On Wednesday night, the Panthers had two finalists for individual NHL awards for their work during the 2011-12 season.
While Dale Tallon failed to pick up the General Manager of the Year award, finishing second to St Louis GM Doug Armstrong, defenseman Brian Campbell did have more luck as he became the first Panthers award winner with regards to voting in franchise history.
As you know Campbell edged out Edmonton Oilers forward Jordan Eberle and NY Islanders foward Matt Moulson to become the third defenseman all-time to take home the Lady Byng trophy. The award is given to the player that adjudged to have exhibited the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability.
In becoming the first defenseman since 1954 to take home that prestigious award, Campbell bucked the trend.
"It definitely is a great honor," said Campbell to nhl.com following the Awards ceremony in Las Vegas. "There's a lot of people that I looked up to and there's elite, elite level players that could have had a chance and maybe at some point should have won the award, but I'm glad that we broke the trend as a defenseman and we'll see where it goes from here."
While Campbell was the big winner, other Panthers were showed some respect from the voters for strong seasons. Tallon's 88 points were 31 less than the award winner Armstrong. Head coach Kevin Dineen also almost made the trip to Vegas, finishing eight points short of topping third place finisher Paul MacLean of Ottawa (89 points). The top three finishers in each category are invited to the awards ceremony. Campbell did receive a vote in the Hart Trophy voting which ended up going to Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin.
And while it's unknown about the Masterton Trophy final tally in which Montreal's Max Pacioretty picked up the award, one has to think that Florida Tomas Fleischmann received support from the hockey writers association.
|Goaltender Jose Theodore (left) missed morning skate leading many to believe that Scott Clemmensen will get the Game 6 start although head coach Kevin Dineen won't rule out Theodore.
Shutting out the Devils in Game 5 to give the Panthers 3-2 series lead, netminder Jose Theodore was missing between one of the two nets for morning skate. Florida called up Jacob Markstrom from San Antonio as a precaution for tonight's big game as Theodore might not be able to suit up.
"Right now (it's) no different than Tomas Fleischmann that's taken off every morning skate. We decided to give Theo the morning off and see where he's at tonight," said head coach Kevin Dineen following morning skate. "He's a little bit tender right now so we'll evaluate as the day moves on to see if he's ready to play or not."
"He's a big part of our team and he's a big piece of where we've gotten today," said defenseman Brian Campbell on Theodore. "We'll see what happens. Hopefully he can go tonight and play but if not, we know we have great goaltending with Scott here."
For Clemmensen, the netminder is excited about the possibility of getting back into the game, having won Game 3 prior to taking the loss in Game 4 of the Series. Having played recently, Clemmensen will be ready and feels there won't be any rust if called upon.
"It's not like I've been on the bench for three weeks," said Clemmensen. I've been playing pretty regularly through the course of the end of the season and the playoffs here. My game is still right there. I don't anticipate there being any rust from the beginning that you have when you stretches without playing games.
"As he should," said Dineen of Clemmensen's excitement for possibly getting back in there. "He's played a couple of games in the series and he's done a good job for us.
"It's no different than what we done up front. We made a few adjustments. We're going to need the whole organization to help us win the series."
That win, which the Panthers hope to get in New Jersey, will be the hardest one of the series. With a Devils team looking to stave off elimination and force a Game 7.
"Playing every other day in this series. Obviously it was good for us to get that third win at home coming into tonight's game," said Clemmensen. "But as it is, I still have to win one more and it's not going to be easy."
|Defenseman Tyson Strachan
The first recall of the post-season, blueliner Tyson Strachan was recalled from the Rampage with defenseman Keaton Ellerby definitely out (lower body) for a pivotal game against the Devils. While a part of St Louis for a post-season, Strachan would make his Stanley Cup Playoffs debut if fellow blueliner Jason Garrison (lower body) is not able to go after testing out the injury in warmups. Garrison has already missed one game due to his injury (Game 4).
"I've spent four games with St Louis but I actually didn't play in any of them," said Strachan following the Panthers morning skate. "We got swept by Vancouver so I've been in the atmosphere but haven't been on the ice. If I get the chance tonight, I'm looking forward to it."
The 27-year old has spent time with the Panthers this season, playing in 15 games while registering three points (1-2-3) so if he does suit up, he should be just fine.
"He's played a regular shift in the NHL," said Cats head coach Kevin Dineen. "If he can do it during the regular season, he can do it in the playoffs."
