|Minnesota forward Nick Bjustad (University of Minnesota)
It was a tough weekend for the Panthers prospects that were looking to win an NCAA National Championship.
Seven Panthers prospects had a chance to do so but by Saturday, their dreams of winning that title came to an end and the upstart Yale Bulldogs were the cause for four of them.
Seeded fourth in the West Region and 15th overall in the tournament, they took out two of the NCAA's most prestigious programs in back-to-back days and will have a chance to play for a National Championship if they beat UMass-Lowell in the semis on April 11.
First it was Nick Bjugstad, Kyle Rau and the second ranked University of Minnesota that were shocked by the Bulldogs. The underdogs held a 2-0 lead after two periods before Minnesota tied it up with two third period goals (Rau assisting on the first). It didn't take Yale long to rebound in overtime as they forced a turnover behind the net and scored just nine seconds in to send the Gophers home.
"This is one of the best years of my life, one of the best group of guys I’ve ever been with," said Bjugstad to the media following the game. Florida's first round pick (19th overall) in the 2010 draft had one of Minnesota's best chances in the first 40 minutes, sending a backhanded shot from a sharp angle off the goaltender and off the post, wide. Having made the decision to return to chase a title, he was asked about his future. "I don’t even want to think about it right now. I get choked up thinking about it."
North Dakota scored two third period goals to come back and defeat Niagara in their first round and looked good through forty minutes as Hobey Baker finalist Corban Knight gave them a 1-0 lead less than eight minutes in against the Bulldogs. Yale would not be deterred as they exploded for four third period goals in a 4-1 victory to win the region and spoil Knight and Rocco Grimaldi's chances at a title.
In the East, defending champs Boston College along with 2012 first round pick and freshman defenseman Mike Matheson were no match for Union College, falling 5-1. Wisconsin (Ed Wittchow) fell to UMass-Lowell 6-1 in their opening game Friday while Denver and Sam Brittain fell 5-2 to New Hampshire in the same region, although Brittain did not see any action for the Pioneers.
The Frozen Four will see two four seeds, Yale and St Cloud St. (who beat Notre Dame and Miami (Ohio) by a combined 9-2) face-off against two top seeds in UMass-Lowell and Quinnipiac respectively with the winners facing off in the Championship Game on April 13.
|Panthers forwards Shawn Matthias and Peter Mueller celebrate Matthias' third period goal to tie the game at three against Buffalo (Getty Images).
Looking for a spark to fire up the Panthers offense, head coach Kevin Dineen put the Panthers hottest scorer of late (Shawn Matthias, seven goals in 14 games entering Thursday night) along with two other players looking to get back on track (Jonathan Huberdeau and Peter Mueller) and the line combo worked to perfection.
The trio found chemistry early as Matthias scored 3:28 into the game off a rebound as Huberdeau picked up the second helper. Mueller would get in on the action later as he beautifully fed Matthias to tie the game at three then Huberdeau to tie the game at four in the third period. As a line, the three combined to record six (3-3) of the Panthers 11 points.
"The Matthias line popped last night," said Dineen following an optional practice on Friday. "Those guys got some points. They were for the most part responsible on D."
What really seemed to impress Dineen was that they did it against the opponent's best. They combined for 15 shots on the night while averaging over 17 minutes of ice time.
"(That's) the line that's recognized by their opponent (as the top line)," said Dineen. "So they're playing against some top pairings but obviously they're off to a good start. That was a good showing by them last night."
Game 2 against New Jersey figures to be a much tougher task Saturday night with the Devils employing a notoriously tough trap system.
|Defenseman Ed Jovanovski (Getty Images)|
Named the team's captain at the beginning of the season, Panthers defenseman Ed Jovanovski really didn't get a chance to lead on the ice as he faced a nagging hip ailment throughout.
That injury will cost him the rest of the season as the team announced that he'll undergo season-ending hip surgery on April 5th.
For Jovanovski, he was only able to play six games before deciding to undergo surgery. He played five games to begin the season before leaving the game in Tampa Bay January 29 after an open ice hit. He missed 22 games before coming back to play on March 16 against the Islanders. He attempted to skate in several different sessions but after not getting any better, he decided to go through with surgery.
