|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.
|Forward Jack Skille celebrates his third-period goal to put the Panthers up 4-2 against the Senators on Mar. 4th (Getty Images).|
The injury report, in fact, has been vast as 21 different players have missed a combined 291 man-games heading into Thursday's game against the Philadelphia Flyers (INJURY REPORT).
With that, Kevin Dineen hasn't always had the luxury of playing guys based off of merit. But in the last 20 games of the season or so, he has as Panthers have or are returning from various injuries. While forwards Kris Versteeg and Scottie Upshall and defenseman Dmitry Kulikov are still out for at least this week, Dineen does have the chance to play his forwards based off of their production as well as due to health.
"We have 14 healthy forwards right now so I have options every night," said Dineen following practice at Saveology.com Iceplex on Tuesday. "I wouldn't say that it's always play based but I think I'm looking for the healthiest guys right now."
Dineen feels having extra bodies will help the Panthers immensely down the stretch. Both Marco Sturm and John Madden have been the forwards on the outside looking in but they've been held out do to the play of other forwards.
"Guys are fighting for those spots right now. Whether it's Krys Barch or Jack Skille (they) are doing what they can to stay in the lineup," said Dineen.
And once Versteeg, Upshall and Kulikov return to the lineup, it will present even more players looking to get playing time. That's something that the head coach has to enjoy as he tries to keep the Panthers on top of the Southeast Division.
"It's the only way you can stay now in the lineup," said Dineen. "They can count. it's very easy to figure out bodies are options for us to use. It's a good situation for a coach."
Speaking of the Panthers leading scorer, Dineen said that Versteeg is being considered on a short-term rolling basis in terms of his lower body injury.
"It's a little beyond day-to-day but certainly not considered a long term injury," said Dineen. "We don't expect him for the next couple of games and we'll re-evaluate at that time. We're kind of in that stage right now where we're looking at three and four day increments."
|Forwards Marcel Goc and Tomas Kopecky celebrate Goc's goal 33 seconds into the second period which started the Cats comeback from down 2-0 to win 4-2. (Getty Images)|
For the third time in the last four games and the sixth time in the last eight, Florida has given up the first two goals of the game.
While the Panthers might not have heard the boos coming from the stands while skating off for the first intermission, they certainly heard the between-periods speech. One can only imagine what was exactly said in the locker room during those 17 minutes. But there were some clues divulged following the Panthers 4-2 victory.
“When you get as thoroughly outplayed as we did in the first period, I think there has to be some kind of a response,” said head coach Kevin Dineen. “We went in and had a little chat. I think they understood that there wasn’t going to be any change in the way we were going to play our systems or I wasn’t going to shake up the lines. It was basically going to come from within.”
“(Coach) just said got to go out there and look across the way and each of us have to outwork the guy across from us,” said forward Krys Barch who scored the equalizer 2:21 into the second on a breakaway. “I think we took that there and we brought it in and implemented it for the second.”
The Panthers came at the Senators from the start of the period and it showed in scoring three goals to take the lead away. Florida outshot Ottawa 14-8 in the second period alone.
“Obviously we weren’t happy so we got a little bit of a kick in the butt and got us going a little bit,” said center Stephen Weiss of the intermission talk. “That goal at the first shift of the second was big. It got us right into it and we were rolling from there.”
"Our competition level after the first period stayed the same and theirs obviously elevated to a higher level," said Sens head coach Paul MacLean to the media. “Instead of raising our competition level as the game went on to meet theirs, we got frustrated."
After Marcel Goc scored 33 seconds in and Barch tied it at two, Weiss set up Mikael Samuelsson for the eventual game-winner with the Cats on a power play. Forward Jack Skille added an insurance goal in the third. For the Panthers, it was their third time in the last six games in coming back from a two-goal deficit (also against Carolina and Montreal).
“Unfortunately sometimes we come out a little flat. I don’t know why that is but we’e been trying really hard to come out with a lot of push in the first period,” said Skille following the game. “I think right now, we’re just going to stick with our character and work hard and work through these things and hopefully we can play a full 60 minutes next game.”
