#FlaPanthers Should Need No Motivation

Florida Panthers coach Tom Rowe has an easy job on his hands today: Getting his Cats, who are all over the place with their lines, ready to face a losing Winnipeg Jets team that has already beaten the Panthers.

Last month they lost to Winnipeg, a club that currently grids out as 25th in the NHL in the conference standings.

That should be enough motivation right there for professional athletes: Losing to a bad team. A bad team with a good coach and skilled players, but a bad team nonetheless, especially on the back end.

If Florida isn’t ready to play tonight and comes out sloppy, it will be on everyone — Rowe, his staff and the rest of the staff. Everyone. Florida has been off since Saturday’s solid effort against Dallas, and the approach they took against the Stars is the same one that needs to apply tonight.

Shoot the puck. Every time it’s on your stick, send the frozen rubber toward either Michael Hutchinson (4-7-2, 3.18, .894) or Connor Hellebuyck (14-12-1, 2.76, .908). The latter played adequately in a 6-4 win over Tampa, allowing a pair of late power-play goals to tighten the game.

Florida (16-14-8) lost 4-3 to the Jets in December in Manitoba in a game when Aleksander Barkov, Vincent Trocheck and Reilly Smith scored power-play goals but couldn’t capitalize and earn two points against Winnipeg and Hellebuyck.

Hutchinson beat Vancouver last month in a 4-1 win, stopping 22 of 23 shots. Whether or not he or Hellebuyck is in, the approach should be straighforward: shoot. Newcomer Michael Sgarbossa put a shot on goal in his first Florida shift last week, forcing me to sarcastically say, “Shooting the puck with a good look instead of passing first? Yeah, that won’t play too well on this team.”

Shoot. The. Puck.

Florida put 44 shots on Hellebuyck in their previous meeting and outshot Dallas 22-6 after one period on Saturday. Forty shots on goal should be the benchmark for the Cats, especially against Winnipeg’s shaky netminding. While we’re at it, let’s end the night with SOGs being in the mid 40s.

The worst tact Florida could take is underestimate the Jets (18-19-3), which might be a possibility considering Winnipeg played a fast-paced game versus the Bolts last night. There was almost no neutral zone play as forwards streaked through center ice unimpeded.

Florida must slow down speedy, talented forwards Patrik Laine, Blake Wheeler, Nicolaj Ehlers and Mark Scheifele to take some of the pressure off Roberto Luongo.

Like Florida, the Jets are underachieving as well. The Panthers are four points out of third in the Atlantic Division with a Saturday meeting with Boston lying in wait, while the Jets are three points out of a wildcard spot.

No doubt, both face huge uphill battles of making the postseason, but Florida needs to take care of the business in front of them of beating the Jets instead of thinking about what lies ahead. Then they can worry about Nashville, who will also be playing Tampa the night before they meet the Cats on Friday.

Well rested and coming off a sweet road win in a game where they attacked the Stars early, there’s no reason at all the Panthers should have jet lag against Winnipeg tonight and stink up the joint.

None whatsoever.

** Follow Bill on Twitter @BillWhiteheadFL and in newspapers at TCPalm.com


#FlaPanthers Frustrate #NHLJets as Jagr Line Rolls On

By Bill Whitehead

SUNRISE – While working the Winnipeg dressing room for the AP following Thursday night’s 4-2 win by Florida, allowing the Panthers to keep pace with Boston, I couldn’t help but hear one word tossed about repeatedly by Jets coach Paul Maurice’s club.


“I think frustrating is the word,” said Winnipeg’s Drew Stafford, who scored a goal to tie the game at 2-2 in the third period. “Now is the time we need every point possible. We just need to figure out a way to turn this thing around.”

While Stafford, acquired from Buffalo in the Evander Kane trade, was frustrated by his new team’s shortcomings, much of them on the ice, some in the standings, a good portion of that all came back to Florida.

“They were real stingy in the way they played. The shots were pretty low. There weren’t too many quality chances. They got a couple of breaks on their goals. We just need to show a little more desperation, a little more urgency,” Stafford said.

Standout Winnipeg defenseman Jacob Trouba said, “They’re a good team and play a good game…They were fast and are a big team; they were good in the neutral zone, and I think we kind of lost our speed toward the end there. I mean, it’s a little frustrating, but that’s how it goes.”

And as for goaltender Michael Hutchinson, who started his season so strongly but has allowed seven goals in his last two starts?