"I've been playing in a playoff atmosphere down there and obviously it's a step up here but at the same time it's the best time of year," said Strachan. "It's the time of the year we all want to be playing. Just excited."
Strachan and the Rampage just started their first-round on Thursday. The blueliner registered three shots and was a plus-1 as San Antonio edged Chicago 5-4 in overtime.
"There's mixed emotions about that," said Strachan about going from one playoff team to another. "Obviously you want them to be winning down there but at the same time, the chance to be up here and in the Stanley Cup playoffs is a hard one to pass up.
"I'm just excited to be here and help out if they need me."
|Center Stephen Weiss watches Tomas Fleischmann's shot cross the line for one of the Panthers two goals in a 2-1 victory at Bell Centre on Oct. 24th (Getty Images)
"Well seven games left. That equals a playoff series so we still have some work to do," said head coach Kevin Dineen. "All year long we've really kept things as a short term focus and we really haven't looked too far ahead."
With another big two points on the table, Dineen had his focus on the last time the Panthers were in Montreal. It was a gutsy 2-1 win at the end of October. The road trip which also included a last second loss to Ottawa and then another big win in Buffalo helped start a six-game point streak to put the team on the right path.
"We came in here earlier in the year. We had a good solid game, very emotional game. Then we went into Ottawa, lost a real tough one in the last couple of seconds," said Dineen. "We just felt like that really wasn't our defining moment on either side."
Bouncing back from the Ottawa loss and having strung together a good season to date does have the team certainly excited to play the final seven games. Florida looks to end a three-game losing streak with a victory against the Habs.
"There's been a little bit of resilency to our team all year and now that we're down to those final strokes, it's exciting," said Dineen. "I think our guys are really enthused about this last stretch. We've got a tough little swing on the road but certainly an exciting time to be a Florida Panther player and fan."
|Both Kris Versteeg (left) and Dmitry Kulikov (second from left) should be in the lineup as the Panthers host the Sabres for the fourth and final meeting between the two clubs.|
Finally after working out to get back healthy and countless questions by the media on their return, it seems that the Panthers will get two of their charges back for a big contest at the BankAtlantic Center with the Buffalo Sabres.
Asked once again following morning skate, head coach Kevin Dineen announced that both forward Kris Versteeg and defenseman Dmitry Kulikov should be back as long as there are no unseen complications.
"Yeah. They're positive (to go)," said Dineen. "We expect to see both those guys in the swing of things unless things change in the next couple of hours."
Both players couldn't hold back how excited they were to return to the ice following the skate after being told by the media that Dineen said they were a go.
"It's been a long time. I've been looking forward to this to this night," said Kulikov who has missed the last 23 games dating back to January 24th. "I've been looking forward to coming back and help out the team."
"I'm excited to go here," said Versteeg who has missed the last nine games, starting Febraury 28th. "It's been a little while now. I'm definitely ready, more than ready."
With the Panthers winning their last three games and looking to make it a perfect four for four on the homestand, both players are nervous about messing up the flow. They've put a lot of pressure on themselves to not only fit in but to be better than when they left.
"It's a tough time of the year. Every game is like a playoff game," said Kulikov who was fifth on the team in scoring with 24 points at the time of his injury. "You don't want to go into the game and get used to the game. You don't have time for that. You just have to go out there, pick up from where you left off and play even better."
"It's just about going out there and getting a job done on the ice and preparing for the two points and not worrying about easing into the game," said Versteeg. "Getting into the game and trying to be a factor."
Dineen doesn't think the missed time will be a factor, especially in Versteeg's case as the coach compared him to one of tonight's opposition who also missed time with an injury.
"You take a guy like Tyler Ennis who had a long stretch off and he's come back and he's played so well," said Dineen. "I think what happens is there's frustration when you're not able to get into the lineup and you come back with enthusiasm. I think Kris will really add some quality to our lineup."
Adding two more players to the lineup gives the coaching staff plenty of ammo to get the best out of their players. If you want to stay in the lineup, you have to have production.
"When you get a coveted spot in the lineup, your job is to make sure that you make the coaches have a tough decision making every day and how they're going to put their lineup together," said Dineen.
"You want enthusiasm and some kind of production. It may not be on the scoresheet but there has to be a positive effect for every player in the lineup for us to be successful."
That has been going on the past few games and will continue against a Sabres team that has been on a roll of late, going 9-2-3 in their last 14 games to climb into the playoff picture. Currently tenth in the Conference, Buffalo can climb to within one point of idle Washington for eighth place in the East with a win.