“Over the last few weeks, I would imagine, discussions with doctors and the team trainers and all of us together," said Panthers GM Dale Tallon when asked about the surgery decision. "Obviously, it’s Jovo’s decision. He’s the one that has to make the final call on that. Nobody knows his body better than he does.”
For Florida, it's been a tough season as Jovanovski is the fourth player to have season ending surgery. That list includes Sean Bergenheim who has missed all season with a lower body injury, Stephen Weiss (wrist surgery, missed last 13 games) and Kris Versteeg (knee surgery, missed last eight games). Tallon can only joke about the situation in front of them.
“Yeah, it’d be nice to be a surgeon," said Tallon. "It’s never easy. It’s been a tough year for all of us, but we’ll get through it and we’ll look forward to moving on and getting better.”
Despite the season-ending surgery and Jovanovski's age (36), Tallon truly believes that the warrior that the defenseman is, he'll be back next season and leading the Panthers once again.
“I know Jovo will do everything in his power to get back to playing," said Tallon. "That’s what he’s all about. I hope it all works out for him. It’s never easy, but if anybody can do it, it’ll be Jovo.”
Finally home. After playing a season-high five-game road trip in which the Panthers won the first two games before falling short in their final three, Florida returns home as they host the Buffalo Sabres Thursday night.
While in the game up until the very end against New Jersey (2-1), NY Islanders (3-0 with two late empty net goals) and Toronto (3-2), the Panthers will look to continue their play from the road. Just finish in the win column.
"It didn't finish the way we wanted the road trip to," said Panthers head coach Kevin Dineen following Florida's morning skate at the BB&T Center. "We played some solid hockey for stretches out there and we want to bring that home. That's important for us."
Goaltender Jacob Markstrom figures to get the start as he was the first one off the ice and Dineen was quick on words to describe the goaltender's play of late. The 23-year old has stopped 139 of 145 shots (.959 SV%) in the four games he played on the recent road trip.
"You can say a lot of things," said Dineen about Markstrom when asked about his play. "He's given us a chance to win every night."
Also in the lineup will be fellow 23-year old, TJ Brennan, who was a healthy scratch in the last game against Toronto. The blueliner will get a chance to skate against the team that he was drafted by and played with up until being traded to the Panthers on March 15.
"TJ's been fine. He's got a heavy shot," said Dineen. "We're having discussions on the way we play in certain situations but TJ's everything we expected that he would come in and be able to fill a roll.
"He's in a situation where we have seven D and we have a decision to make. He was a healthy scratch but he'll be in against his old team."
One injured player that is close to returning is enforcer George Parros (upper body). He missed the entire road trip but skated with the team Thursday.
"He won't play tonight but we're hopeful that he'll be fit enough to play Saturday," said Dineen.
Projected Lines vs Sabres
Projected D Pairs vs Sabres
Projected Goaltenders vs Sabres
|Forward Jon Rheault scores his second of the game against the Grand Rapids Griffins on Nov. 2, tying the score at two. San Antonio went on to win the game 3-2 to start their four-game home stand (San Antonio Rampage)
Everyone that spoke following the games over the weekend discussed how important it is to get off to a fast start.
Obviously it didn't happen the first couple of games this season as San Antonio was 2-4-1 but two games into their home stand, winning games the right way (defensively stifling opponents and getting team efforts), hopefully has the Rampage on the right track.
For head coach Chuck Weber, this story seems to be a recurring theme. One that he hopes his team is past this season.
"We talked about this last year. For some reason it takes a little while for the system to sink in," said Weber. "I don't know why. It's part of my coaching career that way. Most teams I've been with, we've been .500 to start the year and kind of go from there."
With veterans like captain Nolan Yonkman and fellow blueliner Tyson Strachan along with forwards Greg Rallo, Andre Deveaux and JF Jacques among others, Weber sees that the team seems to be grasping the system a little earlier this season.
"I think we're doing a better job in the offensive end as well (besides the defensive end)," said Weber. "Close support on pucks. Taking away time and space and playing with our sticks on the ice all over the ice which is creating turnovers and opportunities."