“I felt good,” said Hutchinson, who is now part of an apparent growing goaltending problem in Manitoba. “I thought I made some big saves during the course of the game. They didn’t throw many easy saves at me all night. Whenever they shot, they were either shooting for a deflection or it was a good scoring chance.”

What wasn’t frustrating for Florida (30-23-14) were the good moments that happened – and there were many.

The club played from out front or was tied the entire 60 minutes, and didn’t get taken to overtime after relinquishing a late lead against a playoff-caliber team it has been pounded by before. Derek MacKenzie, moved to wing upon Dave Bolland’s return as a fourth-line center, played perhaps his best game as a Panther, and the chemistry between the two resulted in a “Goal of the Year” nominee. Goalie Dan Ellis was good again, which is an observation absolutely no Florida fan was saying one year ago. Florida special teams were excellent, too, killing off both Winnipeg power plays and capitalizing on one of their own three when Brad Boyes went into the blue paint and created real frustration for Hutchinson and unfortunate defenseman Adam Pardy, who own-goaled his goalie.

Then there’s that Jonathan Huberdeau-Aleksander Barkov-Jaromir Jagr line.

At 43, Jagr showed that his experience and perhaps tutelage is paying off big dividends. He should have drawn a penalty in the first penalty when he was grabbed behind the net and had his stick held while clearly having the best chance at getting a loose puck behind Hutchinson. He did draw a holding penalty from Tobias Enstrom in the second period after Boyes’ man-advantage goal 1:42 earlier, giving the Panthers a chance to go up 3-1.

“He might be old, but he’s really good,” said Huberdeau, who recorded two assists. “He’s so good on the ice. We’re all playing simple. He really helps us. He has so many guys on him so it opens us for us.”

Jagr, in the final year of a deal that is paying him $3.5 million this season, has clearly made an impression on the former Calder Trophy winner and the 19-year-old Barkov. The puck-possessing Jagr appears to be the match that has sparked Huberdeau, who struggled mightily last year, and the pass-oriented Barkov, who brilliantly beat Hutchinson for the game-winner by using blueliner Mark Stuart as a screen on a wicked shot that rang off the inside of the left post.

“We’re all pretty strong on the boards,” Jagr said of his linemates. “It’s in our advantage once we’re in the offensive zone and are cycle skating. It’s up to us. (Barkov’s) shot was good.

“He’s a passer first. It doesn’t matter what you tell him, he’s going to pass first. But he had no other option — nobody was close to him — so he shot it. He has a good shot, so it’s good for him. Once we started skated again – not everybody’s young, but we have a young team. Once we skated and played offensive zone…we can beat anybody.”

So on a great night all around for the Panthers against a tough opponent who had thrashed (sorry about that) them 8-2 in Winnipeg, Jagr assessed his new teammates by simply saying, “We can beat anybody.”

If Thursday night was a preview of what lies ahead for Florida’s future, then one more year of Jagr in Panther red might ease some of the team’s own frustration.


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

#FlaPanthers Go for Spectacular Road Trip in Winnipeg

By Bill Whitehead

When the last shift had been skated at Edmonton’s Rexall Place and the Florida Panthers had completed yet another win, an observation came up: “So this is what a really successful road trip feels like.” Florida is 4-1-0 on its current road swing that started in the East and then moved on to Western Canada.

Most of the banter in the BB&T press box before the 6-game cross-country trek began centered on the notion that seven or eight points out of Florida (20-11-9) in some difficult places to play would be a fine trip and allow the Cats to keep their position in the wildcard chase. After the 4-2 victory over the Oilers and with one more contest remaining, I tweeted this:










Now the Panthers have the chance to transform “excellent” into “spectacular” – if they can win Tuesday night in a very tough MTS Centre in Winnipeg to finish the trip. It’s a game I circled as the toughest of the six.

The Winnipeg Jets, the Cats’ former divisional foe, are returning from a 3-game Western swing of their own, having lost to Arizona and splitting shootouts with Los Angeles and Anaheim. Winnipeg collected three points of six and currently occupies the first wildcard berth in the Western Conference with a 21-14-8 mark.

And speaking of the Jets, here’s an admission: I watch them. A lot. After they left Florida’s division and conference, I was still drawn to them for some reason. And having no genuine allegiance to any other club in the West, I viewed them similarly as I did when they were in the Eastern Conference, just without the dislike naturally reserved for divisional rivals.

