|Panthers center Shawn Matthias takes a shot on Islanders goaltender Evgeni Nabokov at the BB&T Center (Getty Images)|
It’s something that head coach Kevin Dineen and his players have refused to acknowledge.
While national and local media have made excuses for the team’s production this season with the number of Panthers regulars out of the lineup due to injuries (a league high 219 games lost do to injury/sickness entering Thursday’s game against Buffalo), they won’t have any of that as to the reason they have struggled.
After opening the season with a thrilling 5-1 victory over Carolina that saw the Panthers score three goals in the first period, including the first of the season scored by rookie Jonathan Huberdeau that sent the Florida faithful to their feet at the BB&T Center, it certainly hasn’t been the season that they expected. Florida had lofty expectations; especially after winning the first division title in franchise history the previous season and taking the eventual Eastern Conference Division champion Devils to double overtime of Game 7.
Since that night, the events of the 2012-13 season have gone south. The injury bug struck the Panthers with a vengeance. Before the season even started, they were without the services of Sean Bergenheim (has missed full season) as well as Erik Gudbranson and Marcel Goc. The injuries piled up from that point on as the Panthers have had to deal with losing Stephen Weiss and Kris Versteeg for the season after both having 50-plus point campaigns last season and losing newly named Captain Ed Jovanovski, Mike Weaver and starting goaltender Jose Theodore for extended periods of time. Dmitry Kulikov, Filip Kuba, George Parros, Scottie Upshall, Jack Skille and call-ups Mike Caruso and Eric Selleck have all been bitten by the dreaded injury bug.
Despite all those names missing from Florida’s lineup, the Panthers have competed with great resilience. On the most recent season-high five-game road trip, they won the first two games and were in the last three, having chances to win each of them.
"We're trying to keep our competitive level extremely high," said Head Coach Kevin Dineen earlier this week to the media in Toronto.
"I think I said from Day 1 we wanted a healthy, quality environment. It's no fun right now. We're not having fun.”
It certainly isn’t fun. For anyone. But certain players are taking advantage of the situation.
“But we're still making strides,” continued Dineen. “Trying to make this a place in which we get better no matter the situation."
With many of the players that led the way for Florida last season out of action, production has come from unlikely places this season. Shawn Matthias has emerged as a player that can be depended on. Matthias, now the longest tenured Panther in the locker room without Weiss in the line up, has proven himself with his elevated play this season to be one of Florida’s key players.
"I'm starting to feel like I'm finally a big part of this team," said Matthias recently to the Sun Sentinel. "Years before and even at the beginning of this season, I kind of took a step back and let other guys take the reigns. I worked so hard this [past] summer and I'm a little older now and realize I can be a big part of this team. I don't want to take a backseat to anyone now.
“I've played in guys' shadows and now it kind of feels like it's my time. And I want it to be my time. …I want to be a go-to guy and a leader."
Matthias has already tied last year’s career-high 10 goals on the season and he has done that in just 34 games. Last season he accomplished that feat in 79 games. The Mississauga native has nine points in his last 14 games played and has even fought through the flu and a puck to the eye during the Panther’s five game road trip.
"I don't want to miss any games. You take pride in playing through things," said a determined Matthias. "I was brought up that you get up when you’re hurt and you play. You never take a night off. It wasn’t going to keep me out."
Tomas Kopecky has also been one of the team's MVPs this season, and currently is tied for the team lead in points (21) and goals (12). Kopecky, who recorded 32 points (10-22-32) in 80 games last season has has posted 15 points (10 goals) in his last 21 games, even recording his first-career hat trick against Pittsburgh on Feb. 26. Jack Skille, who has missed the last two games due to an upper body injury, has also been a pleasant surprise this season posting 11 points (3-8-11) while adding speed and tenacity each game.
On the blue line, Brian Campbell has had another strong season offensively. He currently sits tied for second in goals by a defenseman with seven and ranks tied for first in power play goals by a defenseman with six, while ranking third in average ice time of 26:34. Campbell’s point production has him anything but satisfied as the Panthers struggle to find the win column.
"The biggest thing is that hopefully everybody knows [this season's performance] is not acceptable, especially with a lot of young guys in our lineup.” said Campbell to the South Florida media, “I don't care how many injuries we have or what's going on."
Although the Panthers have found themselves on the outside looking in as of late, the Panthers fans have been able to see the future of the team first hand as they have been introduced to the next wave of Cats transitioning into the NHL. Jonathan Huberdeau has been electrifying this season, leading all NHL rookies in goals with 12, ranking him second amongst all NHL rookies in points. Huberdeau was named rookie of the month in February and became the franchise record holder for most points in a game by a rookie after scoring four (2-2-4), including the game winning penalty shot against Philadelphia (W 5-2). Drew Shore has a commanding lead in faceoff wins among rookies with 167 victories. The former Denver University Pioneer has 11 points this season (2-9-11).
Jacob Markstrom has begun to play stronger each game between the pipes as he looks to usher in the next era for the Panthers. Markstrom has stopped 139 of the 145 shots (.959 SV%) he has faced in his last four starts. Markstrom has played 11 games this season and has been one of the three stars of the game six times. Newly acquired T.J. Brennan has been a good fit on the blue line, adding mobility and the ability to play big minutes. Brennan scored in his first game as a Panther and recordws his first NHL assist in the Cats’ Mar. 21 victory over the NY Rangers.
Tyson Strachan and Erik Gudbranson have played over 20 minutes in 12 games this season and have proven to be trustworthy in high pressure situations, while fellow Rampage alumni, Colby Robak and Quinton Howden have earned call-ups and seem to get better with each passing game.
The Panthers have shown resiliency this season despite the standings may show otherwise. In five of the nine games the Panthers have lost in March, the Cats have fallen short by one goal. Bad bounces and injuries have not deterred Coach Dineen’s message to his team as the season approaches it’s final month of play.
"We all have an incredible amount of pride and I honestly believe in the logo and the team and what we're trying to accomplish as a group,” said Dineen.
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