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Digesting Florida’s Titanic Season; How the Panthers Sunk without a Trace

April 15th, 2010 Comments off

”It’s like turning around the Titanic and not a rowboat.” – Panthers GM Randy Sexton.

When your General Manager uses Titanic references to describe the team that he is responsible for putting together; then you know something is horribly wrong.

Once again in 2009/10 the Florida Panthers has been at the wrong end of the table and the butt of many hockey fans’ jokes. This latest setback makes it ten years now since the team last had a taste of the playoffs.

Randy Sexton, since the conclusion of the season, has been busy deflecting culpability from his own actions—preferring to highlight the injuries suffered to David Booth and Nathan Horton instead.

Truth however, is that it is not that simple.

There is no one single reason to blame this unmitigated disaster upon. There is, rather, a whole clutch of explanations. Injuries to key players, is only the tip of the iceberg.

So, let us now do what the new owners are claiming to do; sit back and “digest the season”.

• Blue-line Reshuffle, Lack of Defensive Solidity

When the Florida Panthers in 2008/09 made a credible playoff push and was foiled only by less W’s in the win column by the Habs, the Cats had a strong roster with seasoned players that we’re willing to play their hearts out for the club. Many of those disappeared in the offseason to pastures new.

On the blue-line the Panthers lost their franchise defenseman Jay Bouwmeester at the draft to Calgary. Two other top defensemen in Karlis Skrastins and Nick Boynton also left for the Western Conference.

In came Jordan Leopold, Dennis Seidenberg and Ville Koistinen.

While Leopold and Seidenberg played big minutes they were still not able to fill the void from previous campaign—without rendering the D in a weakened state. At the deadline they were both moved. Koistinen meanwhile, lost his place to rookie defenseman Dmitry Kulikov, was played out of position at forward and then finally waived and sent to the minors.

Apart from late acquisition Seidenberg, the only defensive defenseman in the line-up was Bryan Allen—who was just coming off a year of season-ending knee surgery.

Considering this it should have come as no surprise to anyone that the Cats were utterly unable to keep a lead when entering the final period of games. They simply lacked that defensive solidity to see games out.

Had it not been for the stellar performances of goalie Tomas Vokoun behind this haphazard looking defense, the Cats would surely have been steamrollered and left for dead much sooner than the Olympic break.

• Offensive Ineptitude, Injury Crisis, and Lack of Depth

“On the assumption we’re healthy, I’m pretty happy with our top five forwards” said Randy Sexton when analyzing the poor offensive output by the forwards this past campaign.

Most likely, Sexton is the only one happy with any player—let alone five—on the inept forward compartment that comprises the Florida Panthers.

Losing David Booth to that sickening hit from Mike Richard’s of the Philadelphia Flyers was undoubtedly devastating to the season and significantly impacted this team’s chances of being competitive.

The unfortunate puck that Seidenberg tried to dump into the offensive zone which hit and sidelined Nathan Horton for eight weeks with a broken leg—added misery to an otherwise already dangerously anemic Florida offense.

Other niggling injuries to the forward compartment forced the Panthers to call up half a dozen players from its Rochester affiliate of the AHL.

While those American Hockey League players certainly did their best to help the cause and did in fact inject much needed energy and enthusiasm to the team, they couldn’t contribute consistently toward the scoreboard.

Rather than trying to use these injuries, in thinly veiled attempts by Randy Sexton and coach Peter DeBoer to make excuses for this poor offensive Panthers showing, one must see the results for what they were; a clear indication that the Florida Panthers are not offensively strong enough to compete at this level.

Compelling evidence to that statement was how many times the Panthers managed to miss the empty net. Not even with virtually the whole goal unguarded to take aim at, did the Cats manage to find themselves that elusive goal to further their cause.

In addition to not having enough talent and skill on the offensive part of the team, they also clearly lacked depth within the organization to deal with the injuries to the first team.

Whose fault, at the end of the day, is that Mr. Head Coach and General Manager?

• Specialty Teams Trailing the Yellow Bus

A poor offense and leaky defense can sometimes be overcome by great specialty teams and a gritty determination to be successful no matter what.

The Panthers had none of that.

Again this year the Panthers specialty teams found themselves lodged among the worst respective power-play and penalty killing teams of the NHL (29th on the PP and 23rd on the PK).

And for the second year in a row assistant coach Jim Hulton was in charge of the specialty teams.

Does anyone else see a pattern emerging here?

Hulton has had two seasons to try and rectify the embarrassing play of the specialty teams, especially the poor power-play. But, rather than getting better they just seem to be getting progressively worse.

Most embarrassing of all, is all the wasted 5-on-3 opportunities that the Cats have had. I cannot for the life of me remember us scoring even once on such a glorious opportunity.