That said, a Florida win would indeed move the excellent to the spectacular because, frankly, the Panthers haven’t historically pulled off big stretches of road wins, dispatching of opponents from city to city and leaving crowds mostly silent when the goal scorers and stars of the game are announced. Florida has left four of five home crowds filing out quietly, likely complaining about their team but confessing, “You know, that’s a pretty good Florida team.”

So what are the Panthers facing in Winnipeg, the Slurpee Capital of the World?

For starters, they’re facing a healthier squadron of Jets than were available a few weeks ago. Winnipeg has been hit hard by injuries, predominantly on the blue line. Standout young defenseman Jacob Trouba (upper body) is out until next month, while Grant Clitsome (back surgery) is gone for the season. Mark Stuart, Toby Enstrom and Zach Bogosian have all recently returned. Imagine Florida being without five of their six blueliners at one time.

Also on the injury front, electrifying winger Evander Kane – expected to be out until February with a lower-body injury – missed just five games and scored against Anaheim in his return. Dustin Byfuglien is as imposing and dynamic as ever, and Blake Wheeler is a personal favorite who leads in assists (21) and sets up top goal scorers Andrew Ladd and Bryan Little, with 16 each. Former Panther Michael Frolik, who will be a UFA this offseason, is having a strong year as well and has found a role with Winnipeg just as he did in Chicago.

Goalie Ondrej Pavelec, from the same hometown as Frolik, has always been an obstacle for Florida, but the Cats’ biggest concern likely will be 24-year-old upstart Michael Hutchinson, who was minding the net for the ECHL’s Ontario Reign last year. He’s grabbed the No. 1 goalie spot from Pavelec by going 11-4-2 with a 2.00 GAA and a .931 save percentage. With the Czech goalie having played in Anaheim on Sunday, the money’s on the right-handed catching Hutchinson to be in goal versus Florida, though one never really knows how Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice is going to shuffle his backstops.

Winnipeg is 21st on the power play, 10th on the penalty kill, 22nd in scoring, seventh in goals against and 24th in faceoffs. And we all know from those Southeast Division tilts that the MTS Centre is problematic: It’s a small barn, the crowd is often boisterous and the Jets feed off that energy with physical play. A 7-2 drubbing of the Cats there in April of 2013 comes to mind.

The Panthers will need a pretty spectacular effort to move “excellent” to “spectacular,” but they’ve been doing it this whole road trip and most of the season.

It’s just what these Cats do.

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

Aaron Ekblad a Can’t-Miss? Some Think So

By Bill Whitehead

After finally making it home from Philadelphia and slogging through a wet NASCAR weekend working at Daytona, I offer up these little leftovers from the City of Brotherly Love. Hopefully, this will get you in the right mood for Florida’s development camp that opens today.

You’re going to love Aaron Ekblad, Florida’s top pick. And I mean absolutely love. It’s that simple really. I’ve had the chance to talk to him a few times and watch how interacts with the media and fans, and the kid’s a natural. Smooth and articulate, Ekblad’s exactly what this franchise needs: A new face that it can build around, a poster boy for the organization. I chatted with him at Citizens Bank Park, the prospects interview and the draft, and the 18-year-old is extremely likable and will quickly be a media and fan favorite.

But forget about my encounters with him. Everyone I spoke with just swooned over the kid and said the choice at No. 1 by Florida GM Dale Tallon was an easy one. At the ballpark before batting practice while waiting for credentials, one hockey radio host told me Ekblad would be a great player for Florida for 15 years and had no flaws – solid on both ends of the rink and dependable. Don’t even think about trading the pick, he stated. The dropoff from Ekblad to everyone else was too steep.

At the draft I sat beside someone who worked with a junior team that was an Ontario Hockey League rival to Ekblad’s Barrie Colts and had watched him play “a hundred times.” He had nothing but positives to say about Ekblad, particularly when it came to his strong character and physical nature. He added that Ekblad (@EK5Colts) has no cockiness or ego about him, just goes about his business. The same OHL source didn’t have such adoration for Brendan Lemieux, Ekblad’s teammate who was selected No. 31 overall by Buffalo, but that’s for the Sabres to deal with.

