BY BILL WHITEHEAD
It sounds like an ad for an upcoming ESPN 30 for 30, but what if I told you the Florida Panthers would lose to Toronto on their road trip and it would be a success?
However, if I added that the Cats went 3-1-0 on the trip and took points from Eastern Conference foes and divisional rivals along the way, then it gets much more believable.
Toronto, while having plenty of skilled forwards, isn’t a playoff team. This is a rebuilding year for the Leafs and their batch of young talent up front to get a lot of experience, setting up their future. And their 6-1 win over Florida was an aberration on this trip.
Maybe it was James Reimer back home against his former team or Toronto already having beaten Florida once or a generally crummy Cats’ effort, but the Leafs blew out the visitors for some reason.
But enough of that miserable night.
The stars shined for Florida (10-8-1) in their three wins that changed their Facebook team status from “Middling Mediocrity” to “Playoff Contender.”Aaron Ekblad’s shattered-stick game-winner, Roberto Luongo’s stone wall and Sasha Barkov’s shootout dazzler all will appear in highlight packages when the final touches are put on this season.
Everyone chipped in on those three wins, though.
Barkov’s play has improved dramatically, while linemates Jaromir Jagr and Jonathan Marchessault picked it up as the top line played like one. Vincent Trocheck had strong games on the trip, and the third and fourth lines continue to be fun to watch. The bottom six will get more talented when someone gets moved down when Nick Bjugstad returns, likely Tuesday.
The defense has been better as well but still needs to establish consistency.
The Rangers’ two goals were on a bad line change and a fluke deflection off a skate. In addition to Ekblad, Mark Pysyk was outstanding in New York, and Keith Yandle fired the blast that gave Florida life against his former team.
And the goaltending must continue to play like it did in three of the four games if Florida has playoff dreams.
While it’s early in the season, probably too early to think playoffs, the standings are there for a reason and are what they are — a slotting of the teams through the one-quarter point of the season.
With 21 points in 19 games, Florida is on pace for roughly 91 points, and that average wouldn’t be good enough to get it done right now. Last week, due to Eastern Conference teams beating up on the West, the cut line appeared to be 101 points, but that will change, especially as injuries mount.
On the plus side, Florida’s start is better than last year’s 103-point season that ended with an Atlantic Division title. Those Panthers opened with an 8-8-3 mark and 19 points, but of course were eventually buoyed by a 12-game winning streak.
Right now Florida’s 21 points has them tied with New Jersey for the second wild-card spot. That’s right, wild-card. That was a little unthinkable about 10 p.m. in Toronto on Thursday night when everyone, including yours truly, was griping about the Cats’ lack of effort against an inferior opponent.
Wins in Ottawa and Madison Square Garden changed that mood.
This Meow Momentum wasn’t found in Canada like something from a Roots store or from inside a Tim Horton’s on a cold morning. The Cats may be playing through a good stretch, but it all started at the BB&T Center two Saturdays ago.
That rally against Jack Capuano’s Islanders and behind Denis Malgin’s game-winning chip past Jaroslav Halak is the seed of what we’re seeing.
It was just nurtured then sprouted in Canada over the period of a week.
It may seem like the Panthers are returning to Sunrise with plenty of momentum, but they actually left the 954 with it.
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BY BILL WHITEHEAD
Five games or so is really a small sample to figure out how good a team is in an 82-game season. It’s safe to say the Edmonton Oilers (5-1-0) and Vancouver Canucks (4-1-1), who are atop the Pacific Division, are better than expected, but likely for different reasons. The Oilers are so deep with offensive talent they’re playing 2011 No. 1 overall Ryan Nugent-Hopkins as their third line center. Vancouver? Who knows. They were expected to be pretty bad and in a youth rebuild.
But it’s really the Florida Panthers we’re concerned about. At 3-1-1 and embarking on their first real road trip, not a day-trip up I-75, here’s what we can glean so far from this version of the Cats:
STAYING HERE — Denis Malgin and Shane Harper. A few people griped a bit when the 19-year-old Swiss forward and the 27-year-old Californian broke camp with the team, but the lesson the pair has taught is this: Let’s give them a chance before we ship them out to Springfield.