Something else I can’t remember us doing is scoring in the dying minutes when playing 6-on-5 or 6-on-4. I do however; vividly remember plenty of empty netters being scored by the opposing teams.

Do you think this might have anything to do with Coach Pete DeBoer’s propensity to pull the goaltender with several minutes left to play?

No, surely not…

Jim Hulton’s contract meanwhile is up for renewal after this season. Knowing the Panthers management—they’ll do just that.

• Missing: Grit, determination, toughness, and heart

Hockey is not just a sport comprised of speed, skill, and big hits. To be successful any team will need a lot of other intangibles as well. The mental aspect of the game cannot be underestimated.

The Florida Panthers have been missing these intangibles on the team for a long time. At the same time they have missed the playoffs for a record nine seasons.

Is there a connection, perchance?

Apparently not, if you are to believe Panthers management over the years, or why else would they not attempt to rectify this glaring deficiency?

In the 2008/09 season the team actually had some spunk about it, for the first time in many years, some willingness to get dirty and fight for success. Rather than lethargically sitting back and hoping a puck will bounce their way—which seemed to be the attitude on display this season.

So what happened?

Well, the Panthers in all their wisdom decided not to renew the contracts of players such as Karlis Skrastins, Ville Peltonen, Nick Boynton, and Richard Zednik. These were players that oozed professionalism and infected everyone in the dressing room with the same desire to accomplish something.

No one has since stepped up to firmly take the mantel and show the way.

Stephen Weiss and Nathan Horton—to their credit—did try, but their efforts on the ice did not inspire other players to do the same. If indeed, those other players were ever able to do so in the first place.

Especially sorry to see was that none had the guts to stick up for David Booth when he got injured or help rookie defenseman Dmitry Kulikov when he was being targeted by opposing teams.

General Manager Randy Sexton has himself publicly noted and criticized the players for what is evidently a missing element of mental fortitude.

A lack of team chemistry he has called it.

Sexton is of course right. But just who does he think is responsible for puzzling this team together in the first place?

That—to me—is what remains the most puzzling mental exercise in this whole sorry situation.

• Ownership Flux and Mismanagement

The season started with rumors of the franchise being sold. And to add to the unfortunate situation the organization took their sweet time in trying to find a new General Manager after Jacques Martin’s early summer exit to Montreal.

In the end management did nothing. Instead they simply removed the inter-rim tag from former assistant GM Randy Sexton’s title.

It would seem Randy became the new GM by default.

One can only assume this management paralysis and ownership uncertainty handcuffed what Sexton was able to accomplish in the summer of 2009.

In the free agency he signed players mainly to one-year deals: Jordan Leopold, Dominic Moore, and Dennis Seidenberg. All three were eventually offloaded at the trade deadline.

The only exception to this shortsighted strategy was the signing of Ville Koistinen, to a two-year $2.4 million deal. Undoubtedly this was the worst signing of the bunch as coach Pete Deboer clearly didn’t want to have anything to do with Koistinen—who was soon waived and sent down to the minors.

So much for communication between management. You know; everyone being on the same page and all that, which we hear Randy Sexton frequently talking about.

There was also a glaring lack of any real action from coach and GM when it soon became clear that this team was not going to live up to expectations.

There were no trades or other affirmative moves from management to try and jump-start the team—until it was already too late.

When the franchise finally got a new majority ownership there were yet more pretty words of “accountability”—but yet again—no action.

In an effort to be open with the fan-base the new owners instead made the naïve move of lambasting the players in an open letter. Little wonder then that the team folded in and hastily gave up any preemptions of going out fighting.

The season rather whimpered out with an embarrassing double-defeat to cross-state rivals Tampa Bay instead.

The management now had the poor taste and sheer lack of class, which it has become notorious for, to shower the players and fans with confetti after the final blow of the horn (which we’ll have to scratch down as another striking resemblance to the sinking Titanic).

Apparently to the Panthers management, with COO Michael Yormark at the helm, this season is to be considered a successful one and should thus be celebrated as if we just won the Stanley Cup.

There is, at this moment, no word if they are also planning a parade. But, when the Panthers caravan rolls around your way, be sure to renew your season tickets. The money will go to giving the management a healthy bonus—which no doubt they worked very hard for.

OK, the latter paragraph was sarcasm, but the all the previous is regrettably true.

• Separating Cause from Effect

When looking at the Panthers’ poor season record, you might be inclined to blame it on the team’s glaring inconsistency all season long (which naturally presents us with a fine paradox in itself).

Well played games and surprising victories against teams such as San Jose, Pittsburgh, and Detroit, was never followed up by a consistent run of good form. In fact the Panthers never won more than four games on the trot at any point in the season—if my memory serves me right.