I guess the most gloating or ego Ekblad showed at the draft was saying he expected to make the team out of camp and contribute right away, but that’s neither gloating nor ego; it’s confidence that comes with being a premier athlete. And you have to expect that self-assuredness by a No. 1 overall pick.

Just a hunch, but I feel that a year from now Florida fans will all be saying, “Hey, remember when we wanted to trade away No. 1 for a package with Edmonton or Vancouver? Man, glad Dale didn’t do that.”

It was a strong, sure move by the Panthers in choosing what amounted to be the consensus best player in the draft.













Two teams who did really well at the draft — Edmonton and Winnipeg. Skating may be a slight issue with Oilers’ No. 3 pick Leon Draisaitl, but he rates high up there on the maturity and skill level. I spent time with him at the ballpark and prospects interviews, and he couldn’t have been a more pleasant person, taking the moment in stride and speaking with me like he was a close friend. He was an immediate favorite of everyone. Jets’ top pick Nikolaj Ehlers, meanwhile, was a mock draft favorite among message board types. Many fans played the role of Tallon and tried to work a deal that would bring the Panthers the electrifying Ehlers, a roster player or two, and a prospect. It didn’t work out for Florida on either of these kids, but I’ll be watching their development closely and hoping they do well because you can’t help but like them.

Here are a couple of shots I took of Draisaitl (left) and Ehlers (right):













PHInally, Philadelphia fans. What else can you say other than that they never fail to deliver when it comes to derisive behavior? They booed everything from start to finish, regardless of conference affiliation or geographical proximity. The only team that escaped unscathed on Friday was San Jose, but that was because the NHL neglected to acknowledge them during the roll call.

The last chorus of jeers from the night came when a league official shut down the festivities by proclaiming that the first round had ended. The boos rang out loudly at the announcement, which had the feel of “Hey, folks, you don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here.” That’s from The Blues Brothers, and blue, especially that of the New York Rangers, doesn’t play well in Philly.


philly fans

Final point: If you ever get the chance to go to the NHL Draft, you definitely should. It’s a fantastic event and you never know who you’ll run into. The non-Panther highlights were Mike Babcock taking selfies and Joel Quenneville poking in to the Florida media scrum by mistake.

And hey, the Panthers are hosting next year, so you have no reason not to go.

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


Draft Day Arrives, All Eyes on Florida

By Bill Whitehead

PHILADELPHIA – It’s the morning of the 2014 NHL Draft, and there really is a calm before what should be a storm inside the Wells Fargo Center tonight at 7 p.m. It won’t have the ferocity of a Rangers-Flyers’ playoff tussle – imagine that ornery orange-and-blue parking lot full of boozy tailgaters before a game – but the managerial action should be intense tonight.

The looming question, of course, is, “What’s going to happen at No. 1?” During his meeting with the media yesterday at the team hotel, Florida GM Dale Tallon claimed he was 70 percent certain he would make the first overall selection but also said he had received two “intriguing” offers, one “above and beyond” what the organization expected.

In percentages, there’s probably also a 50-50 chance this is just gamesmanship and posturing on Tallon’s part. Maybe a lucrative offer involving a top-pairing defenseman or skilled sniper is out there, maybe not. That’s part of the serve-and-volley that takes place between NHL GMs. Anything less would simply be a GM not doing his part. And a team builder like Tallon, sitting there with the top pick and with the best chance of improving his club, would be remiss not to stir the pot about the most attractive asset in Philadelphia that isn’t the Liberty Bell or a cheesesteak.

Tallon emphasized one point: He knows who he’s taking at No. 1 if he walks up to the podium tonight and uses that pick. It would be foolish of anyone to think there isn’t some consensus within the organization and he’ll go up there in front of a national audience and decide on the spur of the moment. Did he know right after the lottery took place?

“It was not clear cut, but we know who we’re taking,” Tallon said.

Some in the organization obviously liked the Sams – Reinhart and Bennett — while others probably were high on defenseman Aaron Ekblad. There may have been no unanimous choice, but the organization has reached an agreement

This is my third time covering the draft, having attended the Jonathan Huberdeau-producing one in Minnesota and the event two years ago in Pittsburgh when Florida chose Michael Matheson in the latter half of the first round. The former one had plenty of intrigue, the latter not so much. This year’s has the lion’s share of the offseason.