"We looked at this as a key stretch and we're still right in the middle of it," said Dineen. "We have to respect our opponent, know we have a team that's coming in that's playing a good stretch of hockey right now and they are surging. It has a great implications in the lineup for us as well as them. It will make for a very exciting game."
|Center John Madden scores his first goal as a Panther against Boston on Thursday night in the second period.
Stealing the puck from former Panther Gregory Campbell just inside the Bruins blue line while keeping the puck in, John Madden started the play and would end it later as he flipped the puck over Tim Thomas, giving Florida a 4-1 lead.
A relieved Madden punched the glass in celebration. The Panthers center finally netted his elusive first goal with the club in his 20th game.
"It felt great. It was a big game but just to score finally," said Madden. "I had a lot of good chances previously in games leading up so it's good to get it off the back and move forward."
"Actually I told him it was about time he scored," quipped forward Stephen Weiss following the game on Madden's goal.
The players and staff could joke about how long it took Madden to score his first goal with the club, but for Madden the goal was a huge. The 38-year old, who signed with the team back on January 4th, has been in and out of the lineup as he has gotten himself back in playing shape after last playing with Minnesota in April.
"I was happy to see Mads get one there," said head coach Kevin Dineen. "I think he's put a lot of effort in to getting back into playing condition right now and that was certainly a big goal and I think there was a lot of happy teammates for him as well."
"It's awesome," said Weiss. "To see a guy like that come in and practice hard the way he's been practicing, in and out of the lineup, a guy that's done what he's done in this league.
"Great to see."
Madden was signed to bring a veteran presence as the Panthers were riddled with injuries. And now with the regular season winding down, he's looked at for his playoff success. The 38-year old has three Stanley Cup championships to his credit and appeared in ten consecutive postseasons prior to last season. He has recorded 43 points in 134 postseason games.
The center thrives on hockey down the stretch as the games mean more.
"These games are so crucial to everybody for that matter," said Madden. "It's not going to change. It doesn't matter if you're the New York Rangers at the top right now, you want to stay there so you have to consistency going or you're us or you're Buffalo climbing your way back up.
"All of the games are big. We have to keep building and looking towards playoff hockey and we have got to start now."
The second period goal will hopefully help get the Panthers fourth-line center going (346 points in 887 career games) as well as the rest of the team onto their ultimate goal: the playoffs. But as the Panthers make their push hopefully up the standings, they know they have to take it one game at a time, starting against Buffalo on Saturday.
"We're just believing in ourselves and moving forward," said Madden. "Regardless of what the rest of the league does. If we get some help here or there that's great but for the most part we're concentrating on what we can control and that's our next game."
|Florida and Boston meet for the fourth time this season. The Panthers are 1-1-1 against the Bruins.
With the Panthers race to the finish of the season in a dead heat for the Southeast Division, Florida has looked at holding off Washington, Winnipeg and Tampa Bay. Trying to keep the top spot in the Division comes with a top three finish in the Conference and home-ice advantage in the opening round.
Entrenched as the third seed for quite some time, Florida actually has a chance to gain ground on the Northeast Division leading Boston Bruins as the two teams face off tonight at the BankAtlantic Center. Boston is just four points (83 points) ahead of Florida in the Conference. A regulation win would give Florida 81 points and leave them two points behind the Bruins with the same amount of games played.
"That's interesting you mention that because we do talk about where our situation is and we do look at this as a four point game," said head coach Kevin Dineen following the morning skate when asked about the battle with the Bruins and gaining ground in the Conference.
"Everybody has been talking about the teams behind us and you never really look at teams ahead of you," said defenseman Mike Weaver. "But we have a chance to gain a few points and eventually move up a spot. We just have to take care of our own game."
"You can't be always looking behind you and I guess when you're in a race, if you're looking behind you then you're always worried about that guy," said forward Kris Versteeg who while he won't play against Boston could be ready to go against Buffalo on Saturday. "But we're trying to look ahead now. Well not now. We've always tried to look ahead, tried to increase our seed in the standings. So far we've done very well and getting close. Now it's just about getting three or four wins together and being consistent."
Boston has struggled of late, having lost their last three games, including dropping a 6-1 decision to Tampa in their last game on Tuesday.
"I know we're playing a, excuse the pun, a bit of a "wounded bear" right now after their game in Tampa," said Dineen. "We know that we're going to have our hands full. This is the kind of games we're going to play down the stretch and I don't think the timing could be any better for us. It will be a great challenge for us."
Despite the struggles of late, Florida knows that they're in for a tough Boston team. Case in point is the 8-0 shutout in Boston on December 23rd, a game that the Panthers coaches and players brought up.