A slow start last season that went deep into November almost cost the Rampage a chance at the playoffs as they had to play lights out just to play catch up and then earn the sixth seed on the last day of the regular season. They're hoping they don't have to do that this season.
"We need to get the points," said forward Eric Selleck who netted the game-winner late in the third period on Friday against Grand Rapids. "We got off to a bad start last year and we couldn't do it again."
"Two points every game (are) on the line," said goaltender Dov Grumet-Morris following the Rampage's most recent game, a 2-0 win over division rival Oklahoma City. "We need those points."
|Forward Jon Rheault and goaltender Dov Grumet-Morris celebrate San Antonio's fourth straight home win.
CHUCK WEBER POST-GAME
DOV GRUMET-MORRIS POST-GAME
ALEX PETROVIC POST-GAME
ROBAK ADDS INSURANCE
It was a second straight strong game from the Rampage and they did it against some top notch talent.
Oklahoma City boasted a team littered with talent across the board. Topping off former first round picks included a line combination of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (1st overall, 2011), Taylor Hall (1st overall, 2010) and Jordan Eberle (11th overall, 2007).
And although it was probably a combination of OKC playing three games in three nights with the Rampage off Saturday and facing top talent like that, San Antonio was up to the challenge as the defense throttled the visitor's attack from the start.
San Antonio found a lot of success keeping OKC to the outside and making Dov Grumet-Morris' job between the pipes relatively easy (27 saves) as he picked up his second shutout of the year.
"I thought our team defense was fantastic," said head coach Chuck Weber. "We track what we call shots in the house which is in that slot area. We didn't give up a shot in that area tonight. I thought we did a good job keeping them to the perimeter."
"We did a good job of forcing most of their shots wide so they were coming down the wing trying to create offense from the wing. Secondary opportunities from behind the net and our team did an excellent job keeping the puck out of the middle in our defensive zone," added Grumet-Morris who now has an eye-popping 1.19 goals against average in five games on the season. "That always gives you the odds in your favor."
Playing against the Barons, Weber did notice that his guys were especially prepared for the task at hand.
"Of course you want to be able to play well against guys that are for the lack of better terms considered super stars in the National Hockey League because that shows you belong, said Weber. "So yeah your guys are sometimes going to be dialed in a little more with their focus and I thought we were."
Defenseman Alex Petrovic, who scored the Rampage's first goal of the game midway through the second which stood up as the winner agreed with his head coach.
"The last time we played them, we knew they were obviously very skilled moving the puck a lot quicker than most teams," said the blueliner who netted his first pro regular season goal. "We had to come out hard. I thought we did a great job...Our defense was phenomenal today and our power play was going with two goals."
Two strong games from the Rampage blueline to start off a four-game home stand.
|Forward Eric Selleck scores the game-winner with 3:12 left in the third period.
Trailing by two not even 10 minutes into the game and coming off a road trip in which they picked up one out of a possible six points, the Rampage were staring at another tough situation.
Instead of packing it in, they fought back and took it to the Grand Rapids Griffins with a gutty effort that found them come back with three unanswered to earn a 3-2 victory.
For head coach Chuck Weber, it was nice to see his team respond to the pressure as his squad challenged themselves to be better prior to the game.
"We've been talking about work ethic all week. We made some tweaks to some system stuff," said Weber following the game. "We just talked about winning more races to pucks in our zone, the neutral zone and the offensive zone. We have to be a team that outworks other teams and I think the guys showed that tonight."
Looking for a response from his team, and his veterans especially, everyone seemed to step up their games. All four lines attacked the Griffins after getting down by two and Jon Rheault netted two (one in the first and a shorthanded beauty in the second) to tie it at two before Eric Selleck netted the game-winner with less than four minutes to play in the game, giving the home fans something to cheer about.
"Our mindset was no matter what happened to stick to the course. It's a long 60 minute game so we knew if we get down two, we can still battle back," said Selleck. "We had some good efforts from a lot of guys...We just took it to them."