Malgin was a big unknown coming in. With Lawson Crouse and Rocco Grimaldi out of the picture, more talk centered around Kyle Rau, Juho Lammikko, Jayce Hawryluk and even Dryden Hunt, a curious potential “diamond in the rough” signing, among the forwards who were looking to impress. However, Malgin tore it up in rookie camp and showed he belonged with the big club in the preseason.
He still belongs.
Much like Tampa’s 20-year-old Brayden Point, Malgin battles size issues as both are a couple of inches short of six feet. Yet what they’re not short of is talent and determination — you know, those immeasurables — that have put both players on teams that most feel should be in the playoffs. Though he hasn’t beaten an NHL goalie yet, Malgin has outworked defenders and won battles that have led to goals, again showing that the staff’s decision to bring him up was the right call.
I tweeted Saturday night that Malgin was “clearly the most electrifying player who has never scored a goal,” but I think that changes and I’m going to go ahead and call my shot Babe Ruth-style: Malgin scores against Pittsburgh.
Maybe it’s because Malgin sounds like Malkin. Or because Malgin wears No. 62 like the Penguins’ Carl Hagelin, who was instrumental in their Cup run last year. Whatever. I’ll take any off-the-wall connection at all I can use, but it’s time for Malgin to score.
The well-traveled Harper nearly made the club out of camp last year, but that honor went to Connor Brickley. Now it’s Harper’s turn, and the former ECHLer is making the most of it. Unlike most from that league, Harper can flat out score — he’s done it everywhere he’s played.
His finish from nice assists from Greg McKegg and Alex Petrovic on 2-on-1s Saturday are skillful scores we don’t see often from NHL fourth lines. But again, Harper has scored at all levels, so don’t be surprised when he shoots more often and it happens again.
Quite a few players have bounced in and out of Florida’s bottom six in the past year — some have been dealt, some demoted, some just outright handed their walking papers. Malgin and Harper appear to be good candidates to stay here all year, putting pressure on young players to step up their game if they want to get the call and likely keeping Shawn Thornton out of the lineup.
The lineup decision gets tougher when Nick Bjugstad returns in the near future and Jonathan Huberdeau in early 2017, too.
MUST SEE STs — The Florida Panthers’ special teams have always been interesting to watch and often a work in progress. That’s still the case this year.
First, the good: The penalty kill has been excellent through five games.
The PK is a major asset on a couple of fronts. First, it’s been non-existent much of the time because Florida has shown its discipline by being down a man only 11 times, a 90.9% clip that ranks ninth in the NHL.
The power play is a different story — so far.
Only twice in 18 opportunities (11.1%) has Florida scored on the PP, which is hard to fathom considering there’s a 750-goal scorer and two of the game’s best young centers on the ice.
“So far” is the key here. The PP has only reaped benefits for Jaromir Jagr and Aaron Ekblad, but it has shown signs of life. Look for Reilly Smith, Vincent Trocheck, Jonathan Marchessault and Keith Yandle to start tallying goals with the man-advantage. Florida ices too much offensive talent to sit tied for 23rd in the PP.
Both special teams must improve into the top half of the NHL in order to have long-term success and make a deep run.
A TOUGH ONE — Like most, you probably feel the Cats gave away a point in the final seconds in Tampa in a game they deserved to win last week. In actuality it’s a three-point swing: the one Florida didn’t get for the win and the two the Bolts got instead of a regulation loss.
Making it worse is that the points transfer happened with a divisional opponent. And if Montreal stays hot and is for real and Florida and Tampa Bay fight but come up in second and third in the Atlantic, those three points could determine home-ice advantage in a Citrus Showdown in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
But it’s a long season, one in which Florida will surely come out victorious in a game or two when they shouldn’t have. It’s a tough, tough season, too.
Look at Trocheck’s face in the season’s first week. A pair of scabbed over wounds on each cheek, the Pittsburgh native wears black and blue instead of black and gold right now.But Trocheck won battles, scored a greasy goal and lobbied for a high-sticking call Saturday night after one of the abrasions was re-opened and bubbled blood.