In addition, the Panthers failed to give fans anything to cheer about. The Panthers were the worst team in the NHL on home ice, only managing to win a paltry 14 times at the B.A.C.

However, when sorting through all these stats and opinions about why the Panthers were so poor, one must separate cause from effect.

The meager numbers are an effect of the Panthers being such a poor team. So is the number of shots on goal and blocked shots. The inconsistency of the team and inability to win games on the trot should be seen in the same light as well.

If you are not a very good team, you won’t win many games and are unlikely to win consistently.

What I have outlined in previous points, however, is what I believe are the main causes behind this rollercoaster of a season. A campaign which conspicuously ended with a nosedive down the standings—not finding firm ground under their paws until the third worst record of the league had been secured.

Now, the solution to these consistent problems that keep thwarting any Panthers progress is a completely different matter, and I’ll save that specific can of worms for another day.

I will, however, say this: If the club is ever to get better, it must first be run and maintained in a professional and dignified manner. When the foundation is rotten, you can’t expect any growth.

And it is here that change must come.

The underpinnings of the entire franchise must be rebuilt. Patching the worst holes is not going to secure its long-term survival.

The Florida Panthers need a new core to its structure.

A President of the franchise that knows and understands hockey is a good and necessary start.

From there and on, it can surely only get better.

Road Warriors: The Florida Panthers Enjoy Out of Town Successes

December 15th, 2009 1 comment

Yesterday’s incredible Christmastime blowout of the NY lslanders—by the Florida Panthers believe it or not—was as comprehensive as it was unexpected.

Where did that one come from?

Just last Friday I, and most Panthers fans in general (come on admit it!), had this season pegged as a rebuilding season. Perhaps it would be better to just throw in the towel and admit we won’t make the playoffs this time either; for the umpteenth time?

Well, the Panthers answered us back from Newark, of all places, by beating the Devils 4-2 in what was the Cats’ best game of the season. They then went on to pry another point from the reigning champs in Pittsburgh, and subsequently finished off the Islanders with a 7-1 whipping on the Isle.

Now, any Panthers fan will tell you; the Cats spring these startling comebacks every year when they look down and out, only to tantalize the fans a bit before going off on another losing streak. And when they again look down and out they spring another response, etc, ad infinitum.

And of course, in the end, the net result is always another disappointing placing outside of the playoffs.

Consistency has never been the forte of this club, apart from the consistently undulating campaigns of mediocrity and sudden short-lived burst of surging power; always inevitably leading to another season of outsiders looking in syndrome.

Actually, come to think of it—the Cats are very consistent—just not in any positive aspect.

Anyway, back to the point…

The Panthers have enjoyed success on the road this year and are thus still in the playoff hunt; against all odds and despite their worse than poor home record.

The Cats are 4-6-5, thus amassing 13 points on home ice; whilst doing considerably better away with a 9-8-2 record that sees some 20 points having been collected away from the Sunshine State.

Even if the Panthers would win the 3 games less that they’ve played on home ice versus away games—no matter how improbable that would be—they’d still not reach the level of play and points collected away from home.

So what makes these felines tick as soon as they leave South Florida?

I’d say there are a few key words that can go a long way in illuminating this mystery. They are namely: Playing to their strength, a simplified approach, no pressure, and, underestimating opponents.

Let’s look at each more closely and I’ll explain my train of thoughts on the subject:

 

Playing to their strength

The Florida Panthers are not a high powered offensive juggernaut—yesterday’s Islanders game aside—and don’t dominate many games in any given season. Even in that 7-1 thrashing of the NY Islanders, it is worth noting that the Cats were still outshot 31-25.

The Florida Panthers is a counter attacking team. Again, if we take the Islanders game as example, a majority of the goals came from breakaways—plays that originate from breaking up the opposing teams offensive play—defense to forwards.

The Cats also deploy a dump and chase tactic that will see the Panthers spend most of their time in the offensive zone trying to dig out pucks from the corners. Using their mobile forwards and pinching defenders—the idea is then to set someone up in the shooting zone for a one-timer at goal.

Aggressive forecheck and responsible backchecks are embedded in the players’ mind and stifle to a certain extent any more flamboyant tendencies from the forwards; molding them in to a collective and creating a form of ‘chasing pack mentality’ that is based on speed and responsible defensive play—first and foremost.

The idea is to limit opponent’s shots to the perimeters. Opponents may get many shots off at goal—but they’ll lack precision as well. Put the body on the line to block shots and then hit back on the counter.

Again; speed and mobility is key.

This tactic currently employed by the Panthers is more successful on the road than it is on home ice. Reason is that when playing at home the Cats must also attempt to entertain the crowd and not just put defensive responsibilities first.

