It's a big week before the Winter Games break!
With the Panthers returning home after spending seven of the last eight games on the road, including the last four straight, this week sets up to be huge with three games before the “NHL Shutdown” Olympic break.
The Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings, two of the league's "Original 6" franchises return to South Florida. It's the last two home games before the NHL sends their stars to Sochi, each seeking a precious gold medal.
As Atlantic Division rivals, Toronto (Tuesday) and Detroit (Thursday) provide the Panthers with compelling home games. Florida split the first two games in Toronto and have earned six out of a possible eight points through the first four meetings (3-1-0) against the boys from the Motor City.
After Aleksander Barkov’s four-game lower body injury absence, the Cat’s “Killer B” line is re-united, hoping to provide the needed offense. The Brad Boyes, Sean Bergenheim and Barkov trio have combined for 12 goals and 24 points in their last 14 games together.
Toronto comes to town tomorrow as the NHL’s hottest team. They are 10-1-1 in their last 12 games. Led by the NHL’s January 2nd Star of the Month, Phil Kessel, the Olympic Team USA and Maple Leaf sniper invades the BB&T Center having scorched the Ottawa Senators (a hat trick), Panthers (two assists) and the Lightning (game-winning assist) in his last three games.
The injury riddled Red Wings limp into Sunrise currently on the outside of the Eastern Conference playoff window, which Detroit has participated in the last 22nd consecutive and impressive years. Expect both top Wing centermen Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterburg to suit up, fully healed from nagging post-Christmas injuries. Keep an eye on young superstar Gustav Nyquist, Detroit’s multi-talented forward. The 24-year old Swede recorded his first NHL career Hat Trick on Sunday, finishing up his last eight games with 12 points over that stretch. Currently not on the Swedish Team Olympic roster, that could change once the final rosters are frozen.
The Panthers currently sport a 9-11-1 record in the Atlantic Division with two more this week. A .500 inter-division record before the Olympic break would definitely be a welcome sight. Hope to see everyone this week at the BB&T Center before enjoying the Winter Olympics!
Through the first 30-plus games of this NHL season, we have witnessed not one, not two, but three emotional returns of “Franchise” players to their original, or long tenured team, but wearing a different jersey.
Long time Senator’s captain Daniel Alfredsson returned to Canada’s Capital on December 1st as his Detroit Red Wings squared off against “Alfy’s” former teammates, the Ottawa Senators. The script read like a Hollywood sad blockbuster… 17yrs, 1,178 games, 1,108 points, including 100 career playoff points in a Senator jersey, longest tenured captain in the NHL during that time, decorated charity and humanitarian leader, etc, etc. The video tribute, the extended ovation brought back countless memories for all who witnessed north and south of the boarder. And the Great Swede didn’t disappoint, collecting a goal and an assist in the Red Wings win after a self described nervous and unsteady start.
Then last week (Dec. 10), the Calgary Flames mirrored the same accolades to their long time leader, Jarome Iginla. It was strange witnessing “Iggy” tearing up and down right wing on Wednesday night, not wearing the flaming “C” but the Gold and Black Bruin.
The Panthers turned the page on another note in their history after Stephen Weiss, Florida’s all-time leader in games (654) and assists (249) and second with 394 points twirled around the Lexus Rink at the BB&T Center this past Tuesday as a member of the Detroit Red Wings.
I remember Weiss’s Draft Day here in the once called National Car Rental Center, June 23rd, 2001. A scrawny 18-year old Ontario native scampered up on the stage after being selected 4th overall, after Atlanta selected Ilya Kovalchuk, Ottawa grabbed Jason Spezza, and the Lightning mysteriously fell in love with Alexander Svitov.
South Florida fans embraced Weiss, along with Jay Bowmeester, and the agnatic Nate “The Great” Horton as the young guns developed before our adoring eyes. Weiss hustled and humbly led a Cats squad through 10 years, and a mirage of coaches, GM’s and teammates, and made lasting friendships with them all. No. 9 finally tasted playoff action two years ago, as Fox Sports zeroed in on the gapped tooth Weiss smile at the clinching conclusion of game No. 82. Always one to donate his time for charity causes, and promoting the Panther “brand”, Weiss accepted the warm welcome from the Panther faithful this past Tuesday, as “new” young gunners Nick Bjugstad, Sasha Barkov, and Erik Gudbranson led the charge in Florida’s stunning comeback win in the shootout.
Being a sports fan is all about being in the “moment”. We all live in a microwave world, where we want it hot, and we want it now! But these past month’s tributes made us pause, reflect, appreciate, yet ultimately move on. I’m sure all three players will keep a little spot in their hearts from their humbling NHL starts.
I know we do…
Now that we’ve kicked out the last Thanksgiving relative and tossed the last dry leftover drumstick, most NHL teams this week are about to hit the 30 game milestone. One stat that intrigues me — out of the 405 games that have been played this season, 126 have been decided by a shootout.
You don’t have to attend Red Deer Jr High to figure out that more than 1 in 4 games this year have not only gone into overtime, but the bonus point has been decided by a select few shooters and netminders.
Who’s the best? The Washington Capitals are 6-2 (also the most shootouts so far). Tampa Bay is 3-0, Chicago has won four shootouts, same goes for the LA Kings. Oh, and the Penguins are a perfect 2-0.
On the other short end of the stick, the Devils are 0-4, Panthers 2-4, Ottawa stumbling along at 0-3 and Nashville sporting the same goose egg 0-3.
