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!
|Aleksander Barkov, Sean Bergenheim and Brad Boyes have been some of the Panthers best players this season (Getty Images).|
It's been quite a turnaround for the Panthers. After winning just three of their first 18 games, the Cats have been one of the league's better teams since.
Veterans like Brad Boyes, Sean Bergenheim, Scottie Upshall and Tom Gilbert have been key to the resurgence. Boyes and Gilbert were late pickups in training camp while Bergenheim and Upshall are both healthy and playing the type of hockey they're capable of playing.
All of it has been made possible due to the system, structure and overall environment created by coach Peter Horacheck. He is a good communicator and there is absolutely no confusion about the way he wants his team to play. That goes a long way towards fostering a winning attitude.
Whether it's all enough to overcome the poor start to the season remains to be seen but the setup for next season is taking shape. The Panthers have some key elements in place, mainly at the center position. Nick Bjugstad, Aleksander Barkov and Drew Shore are all young, have skill and have shown their ability.
There are many questions to be answered in goal, on defense and on the wings. The Panthers have numerous free agents to make decisions on. Will that happen during the season? Will the team make moves at the deadline to make a playoff push if they're close enough? Will the Cats make deals with an eye on next season? All these are questions that remain to be answered and many are tough decisions.
With owner Vinnie Viola declaring the Panthers will be a major payroll player spending in the upper threshold of the salary cap, things will be very interesting moving forward. This team is not that far from being a legitimate playoff contender.
The race for the Calder Trophy is wide open this year as we are now into the second half of the season.
The last time a team had back-to-back Calder winners was the Boston Bruins back in 1967-68. Bobby Orr and Derek Sanderson were the two to accomplish the feat, and they turned out alright, with Orr becoming one of the greatest blue liners of all time.
The Flying Finn is currently tied for eighth in rookie scoring with 22 points, seven behind the leader Nathan McKinnon of Colorado who was taken one spot ahead of Barkov in this past summer's draft. Barkov has averaged close to a point a game over the last month and seems poised to have a big second half. The Panthers young gun has taken and won more face-offs than any other rookie and is playing in every situation. Barkov leads the Panthers in scoring and is playing big minutes. He plays against the other team's top lines and he is on the ice late in games to protect leads. He is as good defensively as he is offensively which is something that you just don't see from many 18-year olds.
It will be interesting to see how the rookie race unfolds in the second half of the season. I believe Barkov will be in the middle of the conversation by year's end.
The Panthers' future is filled with promise with loads of young talent and Barkov will be front and center leading the way for years to come. The Calder race is one to watch closely if you are a Panther fan.
How awesome would it be if they are able to accomplish a feat that hasn't been duplicated in 46 years in the NHL?
As 2013 comes to a close, we get ready to turn the page to 2014 and the Panthers are hoping for bigger and better things in the new year. Here's a look at what I am hoping to see for the Panthers in 2014 led by a lot of their Young Guns.
Jonathan Huberdeau to take another step forward and start to emerge as the star that he is destined to become in the NHL.
Aleksander Barkov continues to develop and becomes a dominate two-way forward who will not only score goals but will be a shut down centerman night in and night out.
Nick Bjugstad has already grown by leaps and bounds and I believe he has the ability to be a big-time star. I also hope to see him become a leader on this young Panther team.
Jacob Markstrom needs to prove to everyone that he is the goaltender of the future.
Erik Gudbranson has shown he can dominate physically. Would like to see his offensive game to continue to evolve. He has a a big shot and skates extremely well no reason to think he shouldn't.
For a team to be successful the elder statesman must be consistent in their production.
A healthy Tim Thomas.
Ed Jovanovski to return to the game he loves and Captain this team on the ice.
This Panther team is loaded with potential. Potential is one thing but realizing that potential is something totally different. I am hoping 2014 is the year that potential turns into reality.
Happy New Year!