Two reports surfaced last night from credible sources, and it appears – as of this writing around breakfast – that Vancouver, Edmonton and perhaps Winnipeg are interested parties in what Tallon is peddling. The Canucks would love to have a homegrown talent like Reinhart, and it’s rumored that the Canucks have offered 19-year-old offensive-minded winger Hunter Shinkaruk, a roster play and its No. 6 pick for No. 1. That player could be physical defenseman Chris Tanev, a need in front of Roberto Luongo. It also would allow Tallon to make a selection in the range to get a dynamic player like Nikolaj Ehlers or William Nylander, both flashy skaters who have exceptional stickhandling and shooting skills and who can torch blueliners.

“(Nylander’s) really skilled. I saw him in Europe in the under 18s and he was dominant. He had 10 points in two games,” Tallon said. “He’s versatile and can play any forward position and has great speed and skill and eyes. He passes the puck accurately and can score. He’s just an all-around offensive weapon.

“Ehlers has dynamic speed, maybe the fastest guy in the draft with really electrifying skill. It’s another good player in the draft. Everyone said maybe this draft wasn’t that strong, but I disagree.”

So as hard as it is to read Tallon – he plays it very close to the vest – it’s time for some options/predictions, and like Dale, it wasn’t clear-cut for me either. If Florida makes the first pick, I feel they’ll go with Ekblad because it’s a safe, solid pick that most would do and be fine with. It’s the conservative approach.

But let’s face it, Dale Tallon’s not conservative (see 2010 draft), and he’s in a unique situation with the top pick. Therefore, I feel he trades it and descends in the top 10 but not too far.

The first option could be sliding to 3 because, well, Edmonton has to have the No. 1 pick, it’s their recent manifest destiny, right? Or Florida could go to 6 because if nothing else, we know the Cats trade with the Canucks. It’s just what they do. If Florida does the first and moves to 3, they grab Bennett, who had a meeting with the Panthers last night. If the Vancouver deal is struck, expect one of Nylander or Ehlers, depending on which dazzling player Tallon covets more.

You’re in for a treat. Enjoy the show, folks!

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


Earnhardt’s Theory Shows Up in Cats’ Win in Ottawa

By Bill Whitehead

About 15 years ago at Daytona International Speedway, I heard the late great Dale Earnhardt tell a throng of us media types what the difference was between a winning team and a second-tier one. What Earnhardt was basically doing was laying out the blueprint for champions and describing how some teams routinely come up short. Hey, a seven-time champ was talking, so it was well worth the listen to get his perspective.

The salient point of Earnhardt’s theory – and when he held court, he truly was running the show – was that it’s easy to earn championship points when you have a car capable of running in the top five. It’s even easier to hoist a trophy as a race winner, but those days pretty much speak for themselves – a great driver and a super-fast car leaving the competition in the mirrors and racing to the checkers. However, he went on to say that it’s really not what winners do on those memorable days, it’s how they perform in races when they don’t have their best equipment. The true gains, he acknowledged, were when he took a car that should have finished 20th or worse and clawed his way into the top 10, turning a potentially disastrous, championship-ruining day into a respectable one.

Earnhardt was saying it all comes down to how a driver, team or players perform when they don’t have their A game.

Despite riding a 4-game winning streak as the puck dropped in Ottawa against a reeling bunch of Senators, Florida didn’t have their A game early. Florida failed on early offensive chances to beat ex-Cat Craig Anderson, who has struggled like every netminder has for Ottawa. Florida’s defense also put hot goalie Scott Clemmensen in a perilous predicament or two when the Sens put together a couple of 2-on-1 rushes, but Clemmensen was up to the task. When the first 20 minutes were over, Florida had been outshot 14-9, something that hasn’t happened to them often lately.

Though they weren’t playing at the level they did against Washington, Montreal and Toronto, Florida kept grinding. Aleksander Barkov tipped in a shot from Tom Gilbert for the second period’s only goal, and when the horn sounded, Cats’ fans had to like their chances of being tied with the Senators and Anderson (who came in 10-1-1 against his old team) in Ottawa, where the Sens have owned Florida lately.

Florida (14-17-5) took over in the third period, and while I’m sure many will point to Ottawa having playing in New Jersey the night before, the Panthers deserve all the credit and then some because they really had to earn it. They killed off a tripping penalty by Erik Gudbranson, then found themselves on the power play when Jean-Gabriel Pageau high-sticked Dylan Olsen with 4:30 left to play. One of the great mysteries of the game was how Pageau didn’t get a double-minor when Olsen was clearly cut on the forehead and the defenseman went up to the referee to show him. The end result: Gilbert bailed out Florida’s anemic power-play with a blast past Anderson, and Kopecky later put the game away with the club’s first shorty this season.