See the trend? A lot of “bonus” points gobbled up by teams in playoff positions, while others are on the outside, gawking in the frozen window. Through an 82-game campaign, if you said the difference between 11 and 4, and 4 and 11, is a playoff spot, you may go to the front of the class. These are precious points my classmates!
NHL shootout leaders do not necessarily have names like Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos or Randy Moller. Goalies with the best GAA (Goals against average) and save %, don’t always translate to perfect shootout records.
So where’s the logic? Some teams practice the shootout, others don’t. The Cats' Jonathan Huberdeau has the best breakaway “move” on the team. But Huby can’t win it by himself. Coaches, players, owners and media now spend ungodly hours pouring over stats, video and ouija boards.
I heard the Dean of Mathematic Science, he of prestigious Red Deer Community College, recently commissioned an inquiry, gathering puck-head students from Saskatoon to Sicamous to study the “one-on-one” phenomenon. I know one thing’s for sure, this student of the game will remain confused and stuck on the bench.
As I broadcast the Panthers' Western Conference road games, the Cats continue to make strides and improve their overall game. One aspect is the importance of puck poccession and the role of "big center men" in the team's success.
Consistently top NHL teams have three key ingredients:
1) Solid goaltending
2) A puck moving, minute gobbling defenseman
3) Minimum two big centermen
Big centermen control the puck in the offensive zone and ultimately control the game.
In the past, Panthers have struggled with the likes of Jason Spezza (Ottawa), Eric Staal (Carolina), and Evgeni Malkin (Pittsburgh) for example. Throw in some dominant Western Conference "puck hogs" like Jonathan Towes (Chicago), Ryan Getzlaf (Anaheim) and Anze Kopitar (Los Angeles) and you get the idea; big up the middle and you win championships.
Right now the Panthers are creating their own "pillars of puck control". Watch the emergence of the Cat's Aleksander Barkov, Nick Bjugstad, newly acquired six foot, six inch Jimmy Hayes and Shawn Matthias. Along with Drew Shore and Quinton Howden who are gaining strength and experience down in San Antonio, the Panthers should be solid up front, especially in "the middle" for many years.
Just more pieces to the Stanley Cup puzzle. The parts are there folks, enjoy watching them develop.
While the Florida Panthers seek consistency, chemistry, and wins, a couple of early season surprises from inside the organization need mentioning.
Down in San Antonio, the Cat’s AHL farm team, first year pro Vincent Trocheck has caught the eye of everyone. Off one of the most successful Canadian junior careers topped off by last year’s 50 goals and OHL league MVP season, Trocheck continues to impress. The Pittsburgh, PA native and third round draft pick (64th overall) in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft has recorded five goals and 11 points through the Rampage’s first nine games.
The smallish forward (5'11, 180 lbs) could be up to the big club before Mrs Moller picks out the Thanksgiving turkey. Highly competitive, Vinnie the “points machine” Trocheck has to be the Panther’s #1 prospect not in the NHL.
In Florida, Panther’s forward Jesse Winchester was considered just another “filler” in training camp, likely headed to Texas to lead the young prospects in San Antonio this year. After four up and down seasons in Ottawa, a suffered concussion, and last year bouncing around Finland like a lost reindeer, Winchester showed up in South Florida in early in September, determined to make the team. The Colgate University grad spent his 30th birthday early (born a day later) October 3rd celebrating the Panthers opening night win in Dallas.
Fast forward to early November, and lo and behold, Jesse “The Bandit”, is tied for second on the team with 3 goals, is fifth with 27 shots, and one of Coach Dineen’s most trusted penalty killer and defensive forward.
Confidence and competitiveness, Trocheck and Winchester, two reasons why we “the fans” root for all sports individuals, not just the stars.
The Panthers “dip” into the NHL free agent “pool” has resulted in immediate dividends early this 2013-14 season.
Whether it be; the Collective bargaining agreement (CBA), team imposed salary caps, youth movement or compliance buy-outs, a lot of quality NHL players, in all positions, found themselves without a team late in the off-season and early in fall training camps. Panthers GM Dale Tallon aggressively signed/invited a handful of players, and has hit the jackpot on most, if not all of them.
Starting in goal, the decision to invite, and then the ultimately signing of two-time Vezina Trophy winner and Stanley Cup MVP Tim Thomas after the All Star’s self imposed “year-off sabbatical” brought skepticism around the circuit, but Timmy has been nothing short of spectacular in goal, staring in three of his six appearances, displaying his “battle at all costs” attitude and play.
Both Tom Gilbert and Matt Gilroy have fit in nicely in Coach Dineen’s blue line brigade, specializing in power play offence. Utility forward Jesse Winchester has proven his worth with aggressive penalty killing, fore checking, and face-offs. And where would the Cats be without “hired gun”, former 40-goal scorer Brad Boyes? He leads the Cats in goals, scoring chances, and salted away the Panthers shoot out win Saturday night against the Minnesota Wild with a nifty back hand move in the shootout.
The Panthers “Blueprint” is still based on the young guns like Jonathan Huberdeau, Erik Gudbranson, Aleksander Barkov, and others, but the decision to add immediate help through free agency to allow their other top prospects to develop further in the AHL will pay off down the road. That plan by Dale Tallon and company will be an exercise other teams will adopt in the near future. Welcome to the new NHL.