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…
We have a pretty good sample size of the new coaching staff and the result is a positive one. Peter Horachek, Brian Skrudland and John Madden have taken a team that was ridden with bad habits and mental lapses and have cleaned up a lot of it. It's still a work in progress and can still be frustrating for fans but the hockey IQ has gone up and I expect the team to continue to play smarter, more disciplined hockey moving forward.
Horachek is a straight forward coach that knows how he wants his team to play and tells them in a direct manner that can't be confused by players.
Madden knows the game as well as anyone I've ever been around. He was always somewhat of a player/coach with New Jersey where he won two Stanley Cups. He also won another in Chicago and helped the Panthers win the Southeast Divison two seasons ago. Madden's in-depth knowledge of the center position has been extremely beneficial in the development of young centers Aleksander Barkov and Nick Bjugstad.
Skrudland is another straight shooter. You always know where you stand with the original panthers captain. In addition, he has pride in that Panthers logo, wants this franchise to succeed and was the leader when it was flourishing in South Florida in the 1990's. Skrudland knows hockey works here if the team performs well.
The previous Panthers coaches worked as hard as they could and wanted to succeed badly. Work ethic was never an issue. But it was obviously time for change, the change also falls on the players' shoulders. There are still challenges like the lack of energy to start games. Thats' inexcusable and on player's backs to get right. But Horachek has coached in the ECHL, IHL, AHL and NHL. He is an experienced, smart, disciplined man and knows exactly what he wants from his team.
Keeping lines and defense pairings together has also been helpful in a big way. Chemistry develops between players that are comfortable together and know one another's tendencies. I've enjoyed watching the improved play and there is still room to grow in the mental approach to games. One thing I know for a fact, that mental toughness, reading the situations on the ice and playing smart hockey is being preached every day by a coach and his assistants who know what it takes to win in the NHL.
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.
|Panthers forward Krys Barch drops the gloves against Boston's Shawn Thornton in a game in Boston.|
There has been a lot of talk in recent years about fighting in the NHL. There are some that feel fighting should be banned from hockey. I for one feel that it belongs in the sport and plays an important role.
Here are some reasons I am a proponent for fighting.
1. There has to be an outlet for players when the tempers start to flare up with an opponent. Without fighting I believe the stick work, elbows and dirty checks would increase as these would be the alternatives to punish an opponent without fighting.
2. You have to be able to protect the stars of the league. Without fighting you could target the stars and punish them without the fear of any retribution. I know back when I played if I went after one of the marquee players I would have to answer for it. It made you think twice.
3. A good fight can change the momentum of the game. I know from being on an NHL bench during a fight, it can inspire a team.
4. Players want it in the game. A recent poll of NHL players found that 98% felt fighting should be allowed.
I played in Germany my last couple years of pro hockey where you got kicked out of the game and suspended for the next one if you fought. The stick work was violent in the German league. It was also frustrating when a guy 5'5 would talk trash to you and be allowed to run all over the ice playing with wreckless abandon because he had no fear of any consequences.
Fighting plays an important role in the NHL. It always has and always should.
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.
The Panthers have played better hockey under new coach Peter Horachek. He and his assistants, Stanley Cup winners John Madden and Brian Skrudland have brought a different mentality to the team. A mental approach of high energy and intensity is evident.
The team has still made some unacceptable mistakes defensively but they're becoming fewer and further between. The turnovers that lead to opponents' goals will not be tolerated. The system is one of aggression. More aggressive play in the offensive zone, defensemen jumping up into the play and a north/south style is easy to see. Add in better goaltending and its a recipe that can be successful.
The Panthers have a big hill to climb and the current 5-game road trip presents both a great opportunity and daunting challenge. The Western Conference is better than the East this season. That said, the Cats have held their own against the West with three wins and two shootout losses (3-4-2). (Dallas, Minnesota, Anaheim, Chicago, Edmonton)
Hopefully the new coach will be able to clearly implement his system as there isn't that much time except for a few days for practice. It's ultimately up the the players to bring a strong effort to every shift and play smart hockey. The mental part of the game has been lacking at times but one can see improvement in that area.