Points down the stretch get harder to come by and a loss to the Senators would have been a blown chance to pick up ground on the rest of the Southeast. Luckily, the speech, along with the Panthers' play in the second and third gave the Panthers another two important points in moving to four points up on the Jets and five points on the Capitals.
While speeches are great for short runs, if the Panthers hope to continue their playoff push, they have to find a way to not continue to get down early. It’s tough sledding when you have to continually come back from deficits. The intermission speech isn't always going to do the trick.
“I wish I knew,” said Samuelsson of giving up the game’s first two goals. “That’s what we have to figure out these days. We have two, three days off. Get the energy back a little bit. No excuses. We have to obviously play for 60 minutes."
“We knew we had three days in between games here and we didn’t want to sit thinking about ‘woulda, coulda, shouldas’ there for those three days,” said Barch. “We come in here every day and we look at those standings. We know Washington (was) only three points behind and Winnipeg is right behind us. We know we can’t let these slip away.”
So was looking through the website backend today and saw that there was this blog "Panthers Insider" that was written on a couple of times back in June and then went underground; or somewhere unknown.
It must have gone into deep hibernation or something.
Well, the time has come to try and re-kick this blog into action. It’s been a long time coming and what better time than right now with the stretch run to the end of the season to get it going again. It would be a valid argument to say “the blog should have been going on the whole season.” No excuses there as to the reasons the writing went missing.
It’s all water under the bridge if the blog stays current and gives the fans an up-to-date background on all things Panthers. That’s what we’ll try to do the rest of the season (whenever that ends) and the future.
In saying that, it should be an exciting month as the Panthers chase for a playoff spot for the first time in over a decade. Here’s hoping it’s a great month ahead for the Panthers team and fans alike.
The Hockey Hall of Fame elected four more players with their class of 2011 and two former Panthers were among them as goaltender Ed Belfour and center Joe Nieuwendyk received the call Tuesday afternoon.
For Belfour, he was elected to the Hall on his very first try. The 18-year vet finished his NHL career playing with the Panthers. During the 2006-07 season, Belfour posted a 27-17-10 record with a .902 save percentage. 'Eddie the Eagle' is currently third all-time in goalie wins with 484, and twice won the Vezina Trophy while also winning the Stanley Cup in 1999.
"It is hard to put into words what this means to me," said Belfour in a release. "I would like to thank all of my teammates and people along the way who helped me achieve my hockey dreams."
Nieuwendyk spent parts of two seasons with the Panthers following the NHL lockout. Playing in 80 games with the Cats, Nieuwendyk recorded 64 points before back problems caused him to retire. 'Newy' recorded 564 career goals while finishing with 1,257 points and hoisted the Cup three different times (1989, 1999 and 2003).
"Every player does their best year after year and strives to play at a very high level," said Nieuwendyk. "I truly love the game and love to compete, and I'm pleased to be honoured by the Hockey Hall of Fame."
The duo join Igor Larionov (2000-01, class of 2008) and Dino Ciccarelli (1997-99, class of 2010) as players that have worn Panthers jerseys during their careers to become a Hall of Famer. Other people with Panthers ties that are currently Hall of Fame include Bill Torrey as a builder (class of 1995), Roger Nielson as a builder (class of 2002), Bob Clarke (inducted as a player in 1987) and Billy Smith (inducted as a player in 1993).
Other former Panthers that were up for the award included John Vanbiesbrouck, Pavel Bure, Stu Barnes, Sean Burke and Mike Vernon.
The induction of Belfour and Nieuwendyk as well as Doug Gilmour and Mark Howe will take place on November 14th in Toronto.
Just a quick post for now...
They say that waiting is the hardest thing and that's totally true.
The NHL Draft kicks off in less than four hours but it still seems like an eternity away. It's been a long day so far of just waiting around in the hotel, typing up stories, working on things for the website and just waiting for the phone to buzz to hear that there's been a trade, or to know who in fact the Panthers will go with at number three.