"It's a team that put a pretty good Christmas beating on for us on the 23rd. Sent us on our break licking our wounds a little bit," said Dineen. "Every team has their stretches where you go through droughts. I think Boston's success has come in great bunches and right now it's not happening that way but too much respect for that organization and that coaching staff to know that they won't be readily prepared for tonight's game.
"They're a good team. We found that out when we went into their building (in December)," said Weaver. "They're going to come out hard and we're going to come out hard. We just have to worry about what we're able to do on the ice; the energy and keeping it simple on the ice, just more or less making this a playoff game. For us it is. Every point is so vital to us."
It's all about taking the Bruins game one step at a time in aiming for the victory.
"You can't look five games ahead," said Weaver. "You just have to really concentrate on this game. This game is huge. Every single period, every single shift, every single time you touch a puck. It's going to be like a playoff game. We really have to keep this thing going. We've won the last two games but we haven't been up against an opponent like Boston. It's going to be a really huge test."
Kris Versteeg, Dmitry Kulikov and Scottie Upshall all went through the morning skate and stayed on for more work following the end of the practice. Both Versteeg and Kulikov keep getting closer to a return.
"Closer and closer so they got a pretty good skate today," said Dineen. "We'll see how that plays out on Saturday. We're encouraged by the progress of both those players are making."
The Panthers have missed the players and a return would be a huge boost down the stretch.
"Kuli was so impressive at the beginning of the year," said Dineen. "He's a young player. He shows a great deal of maturity and stability. He's been sorely missed so we're excited about his imminent return."
"I think the rest sometimes is nice on the whole thing if you're going to take a positive," said Versteeg. "But when you see everyone else there and you want to get back out there and help them as much as you can, it's tough. Right now I think the rest is a positive."
For Jack Skille, the news continues to not be as promising.
"I don't think Jack is going to play again this season," said Dineen. "I would be very surprised if he comes back. I think we're just waiting for the final. When the player goes through the process of exploring all opinions and options but I think our conversations about Jack would be anything that we would consider realistic for quite aways from months away."
|Mike Santorelli celebrates one of his two goals against Toronto on February 28th. The Panthers won 5-3 at Air Canada Centre.
While Florida is looking to stay ahead of the rest of the Southeast (Washington also plays on Long Island), Toronto is trying to stay in the playoff hunt.
Florida has had success this season against Toronto, taking the first three games of the series and have scored five goals in each of those games. But for Panthers head coach Kevin Dineen, the past is the past.
"That's one stat I don't buy too much into," said Dineen following the Cats morning skate when asked about relying on success this season against the Leafs for tonight's game. "I think you feel where your team is, the ebbs and flow of a season and where we're at right now, I think there's a large sense of desperation in our game as well as the Leafs. So it has a mixture of a pretty good hockey game."
While the Panthers put up 15 goals in the season series, Dineen is more worried about the Panthers offense as of late.
"You look at your previous games against a team and you also look at your most recent production and our production recently, probably is where the focus is because we haven't been that strong," said Dineen. "Obviously we have had a couple of strong games in Toronto. It might be the amount of representation our team has from Ontario that guys are certainly up for it. But it's been a good matchup thus far."
Toronto, which is 2-12-2 in their last 16 games, made a coaching change on March 2nd bringing in former Anaheim head coach Randy Carlyle. Dineen has a past with Carlyle when the two worked in the Ducks organization. Knowing Carlyle and other personnel, the Cat's bench boss is excited for the chance to go head-to-head with the Leafs.
"We know there's been a change there since we last seen them," said Dineen. "I put in three years with Randy (Carlyle) and Dave Farrish in Anaheim. I know their thoughts on the game and it will be a certainly be a stiff team to play against defensively.
"I'm closely associated with that personnel. Brian Burke was the first guy to hire me and I know Dave Poulin, Claude Loiselle and my brother coaches in that organization but I also had a lot of conversations with Burkie over the year and he is good friends with a lot of GMs in the league and a lot of people.
"What's the balance there, you wish other people well but when you play against them, you want to put the hammer down and that's our gameplan."
IN A FLASH
While the Panthers offense has struggled of late (three goals in three games), one forward that has produced is Tomas Fleischmann.
The forward is tied for the team lead in points with 49 and has scored the team's first goal of the game in the last two contests.