Trocheck’s counenance is a canvas showing the determination and grind that comes with a grueling NHL campaign, with scabs, scratches and scar tissue the paint that splatters the canvas. Meanwhile, bruises, muscle pulls, dental issues and lingering body pain will define the days.
And it’s not even Halloween yet.
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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
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
By Bill Whitehead
SUNRISE – Just over one hour into Florida’s season-opener against the Philadelphia Flyers, I tweeted out the following query:
The answer to that question in a bit.
The first game of my eighth season covering the Florida Panthers was unlike any I’ve seen, maybe ever in my tenure watching the Cats skate around at BB&T Center.
And I didn’t even get to experience the joy of a winning dressing room, with music, smiling faces and good moments between players who had combined to put a 7-1 butt-kicking on one of the most hated teams in the Eastern Conference, the Philadelphia Flyers.
Instead I was working the Flyers’ room, which not surprisingly was a complete contrast to the emotions running rampant on the other side of the arena. Our entrance into the visitors’ room was delayed because the players had decided on a players-only meeting.
Yep, you read that right: In Game 2 of an 82-game season – and I cannot under any circumstance fathom that orange-clad bunch playing more than 82 – the players had decided to close the door and call a meeting without first-year coach Dave Hakstol, whose locked stony glare in the post-game presser looked like it was chiseled out of Mt. Rushmore.
The good of the Philadelphia presser: Goalie Steve Mason, who stopped a whopping four of eight shots in 6:46 and made a huge error that led to the fourth goal, was a stand-up guy and faced the tough questions. That isn’t always the case. Some players become “unavailable,” which works against the spirit of the relationship between the media and team. However, the tall netminder took full responsibility, which he surely didn’t have to do. Florida outplayed more than Mason as they blitzed their way to that NHL record-setting four-goal barrage.
The bad: Captain Claude Giroux had nothing to say. Any team leader is expected to step up and explain the bad as well as the good. Last night was the horrible, and Giroux wasn’t around to talk. Keeping Hakstol locked out doesn’t help relations between the former North Dakota coach and the players he’s trying to get to know. Mark Streit, Philly’s lone goal scorer, seemed dumbfounded by the club’s play and couldn’t believe how they were outskated and outworked.
But enough of the Flyers. We’ll learn more about them and their resiliency Monday in their home-opener against the Panthers.
As for the Cats, what can you say about them that the 7-1 mauling doesn’t tell? Well, some interesting things, actually.
First, I was excited about the Reilly Smith trade when it went down, but his showing has me firmly convinced GM Dale Tallon and the Panthers will come out on top – way on top – when the season ends and Smith’s numbers are put up beside Jimmy Hayes’s, whom Tallon shipped to the Boston Rebuild. That second goal alone on the power play was a slick move Hayes couldn’t dream of pulling off – puck-handling dexterity and a quick flip for a 2-0 lead.
Speaking of the power play, it was a shocking surprise, and improvement in special teams is mandatory if the Cats want to be a special team and play games after April 9. Florida was 3-for-7 in their well-structured time with the man-advantage. The spacing of players displayed a scheme that wasn’t evident last year. The passing was quick, crisp and tape-to-tape, unlike what we’ve seen most seasons.
Finally, the hard-nosed hustling of Vincent Trocheck, playing in his first season-opener with the Cats, led to a career four-point night. On Florida’s first marker of the season, he sprinted and read Jussi Jokinen’s long flip on Steve Mason better than Philly defenseman Evgeny Medvedev did, then beat Mason five-hole.
He returned the favor on the fourth goal when he hustled again and snookered Mason with a steal of a terrible pass from behind the Philly goal. Jokinen then tapped in Trocheck’s shot that caromed off the post. All I’ve seen and heard from hockey insiders is how Trocheck does the little things well – gritty, keeping pucks alive in the zone, winning battles and doing everything to come out on top. Those two goals illustrated that skill and hockey sense.
