division rivals’ game Friday night, but the only thing I’d bet on is that red goal light activated like it was on an episode of Cops.
By Bill Whitehead
This weekend wasn’t supposed to go like this. At all.
Two teams visiting BB&T Center, Buffalo and Tampa Bay. One terrible, one most assuredly overachieving but off to a great start nonetheless. Florida fans would surely hope for three points, but four definitely shouldn’t have been a farfetched notion.
Instead of the Panthers moving to 5-7-1 or 4-7-2, Florida jumped all over the lousy Sabres but managed just one goal in a 3-1 loss, then played a solid last 50 minutes of regulation before losing 4-3 to the Lightning in a shootout. If you’re checking the standings this morning, don’t bother. It reads 3-7-2, which really is nothing to write home about.
Plenty of questions surround these Panthers. What is the team’s identity through 1/7 of the club’s season? What can be done about the serious lack of scoring? What is the problem with the dearth of motivation and lackluster starts that trudge and plod along? And finally, who belongs in goal – Tim Thomas or Jacob Markstrom?
As for team identity, start your own diagnosis and jot down some notes, Mr. or Ms. Amateur Psychiatrist. The team hasn’t done anything positive consistently all year. The defense is better than last year, though they could certainly stand to clear their own zone a little quicker and try to produce some odd-man rushes on breakouts. With this team, you just never know what will surface from game to game, puck drop to puck drop. Starting flat has been a tendency in most of the games, but doing that against a Tampa team that played less than 24 hours earlier made no sense whatsoever.
Predicting how the Panthers are going to play night in and night out is like starting a car in the Middle East: You just don’t know what’s going to happen.
The lack of scoring has been extremely puzzling. Florida (2.08 goals per game, 26th in NHL) managed one goal each in games against Philadelphia and Buffalo, the latter with backup Jhonas Enroth in goal, not Ryan Miller. Those two teams are just, well, horrible, and while losing to either outright is bad enough, at least score a few times. But Jonathan Huberdeau, Tomas Kopecky, Shawn Matthias and most along the blue line (Tom Gilbert, Erik Gudbranson and Brian Campbell, all of whom have offensive skill) have been missing more often than not from the score sheet. Huberdeau’s situation is extremely vexing as the Calder Trophy winner has just three tallies, putting him on pace for 21 this year, but he’s far better than that. Florida also ranks 28th on the power play, connecting on 9.8 percent (4-for-49) while allowing two shorthanded goals.
Motivation and preparedness? That’s mostly on coach Kevin Dineen and staff. Honestly, some of Dineen’s choices have been shocking as well. Brad Boyes was going to be scratched Sunday but was placed in the lineup at the last minute when Tomas Fleischmann came up ill. Boyes is Florida’s leading goal scorer and a stalwart performer in the shootout, why scratch him? Boyes scored a goal, added another in the shootout and was positioned to be the game’s star if Dmitry Kulikov could have kept the shootout going.
Tampa Bay did everything it could to give Florida the win. It started backup goalie Anders Lindback instead of Ben Bishop. Lightning coach Jon Cooper inexplicably put two defensemen in the shootout, and neither scored. Dineen’s decision to put Kulikov (now 2-for-5) in the fourth spot after Steven Stamkos scored was also questionable. Nick Bjugstad played likely his best game as a pro, scored a goal and created chances. Giving the former Minnesota Golden Gopher a chance to tie the game and send it to a fifth round would have been a huge confidence builder for the Minnesota native, but Dineen opted for the defenseman. Bjugstad is a centerpiece in Florida’s future. Just when is the perfect time to play him if not for a losing club whose season is slipping away and desperately in need of a spark?
Finally, Tim Thomas needs to start in goal. Period. If you’re interested in seeing the Cats win games, salvage the season and inject some emotion back into a BB&T Center and j2013-14 campaign that’s on life support, Thomas needs to be between the pipes. He gives the Panthers a better chance to win each time out when he’s healthy, and there’s hope he’ll be ready for St. Louis on Friday. If, however, you want to see Markstrom develop and answer the question of whether or not he’s a starting NHL goalie, then play the big Swede. I’d prepare for a tougher season, too, and a harder learning curve.
Dineen is surely interested in seeing some wins rather than player development during the season – for his sake. If this 3-7-2 mark transforms into something embarrassingly hideous and Walking Dead-like, something along the lines of 3-12-2, you would have to really wonder if Dineen – a great guy to deal with, very personable but in the final year of his contract – would be the Cats’ bench boss for too much longer.
In fact, there’s your answer to the question about the Florida Panthers’ team identity.