The problem is that when Florida open up and try to play more expansive hockey they are typically picked off by teams which a higher collective skill level and individual talents to boast.

As soon as the Cats step away from the collective approach they become sitting ducks for the opposition to shoot down.

Playing away thus keeps the game plan intact and the Panthers can focus on playing the collectively responsible game.

 

A simplified approach

A closely related point is the simplification of Florida’s game plan away from home.

Any time you want the team to play more expansively, a fair degree of creativity is required, and the Cats are to put it plainly not blessed in this compartment. Especially not when Cory Stillman and David Booth both occupy a place on the long-term injury list.

So when Florida travel north to meet an opponent they do what all teams do—to a certain extent—on the road; they simplify their approach, play more defensively sound, and look to grind down the home team’s early offensive efforts—to hit back later in the game instead.

This approach fits hand in glove with the Panthers original game plan and players available, as previously explained.

 

No pressure

Playing away is great if a team suffers from certain anxieties when it comes to facing an elevated sense of pressure and expectations upon their individual performances.

Everyone knows this is the case with the Florida Panthers: They don’t deal well with pressure and expectations, period.

As soon as they get into a good spell of performances and the expectations rise as a consequence; they without much further ado head off on another losing streak. Once the expectations then fade—performances pick up again.

Statistically we can look at how the Panthers fare when going in to the third period with a lead and thus face the pressure to try and keep that lead intact or indeed extend it: They are 29th in the league with a .563 record of winning those games.

Also, we can see that the Cats have lost only two points on away ice in an overtime/shootout—whilst on home ice—5 such points have been squandered.

Dealing with pressure situations is clearly not the strength of the Florida Panthers; they do better when coming from behind.

 

Underestimating opponents

Whilst I’m sure all opposing coaches tell their players not to underestimate the Panthers when they come to town for a visit, it is understandable if this still happens nonetheless.

Florida has no star forward, no defensive powerhouse, and Tomas Vokoun in goal has always been underestimated among goalies.

His numbers are always up there amongst the best and this while playing on a team that regularly allows the most shots on goal in the entire league; yet, he gets very little recognition when he regularly puts up herculean efforts—to give the Cats a chance to win.

Despite the lack of star power the Panthers are a tricky team to play. Their tenacious fore- and backchecking wears on opponents and Florida hardly ever give up a game—they still come surging forward, even long after a game has realistically become a lost cause.

This point in question is highlighted in the last game away to the Washington Capitals on December 3rd.

Despite being 6-0 down in the third, the Cats still kept coming forward and scored a couple of late consolation goals to make it 6-2 instead. It may not change the match, but it gives the club and players some regained pride and belief that can help them in the next one.

We have seen in several games on the road that the opponents had not really expected the Panthers to be in their face as much as they were and lacked the necessary fire to subdue them. Essentially handing the momentum over to the Cats instead—to try and find a way through.

In a league of parity you underestimate an opponent at your own risk, even the Florida Panthers.

Game Action Pix vs. Thrashers

December 6th, 2009 Comments off
Florida Panthers versus Atlanta Thrashers, 1-2 SO. In a close low-scoring game the Cats looked set to win this game but allowed the Thrashers back into the game late in the third period and fell in the subsequent shootout.

Florida Panthers versus Atlanta Thrashers, 1-2 SO. In a close, low-scoring game, the Cats looked set to win this game - but - allowed the Thrashers back into the contest late in the third period and fell in the subsequent shootout.

 

Johan Hedberg, the Atlanta Thrashers' goaltender had a good night in South Florida and kept his team in the game despite quality chances from the Cats to win the game clean without an overtime.

Johan Hedberg, the Atlanta Thrashers' goaltender had a good night in South Florida and kept his team in the game despite quality chances from the Cats to win the game clean without an overtime.

 

In a surprise move Tomas Vokoun was ready to face the Atlanta Thrashers again and had a very good game between the pipes for the hometeam. Here he gets help from Dennis Seidenberg to keep the puck protected underneath his legs.

In a surprise move Tomas Vokoun was ready to face the Atlanta Thrashers again and had a very good game between the pipes for the hometeam. Here he gets help from Dennis Seidenberg to keep the puck protected underneath his legs.

 

Gimme some of that ice hockey love! Bryan Allen sticks up for his teammate Michael Frolik, who was sent off the ice for a iffy boarding call, and takes a few on the chin for his team along the way.

Gimme some of that ice hockey love! Bryan Allen sticks up for his teammate Michael Frolik, who was sent off the ice for a iffy boarding call, and takes a few on the chin for his team along the way.