"As a coach you're kind of looking for players that have a little jump to their game. For me, I've been trying to find him an extra shift here and there just because it seems that every time he's been on the ice, he's creating some quality offensive chances and you like to see that," said Dineen of Fleischmann's play. "The previous four, five games they weren't going in for him but he still had that jump and now he's starting to find the net so hopefully he'll feed off of that."
Fleischmann's 22 goals this season, also tied for the team lead with Kris Versteeg, are already one short of tying his career high. He recorded 23 goals with Washington during the 2009-10 season.
Forward Kris Versteeg continues to skate but Dineen said that it will still take some time.
"He's getting there," said Dineen. "He's not in the lineup tonight and I would say he is doubtful for the game Thursday but he's making good strides."
"He's getting there," said Dineen. "He's not in the lineup tonight and I would say he is doubtful for the game Thursday but he's making good strides."
Versteeg as well as injured defenseman Dmitry Kulikov are both possible for the end of the Panthers four-game homestand.
The news from the morning skate wasn't as promising for forward Jack Skille as Dineen stated that he will be out long term.
|Goaltender Jose Theodore makes one of his 34 saves against Carolina on Sunday for his third shutout of the season (Getty Images)
"I can basically give you a one word answer there and I think he's played excellent," said Panthers Head Coach Kevin Dineen regarding Theodore's recent play following practice at the BankAtlantic Center on Monday. "He's a difference maker right now."
Theodore has missed time this season due to a knee injury but has been fantastic for the Panthers since returning on February 12. While his record in the 12 games he has played is just 5-4-2, Theodore has posted a .928 save percentage and a 2.20 goals-against average. In his last seven games, the netminder has registered a 4-2-1 record. A free agent signee this past off-season, Theodore has allowed two goals or less in nine of his 12 games since returning from the injury.
"I think coming back off my knee injury the second time, I just felt really, really good," said Theodore following Sunday's shutout of Carolina, his third of the season. "I've been practicing hard with (goaltending coach) Robbie (Tallas) and the last 25 games, it's why you play for.
"It's the most fun of the year and you want to make the best out of it. Right now as a team, we're responding well."
His teammates know that Theodore, or even Scott Clemmensen for that matter, have their backs, especially down the stretch. Case in point came with Carolina coming at Florida in waves, specifically in the second period when they posted 19 shots Sunday night.
"Theo was, just like all year he's been extremely great for us," said defenseman Jason Garrison following the Panthers victory. "He made some huge saves and kept us in it."
"Theo is playing unbelievable right now," said forward Tomas Fleischmann. "We have got to help him."
"When you look at the scoreboard and you're up by one goal, you know every save is big," said Theodore of his performance Sunday. "I was just seeing the puck well. The guys played well in front of me. This time of year, it's all about competing, playing playoff hockey and that's what we did."
With just 14 games left in the season, the Panthers will rely on the netminders in winning games. With games becoming more closely contested, a strong goaltending performance can be huge for the rest of the team in propelling them forward. Or on the opposite spectrum, a poor performance can dash playoff hopes.
"If we keep winning, that's all that's going to matter," said Theodore. "Honestly, you do look at the other teams. It's going to be a battle and it's not going to be easy."
"It's pitching in baseball. It's a goalie in soccer. It's a quarterback in football," said Dineen. "It's a key position and when you have that player playing at the top of his game, not only on the prevent side, but I also think it is great for the confidence of your players."
|The Panthers and Flyers will battle for the third time this season on Thursday with two huge points up for grabs (Getty Images)
While the Panthers have yet to string a win streak together of more than three games, putting streaks together and thus picking up points on the teams fighting for their playoff lives can be huge, especially down the stretch.
"I think it happens every year," said head coach Kevin Dineen of the point battle and streaks. "Buffalo was thought of as out of it with about 24 games mark and now at the 18 game mark, they're right in the thick of it.
Dineen is referring to the Sabres who prior to Monday night's 3-1 loss to the Winnipeg Jets went 6-0-1 to go from 15th in the Eastern Conference to climb within two points of the before mentioned Jets and the eighth seed. Teams like Phoenix (11-0-1 in February) and Boston (12-0-1 in November) have used big months of great play to entrench themselves in the playoff chase.
"A week or two swing can make such a huge difference," continued Dineen. "We are looking for more consistency in our effort game to game."
After splitting their two games over the past weekend at home, the Panthers hit the road for back-to-back games in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. There, they'll look for more success and more points to add to their season total.
"I was happy with the way we played five-out-of-six periods this weekend and we'll be looking for an even more complete set in our next back-to-back games against the Pennsylvania group," said Dineen.