"I think that's exactly what we needed," echoed Rheault to Selleck's comments. "Obviously we were all pretty upset with the way we played last weekend and to show that we could come back against a team like that, down 2-0, I think that's a great confidence boost for us and something to build off of in the next couple of games here."
While Weber was happy with his squad's performance, he was impressed with the way his starting netminder kept his composure after giving up two early goals. Jacob Markstrom picked up his second win of the season by stopping 24 shots along the way.
"I was really happy for Marky tonight. He really struggled in Chicago and it was a really gutty bounceback effort," said Weber. "(I) couldn't blame him on the two goals early, and I was really proud of the way he responded tonight. I thought he showed a lot of maturity in his game and I thought he stuck to it. He could have had a blow up or whatever thinking it was bad luck but I thought he showed a lot of maturity in his game tonight and battled through it."
The Rampage look to build on their momentum from the game when they take on Oklahoma City on Sunday.
"Obviously we lost our last four (heading into the game)," said Selleck. "We need to get the points. We got off to a bad start last year and we couldn't do it again. This was a huge win to get us back on track."
|Rampage players go through their morning skate on Friday at the AT&T Center.|
Attending the morning skate Friday, head coach Chuck Weber put the team through a quick fast paced skate before sending the team off the ice. Heading into the game, San Antonio starts a four-game home stand in which they look to improve on their 2-4-0-1 record.
It's a battle of two different styles Friday night as the Rampage's focus is more on defense (netminder Dov Grumet-Morris has been great in four games of action, posting a 1.49 goals against average and .953 SV%) while the Griffins love to score at will (almost 3.5 goals a game in first seven). It will be interesting to see if it opens up or stays a low scoring game.
Spoke to a couple of players already for future stuff including former first rounder Quinton Howden who is adjusting in his first full pro season.
If the Panthers hope to win their second straight division crown next year, they'll certainly be in for some extremely tough sledding when it comes to facing the rest of their rivals.
A little over an hour into the draft and two of their division foes improved themselves immensely, especially along the forward ranks, as they made blockbuster trades.
First the team that finished second in 2011-12 got things started as the Washington Capitals sent forward Cody Eakin and a 2012 second round pick to Dallas for center Mike Ribeiro. The play-making forward has sick hands as evidence by his almost 400 assists over his 12-year NHL career. He has 560 points (173-387-560) in 737 career games.
The first stone was cast in the battle for Southeast Division supremacy.
The Carolina Hurricanes would not be outdone as they made a trade with the draft hosts, acquiring versatile center Jordan Staal, team captain's Eric's younger brother. Stuck playing third fiddle behind superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Jordan still provided offensive punch while shutting down opposing teams offenses as he has posted 248 points (120-128-248) in 431 games over six NHL seasons.
Talk about saying game on to the competition. 2012-13 just got all the more difficult.
It's been a pretty consistent schedule for the Panthers over the last several years: beginning of the season play mostly on the road and end of the season play mostly at home.
The Panthers play 20 games at the BankAtlantic Center in the final two and a half months of the 2012-13 season. Released today by the league, the schedule sets up nicely for Panthers fans as long as the team can continue it's success from last season.
To get there though, they'll have to go through several difficult parts of the schedule early on.
Two of those stretches come within a three week span as Florida makes two cross-country treks to play two three games in four nights stretches.
The first begins with a trip to Western Canada. Beginning on November 13, they'll be in Vancouver to take on the President's trophy winning Canucks. Two days later they'll slide over to Calgary before taking on the Oilers the following night. Edmonton, poised to make the first overall selection for the third year in a row, should be a tough young team this season. The road trip actually finishes up two days later on the 18th with a battle against Division rivals the Washington Capitals.
Florida will then have their annual "holiday feast" which will see them play the Rangers, Red Wings, Lightning, Capitals and Flyers but then it's back out west.
The Panthers will be in Anaheim on December 5 to drop the puck against the Ducks and then travel to take on the reigning Stanley Cup champs Los Angeles Kings two days later before playing their third game in four nights against the Western Conference runners up Phoenix Coyotes.
Six games, eight nights against teams they rarely face after not playing in that time zone for the majority of the year. A tough stretch indeed.