 

It wasn't just the netminders great play between the pipes that kept this game tied with no goals scored until the third period - a few lucky escpaes on both sides of the ice helped as well... Finally it was Stephen Weiss that managed to break the dealock in the third period, redirecting a heavy Dmitry Kulikov slapshot in a rare powerplay goal.

It wasn't just the netminders great play between the pipes that kept this game tied with no goals scored until the third period - a few lucky escapes on both sides of the ice helped as well... Finally it was Stephen Weiss that managed to break the dealock in the third period; redirecting a heavy Dmitry Kulikov slapshot in a rare powerplay tally.

 

The Panthers would survive multiple scares as the Thrashers had too many man-advantages to count in the game, and yet would not be able to take advantage. However, late in the third the visitors would get Ilya Kovalchuck in position to score the heartbreaking equaliser. It then went to the shootout where Rich Peverley scored the winning penalty in the 4th round. In truth the Cats deserved better from this game, but, in hockey one has to close games out to win...

The Panthers would survive multiple scares as the Thrashers had too many man-advantages to count in the game, and yet would not be able to take advantage. However, late in the third the visitors would get Ilya Kovalchuck in position to score the heartbreaking equaliser. It then went to the shootout where Rich Peverley scored the winning penalty in the 4th round. In truth the Cats deserved better from this game, but, in hockey one has to close games out to win...

Game Action Pix vs. Avalanche

December 3rd, 2009 Comments off
Florida Panthers vs. Colorado Avalanche, 6-5 SO. It was a wild game at the Bank Atlantic Center with 10 goals, a Stephen Weiss hattrick, and a shootout.

Florida Panthers vs. Colorado Avalanche, 6-5 SO. It was a wild game at the Bank Atlantic Center with 10 goals, a Stephen Weiss hattrick, and a shootout.

 

It was a welcome home to South Florida for Colorado's new No.1 netminder Craig Anderson. He was put to the test as the Panthers threw some 44 pucks on goal; outshooting an opponent believe it or not. Here Andy makes a nice pad save on a Stephen Reinprecht attempt at goal.

It was a welcome home to South Florida for Colorado's new No.1 netminder Craig Anderson. He was put to the test as the Panthers threw some 44 pucks on goal; outshooting an opponent believe it or not... Here Andy makes a nice pad save on a Stephen Reinprecht attempt at goal.

 

Stephen Weiss lights the lamp - for the second occasion on the night - making it 2-0 to the Cats in the opening period.

Stephen Weiss lights the lamp - for the second occasion on the night - making it 2-0 to the Cats in the opening period.

 

A familiar sight this particular night: Stephen Weiss nets another goal to complete his hattrick early in the second period, restoring the Cats two-goal lead at 3-1.

A familiar sight this particular night: Stephen Weiss nets another goal to complete his hattrick before the mid-way point of the second period; restoring the Cats' two-goal lead to 3-1.

 

Matt Duchene was the sparkling starlet that kept the Avs in this game despite having their opportunities limited by a strong looking Panthers team. This is his first of two goals as Duchene pokes the puck home from close range, closing the gap to 2-3.

Matt Duchene was the sparkling starlet that kept the Avs in this game despite having their opportunities limited by a strong looking Panthers team. This is his first of two goals as Duchene pokes the puck home from close range, closing the gap to 2-3.

 

The gung-ho game continued in the third period with the visitors making an astonishing comeback in the last minute. Two 6-on-5 goals tied the game with seconds to spare as the Cats again relinquished a lead in the final minutes. Keith Ballard would in the ensuing overtime challenge and tumble into Colorado's goalie Anderson, who was subsequently forced to leave the game. The collision was unintentional, but nonetheless, Ballard has now knocked out both his goalie teammates from last season... The Avs Adam Foote took exeption and jumped Ballard when he was on the ice in a cowardly manner and beat the defenseless Keith with several sucker punches.

The gung-ho game continued in the third period with the visitors making an astonishing comeback in the last minute. Two 6-on-5 goals tied the game with seconds to spare as the Cats again relinquished a lead in the final minutes. Keith Ballard would in the ensuing overtime challenge and tumble into Colorado's goalie Anderson, who was subsequently forced to leave the game. The collision was unintentional, but nonetheless, Ballard has now knocked out both his goalie teammates from last season... The Avs' Adam Foote (to the left in this picture from a situation earlier in the game) took exeption and jumped Ballard - when the latter was sprawling on his back - in a cowardly manner and beat the defenseless Keith with several sucker punches.

 

The cold Peter Budaj was thrust into the shootout after Andy's injury, but you wouldn't have known it... Here he makes an amazing stick-trick to deny Rostislav Olesz on the third Panthers shot of the shootout.