As for the aforementioned Twitter question, the answer is both. I don’t think anyone will mistake Philadelphia for a playoff team; they’ll more than likely be lumped in with Buffalo, Carolina, Toronto, New Jersey and maybe Boston as clubs more interested in the NHL lottery format rather than the first-round playoff schedule.
Also, these Panthers set the bar high on Saturday – and they set it way up there with some help. They smelled blood early and rode the emotional boost of an enthusiastic crowd, which the coaches and players referenced post-game, so the Flyers were caught in a buzzsaw of sorts that they didn’t expect, and everything just got out of hand.
Frankly, it wasn’t a typical outing for either team.
If it were a heavyweight championship fight, the game would’ve been stopped on a TKO and all 19,434 fans would’ve filed out at 6:46 after Jokinen netted the fourth goal. Then we in the media wouldn’t have had to worry about deadline too much.
In the end, it’s just one game. One of 82. The only one for Florida in the first week of the NHL season. Likely the only time they’ll win by a six-goal margin.
But what a refreshing, rewarding win it was.
Follow Bill on Twitter@BillWhiteheadFL and in Treasure Coast newspapers at TCPalm.com
By Bill Whitehead
SUNRISE – Wednesday morning – and perhaps it was really Monday night – could have been better for Florida Panthers forward Jimmy Hayes.
Hayes, tied for fourth in team scoring with nine points, was one of the last Panthers to head off the ice at BB&T Center, strolling in hot and sweaty along with defenseman Colby Robak, as Florida wrapped up morning skate in preparation for its game against former Southeastern Division rival Carolina.
The extra skating meant the pair would likely be scratched for the 7:30 game against the Hurricanes (6-11-3). Coach Gerard Gallant said Scottie Upshall (lower body) would likely be out “a week for sure” due to his hard hit into the boards Monday night. Upshall was wearing a walking boot Tuesday. Derek MacKenzie, who felt flu-like Tuesday, was expected to play.
Gallant suggested Hayes’ potential scratch stemmed from effort.
“He’s a guy who sat in the stands the first few games, and he’s played hard for us,” said Gallant. “But we’ve got to keep on Jimmy and make sure he’s working. He’s a big guy. When he’s effective, he skates hard and moves his feet and is an important guy for us.”
And when he’s not moving those feet anchoring his mammoth frame?
“Everybody’s different. Some guys you have to push them a little harder,” Gallant said. “For me, I talk to Jimmy quite a bit and say, ‘When you’re playing well you’re moving your feet.’ These big guys look lazy out there at times…We keep telling him, ‘You’re a good hockey player and a goal scorer. Get to the net, move to the net and make sure you’re working hard.’
“He’s working hard, and he’s a good kid. We like what we’re seeing from him. Goals are scored around the blue paint. When you work hard to get there and you’re a big-bodied guy and tough to move, you’ve got to pay a price to score goals.”
Hayes is tied with Brad Boyes in points (9) despite having played in only 13 of the 19 games for the Panthers (7-6-6). Jussi Jokinen leads with 12 points, followed by Nick Bjugstad and rookie Aaron Ekblad with 11 each.
Hayes, originally drafted by Toronto, and teammate Dylan Olsen, were traded to Florida last Nov. 14 in a deal that sent Kris Versteeg back to Chicago. Hayes was playing in Rockford (AHL) at the time but saw the opportunity in Florida.
“It was a new team and a chance to establish myself. I’m grateful and happy for that opportunity. I feel like I’m a full-time NHLer now and starting to contribute the way I want to. It’s good not to be the guy walking around on eggshells not sure where he’s going to be every day. I never say I’m complacent, but it’s good to have a role on an NHL team,” said Hayes, who missed six of Florida’s first eight games in October.
The Boston College alum said he knows he has to play near the blue paint.
“It’s where I’ve been my whole career being 6-foot-5, so I just had to take hold of (the spot) as a pro. Not many guys go there and stuff, so I was able to establish a spot there,” he said.
Vincent Trocheck and Tomas Fleischmann, both scratched Monday, are expected to be in the lineup in place of Hayes and Upshall, while Olsen replaces Robak.
Follow Bill Whitehead on Twitter @BillWhiteheadFL and in Scripps newspapers online at TCPalm.com