As much anxiety it is for the fans and the staff to wait until 7:00pm ET to get the draft started, it's got to be much worse for the prospects. The future, at least of where they could play, are hours away just awaiting for their names to be called. After that it's a lot of jubilation and relief to finally hear there names called.
As the time slowly ticks by, it will be interesting to see if/when the Panthers make a move. They've been busy at the draft in the past. In actuality, this is where they usually make the most hay with trades/draft picks/etc.
"A lot of conversation and a lot of pondering and a lot of positioning as far as what we might do or what we might trade and what we might get back in return," said Panthers GM Dale Tallon yesterday. "So it's very solid. It will be an eventful 10 days (including free agency) I would think but things are starting to percolate a little bit and it's fun. This is what I enjoy the most."
We'll just have to see what comes to fruition but can someone turn the clock ahead?
|The top 10 prospects pose for a photo at their Draft Luncheon the day before the NHL Draft. (Getty Images)|
For the Panthers it was full of meetings and more meetings, whether it was between the scouting department or a last chat with the prospects. Allowed to be in the room for some of them, there's definitely a lot of excitement that the Panthers will get a quality, highly skilled player wherever they pick. That should be music to Panthers fans.
"We're comfortable at three. That's a really good pick," said Panthers GM Dale Tallon. "We're going to get a really good player regardless of what happens in front of us."
"There's a lot of very good players," said Panthers head scout Scott Luce. "There might not be a lot of franchise guys that you can put that label on right now but there's a lot of players that have that ability to earn that based on the performance at the start of their careers. It might not be there now with the projection but in a couple of years of development and some NHL experience under their belt, they may become franchise players"
For the players, especially the top picks, their days were filled with a media tour throughout Minnesota, a coaching session with young skaters at the American Development Clinic in Mendota Heights, media luncheon to answer hundreds of media questions and then last minute interviews with interested teams.
"I think that would be easier but that's part of the whole draft process is the anxiety leading up to that moment," said Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the No. 1 ranked North American Skater according to Central Scouting about not knowing if he would go number one to Edmonton. "It's all a part of the fun."
"They haven't been too bad because I haven't been getting much sleep," added Nugent-Hopkins about getting sleep over the last week. "I think tonight is going to be pretty hard to get to sleep that's for sure."
"I'm not used to all this attention," added Adam Larsson the No. 1 ranked European Skater. "But I like it so far. Hopefully it will be a great day tomorrow."
|Dale Tallon Interview|
|Scott Luce Interview|
|Ryan Nugent-Hopkins Interview|
|Gabriel Landeskog Interview|
|Jonathan Huberdeau Interview|
|Adam Larsson Interview|
For the top three rated North American skaters, Nugent-Hopkins, Gabriel Landeskog and Jonathan Huberdeau, all have been in contact with Florida.
"It (the meeting at the combine) was great," said Huberdeau. "You can't say if it was better than other teams but it seemed like they liked me. We'll see."
"Every time you hear about Florida, you hear great things so it would be great to play there," said Nugent-Hopkins. "They (the meetings) have gone really well."
"It would be great to play there," said Landeskog who actually visited Miami a couple days ago for a vacation with his friends and get away from the draft hoopla. "Not just the life there and the hockey and the great future they've got in front of them."
Florida kicked off the draft trading frenzy last summer when they made the trade with Boston for Dennis Wideman and what would eventually be Nick Bjugstad. This summer it was Philadelphia who kicked off the draft trading session with two huge trades. They traded Jeff Carter to Columbus for Jakub Voracek, the Blue Jackets first and third round picks while trading their captain Mike Richards to Los Angeles for Wayne Simmonds, Brayden Schenn and a second round pick. With money to spend and picks available, Tallon has started to hear a lot of chatter.
"Lots of conversation. There's a lot going on. A lot of good things," said Tallon. "They (other teams) understand we have room and they understand we're going to be aggressive. We positioned ourselves painfully to get to this position so we have to start to reap the benefits of it."
It will make for an interesting 24 hours leading up to the first round. Draft coverage on VERSUS begins at 7pm ET.