The cold Peter Budaj was thrust into the shootout after Andy's injury, but you wouldn't have known it... Here he makes an amazing stick-trick to deny Rostislav Olesz on the third Panthers shot of the shootout.

 

Peter Budaj makes another penalty save with his pad, his fourth save in the shootout, to deny Nathan Horton the opportunity to win the game. Fortunately Scott Clemmensen for the Panthers was equally impressive and denied all five attempts from the Avalanche players.

Peter Budaj makes another penalty save with his pad, his fourth save in the shootout, to deny Nathan Horton the opportunity to win the game. Fortunately Scott Clemmensen for the Panthers was equally impressive and denied all five attempts from the Avalanche players.

 

All well that ends well. Stephen Weiss scores the only goal of the shootout, on a total ten attempts, to win the extra point for Florida - in a thrilling contest at the Bank Atlantic Center.

All well that ends well. Stephen Weiss scores the only goal of the shootout, on a total ten attempts, to win the extra point for Florida - in a thrilling contest at the Bank Atlantic Center.

 

Toronto Springs Comeback Special against the Cats in Sunrise

November 28th, 2009 2 comments

I bet a few people don’t think me so crazy now.

Maybe if I had been GM we’d have won the game against Toronto yesterday… ;)

I would have gone in hard to acquire Niklas Hagman, at a heavy cost if necessary and he would not have been a two-goal scorer in this game as a consequence.

Yeah, I know. Wishful thinking at best. But you have to admit he’d have been a nice addition to this club that finds it so hard to score goals.

Sure, the Panthers did get four on the board against the defensively challenged Maple Leafs, but that was to be expected. That the Cats would surrender six however, was probably not according to anyone’s plan.

After going two-goals up in the opening exchanges, one could have been forgiven for thinking this contest was as good as over. However, the Ontarians had other plans on the night.

After expensive signing Phil Kessel found the net in the first period it was game-on and a wild contest was ready to unwind before us.

Kessel and Hagman were the offensive juggernauts that the Panthers defense couldn’t handle in this game. Both scored two goals to help Toronto claim both points and secure Florida’s first regulation loss since Washington.

Dmitry Kulikov kept the Panthers in the lead with his two goals on the night, but, immediately after the 4-3 go-ahead-goal by Dmitry; the Leafs came back and equalized.

This quick answer seemed to tip the balance ultimately in Toronto’s direction and they ran out 6-4 winners, with the last goal scored in an open net.

Panthers GM Randy Sexton had said on FSN Florida prior to the commencement of the final period that “the team that wants it the most will win it”. It was apparent on this night that the team that wanted it the most was the visitors.

Apart from stellar individual performances above all from Dmitry Kulikov, Nathan Horton, and Steve MacIntyre—in the enforcer department, the Cats looked rather tame for most of this contest.

Especially on the blue-line.

The defenders that had been so unyielding of late did not impress and ultimately could not handle Kessel, Hagman & Co. Keith Ballard and Jordan Leopold in particular had games to forget.

Perhaps it was a Thanksgiving hangover, but whatever it was, the Panthers will have no time to ponder upon this loss for too long. It’s off to Nashville tonight for a tricky game against another in-form team: the Predators.

We can expect to see Scott Clemmensen in goal for this game. After his solid performance in Detroit he deserves another start and Vokoun could certainly do with some rest after a hectic schedule.

It will be important to bounce straight back and win tonight’s game.

Florida remain in thirteenth spot in the East and lost vital points against most teams above us last night, and that’s not even mentioning Toronto behind us in fourteenth—who are starting to string together some impressive performances and points.

Nevertheless, one game doesn’t determine a season and the Cats will need to find their way back to their stingy away-game tactics tonight.

It is obvious this style of playing suits this team much better than the more expansive home-game tactics—that regularly comes back to bite us in the .

Game Action Pix vs. Rangers

November 26th, 2009 Comments off
Stephen Weiss on his knees trying to keep possession beind the net versus the NY Rangers. In a tough game dominated by the respective goaltenders, it was the visiting Rangers that had the last laugh; winning 2-1 in a dramatic shootout.

Stephen Weiss on his knees trying to keep possession beind the net versus the NY Rangers. In a tough game dominated by the respective goaltenders, it was the visiting Rangers that had the last laugh; winning 2-1 in a dramatic shootout.

 

In the opening two periods it was the stellar performance of Tomas Vokoun that kept the Panthers in the game with a chance to win in a shootout.

In the opening two periods it was the stellar performance of Tomas Vokoun that kept the Panthers in the game with a chance to win in a shootout.

 

Henrik Lundqvist of the NY Rangers gets in transformers mode to deny any attempts to pass him by the Cats. Lundqvist waa, together with Vokoun, the goalie stars that stole the show and kept scoring at a minimum.