Simply, the Panthers fought and fought all night in Canada’s capital – through the fatigue of a weary road trip in bitter cold, against failed opportunities, against an overturned goal and a missed penalty by Ottawa that would have sealed a win with another goal or at least taken more time off the board. Despite all of that, the Panthers won their fifth straight, have taken seven out of eight, and certainly arrived in brutally freezing Winnipeg with the warmth of confidence to rely on.

They overcame and persevered in Ottawa.

That’s what Earnhardt was describing and what the Cats were able to do.

The Florida Panthers: The Art of Regaining Respectability

By Bill Whitehead

During Florida’s first intermission break in Toronto, I ventured over to the Buffalo broadcast of the Sabres’ game against Winnipeg, whom the Panthers play Friday night to end the Cats’ 4-game Canadian road swing. While showing the clip of Tomas Fleischmann’s roof shot past James Reimer in the first period, the announcer wrapped it up by saying the Cats were “trying to get back to some form of respectability.”

I know what Rodney Dangerfield would’ve said to that statement, but I’ll just say, hey, this organization is always being slighted.

While an argument could be made that it’s ironic that Buffalo, owned by deep-pocketed Terry Pegula, was critical of Florida, the better story is the play of these Panthers, who at 3-11-4 were pretty much left for dead following a 4-3 Sunday loss to the Rangers in Madison Square on Nov. 10. Two months later, this story has taken a serious turn for the better and has made everyone in the NHL take notice. Eventually those folks in Buffalo will figure it out or look at the standings and see the team that had been one spot above them in the standings is now two notches ahead, and if they do a little math they’ll discern that the Panthers, now 13-17-5, are four points behind eighth-place Carolina.

A glance at the Eastern Conference standings also shows how hot the Panthers have been of late. From sixth-place Detroit on back — basically the group the Cats are fighting with for a playoff spot — no club has as many wins in its last 10 games than Florida, who is 6-4-0 after winning four straight and six of its last seven. Slumping Detroit is 3-5-2, Toronto is 3-7-0, Carolina and Philadelphia are 5-3-2, Ottawa is 4-4-2, the Rangers and Devils are 4-5-1, and Columbus is 5-4-1. That’s sixth through 13th in the conference, with the Cats bringing the heat from the bottom.

On the current road trip, the Panthers have enshrouded Canada like some bitter Siberian cold front. Florida dispatched of its neighbor to the north’s most heralded team on Sunday (Montreal) and did the same to its most beloved (Toronto) on Tuesday, but it all started after Florida lost to the Senators 4-2 last month. They were the better team in both of those games just as they were against Washington at BB&T Center last Friday when the Cats beat the Caps in the shootout’s tenth round. Really, the Caps should be thrilled they came out of that affair with a point.

How have the Cats done it? First, with good goaltending, as Scott Clemmensen has been a more than ample replacement for Tim Thomas, who has now been injured three separate lengthy times (a concern?). And with a defense that has been responsible in front of its goaltender and done a fantastic job with breakout passes and blocking shots. Then there’s the offense, which has been spearheaded by the B Line – Bergenheim, Barkov and Boyes – and supported by standout play from everyone in home red and road white, alphabetically from Barch to Weaver and every Panther in between. They’ve also done it lately without arguably its best young offensive player (Jonathan Huberdeau), its grittiest (Jesse Winchester) and its starting goalie (Thomas). Interim coach Peter Horachek and his coaching staff deserve plenty of credit, too, because something has definitely gotten through to the team since the staff took over — and it’s working.

We’ve listened to the excuses all year long after a Cats’ victory: “We weren’t prepared for the Panthers” or “We underestimated Florida.” We heard it in Vancouver and Detroit, plus countless others. That excuse is starting to lose its punch. In the NHL, a hockey club had better be prepared to battle for at least 60 minutes, maybe more, and no team should be lightly regarded. And if teams really find it necessary to play the Underestimation Game, maybe they should start with Buffalo and its fat bankroll in the East and Edmonton and its team of No. 1 picks out West. Those two are much better candidates than the Panthers.

And as for “trying to get back to some form of respectability”?

The Cats have moved well beyond that point.