Henrik Lundqvist of the NY Rangers gets in transformers mode to deny any attempts to pass him by the Cats. Lundqvist was, together with Vokoun, the goalie stars that stole the show to keep scoring at a minimum.

 

It was the NY Rangers that drew first blood by scoring on a powerplay late in the second period. Dominic Moore would however tie the game at one late in the third. Here Tomas Vokoun gets ready to make another big save.

It was the NY Rangers that drew first blood by scoring on a powerplay late in the second period. Dominic Moore would however tie the game at one late in the third. Here Tomas Vokoun gets ready to make another big save.

 

Radek Dvorak of the Panthers tries to get a shot away at Lundqvist, but gets his stick slashed instead. The Cats were given several opportunities to score on the man-advantage but could never really get set up to get any shots at goal. Later Dvorak would get sent off in the ensuing overtime for a high-sticking, but Florida could ride that storm to set up a shootout.

Radek Dvorak of the Panthers tries to get a shot away at Lundqvist, but gets his stick slashed instead. The Cats were given several opportunities to score on the man-advantage but could never really get setup to get any shots at goal. Later Dvorak would get a two minute penalty in the ensuing overtime for a high-sticking, but Florida could ride that storm to set up the shootout.

 

Steven Reinprecht here, and Nathan Horton and Stephen Weiss previously and after, would miss their penalty attempts. Or rather, Henrik Lundqvist would deny them all with impressive saves.

Steven Reinprecht here, and Nathan Horton and Stephen Weiss previously and after, would miss their penalty attempts. Or rather, Henrik Lundqvist would deny them all with impressive saves.

 

P.A. Parenteau of the NY Rangers nets the winner and only goal in the shootout, finding a way past Vokoun. Rangers win a fiesty constest, 2-1 in SO.

P.A. Parenteau of the NY Rangers nets the winner and only goal in the shootout, finding a way past Vokoun. Rangers win a fiesty constest, 2-1 in SO.

 

Highway Robbery at Sunrise: Panthers Mugged by Penguin Ref

November 24th, 2009 Comments off

In a shocking turn of events, the Florida Panthers lost another two-goal lead in the third period, to then be punished by a controversial double-minor penalty in the ensuing overtime by the Penguins.

Referee’s Greg Kimmerly and Kevin Bollocks, sorry; Pollock, with much help from intervening linesmen Tony Sericolo, and Mark Shewchyk, conspired together to hand the victory to their Penguin brethrens in black and white at the game in Sunrise.

The visitors from Pittsburgh didn’t need another invitation, or the entire four minute man-advantage, to cash in on the dodgy call.

Sidney Crosby collected a loose puck in front of the net and tucked it away behind the brave Tomas Vokoun in goal; who to that point had almost single-handedly kept the Cats in the game after a late surge from the visitors.

The play that would be foremost on everyone’s mind was the appalling actions by one of the linesmen.

A minute in to the overtime, the Pittsburgh defender Brooks Orpik checked Nathan Horton in the back well after Horty had released the puck. That would qualify as an interference one would think, right?

But no: The linesman, in all his wisdom, decided to but in and call the penalty—on Nathan Horton.

The Florida Panthers’ forward, the by far dominating offensive player of the game to that point, was sent to the box for four minutes.

Apparently it is now illegal in the NHL to be checked in the back by an opposing player and subsequently fall to the ice.

Let’s call it a high sticking and pretend that the fouled player, checked in the back and falling to the ice, actually has the semblance of means to control his stick in this instance.

In these new directives, apparently sent to the linesmen just prior to this game, they are to be vigilant of any players falling to the ice as the result of a blindsided check.

Obviously that kind of behavior cannot be tolerated by the NHL and shall henceforth warrant four minutes in the penalty box—to the player fouled that is—not the one delivering the foul naturally.

So well done linesman! I’m sure Gary Bettman will reward you handsomely for that brilliant call, and of course; for giving Sidney Crosby the chance to star in another game.

After all, if we are to sell this game to those who have no interest in the sport—we must have our fix stars in hockey. And we all feel Sidney, poor fellow, deserves a few extra breaks in life don’t we…

Seriously though, I have nothing against Sidney or the Penguins, but I see no reason for the referee’s to give them any extra favors either. They are good enough to stand on their own two feet.

Panthers fans are rightfully p*ssed and feel robbed of a sporting chance to win this game.

This latest referee meltdown is likely to reignite not only the discussions of poor overall refereeing, but also the long-held belief that the refs favor the teams from the north.

I’m not one to believe in conspiracies, but fact is that Florida is the subject of one dodgy call after another. If there is any resemblance of a penalty to be taken, no matter how iffy the call is, you can be assured it will be made.

And if you don’t believe me and think this is just a crazy idea emanating from Southern Florida; then take the time to ask the Tampa Bay Lightning what they think of the referee’s calls in their games.

Conspiracy or not, it does seem clear that the Florida teams, Panthers and Lightning, have no “luck” with the referee’s.

And considering this, it is sometimes hard not to think that the refs do in fact favor the northern teams.

After all; the refs come from these regions, the traditional hockey markets, and if they feel what most people do in those areas—well then they do not like the idea of hockey teams playing in the Sunshine State.

If that is the case, then there is a built in bias from the get-go and it is hard to imagine that this would not, even if on a subconscious level, have an effect on the calls that the refs make.

Anyway…

The game is over and there is not much point in keeping on harping about the refs and the bad calls. Despite this dark cloud on the NHL horizon there are still some positives to take out of the game for the home side.

Florida played some good hockey and should have expanded the lead in the third at the score of 2-1. Two shots hit the post behind Fleury and had either gone in; then no amount of dodgy calls from the refs could help the Penguins salvage anything from this game, surely.

And even in defeat, it must be admitted that one point isn’t all that bad.

Pittsburgh is the defending Stanley Cup champions for a reason, and yet, once again the Cats showed themselves able to go toe-to-toe with the champs.

That in itself bodes well for this season.

The Panthers have certainly turned things around and look poised to make a push for the playoffs.

All players are finding their stride—although none more than the trio of Stephen Weiss, Nathan Horton, and Tomas Vokoun—and they have now gelled and look more and more solid as a team overall.

There is communication on and off the ice, the tails are up and the confidence growing on an individual level with all players on the roster.

And now that everyone has bought in to head coach Peter DeBoer’s system—they are starting to develop an identity as a hardnosed team that will give anyone a run for the money; including the champions.

Heckuva Road Trip!

November 22nd, 2009 Comments off

Like the title says, it really was one heck of road trip by the Panthers.

Not only three games in four days, but the Cats also visited some of the tougher places in the league to grind out a victory in: Buffalo, Detroit, and MSG—New York.

Florida now have four straight victories on the road. Winning these three games: 6-2, 2-1 (OT), and 3-2.

The fourth victory came in Boston (Nov. 12), when the Panthers won 1-0 after a shootout.

It seems the Cats enjoy being on the road…

Perhaps that is due to the team’s tactics being favorable for road games.

Playing defensively responsible and gunning on the counter seems to be the melody for Florida.

When playing at home on the other hand, a home-crowd dictates that the Panthers go out and try to take the game to the opponents; a tactic that leaves holes in defense. And ultimately, a tactic that does not seem to suit this team as well.

However, the confidence that the felines form must be generating throughout the team—ought to help the players elevate their game when going forward as well. At least that’s what we’ll be hoping; seeing as the Cats now play the next three games in Sunrise.

The Penguins on Monday, Rangers again on Wednesday, and the resurging Maple Leafs on Friday—will give the Panthers ample opportunities to hone their home game and tactics.

For a while it seemed that Florida where already out of the playoff race, after the opening 12 games of the season, but since then the Cats have come on strong and are now 7-2-1 in their last 10 games—and a mere point behind Tampa Bay in eighth spot of the Conference.

It must be said that results went Florida’s way yesterday. Not only did the Panthers beat the NY Rangers 3-2, but many teams above us lost points as well: Atlanta, Tampa Bay, Philadelphia, NY Islanders, NJ Devils, and Buffalo; all lost their respective games.

That is news well received here in South Florida as fans again are starting to believe in this hockey club again.

Tentatively at first perhaps, but if they keep on playing the way they have lately, there is no reason not to hope we can make a genuine playoff challenge again this year.

Sooner or later, our time—another year of rats—must come again, right?

Clem the Clam Has Last Laugh in Detroit

November 21st, 2009 Comments off

Well, what do you know; miracles do happen!

Slamming Scott for his underperformances up to date—apparently did the trick.

He came out with a hunger in his belly to prove me, and all the rest of us doubters, wrong. And could he have done it in a better place?

Going to Hockeytown USA and leaving with two spanking new points for their troubles…

The Cats must be purring this morning as they get ready to face the Rangers in a tough back-to-back match-up.

Credit is due to Scott.

He really did step up and filled in that previously leaky five-hole of his and practically cemented the Panthers goal line.

And make no mistake, he was tested: 40 times to be correct.

Henrik Zetterberg stormed through several times, but was ultimately denied by Clemmensen. Only a Pavel Datsyuk powerplay goal in the second period slipped by Scott.

And frankly, if you give the Red Wings three clear cut chances in front of goal, on the man-advantage, something is bound to slip in.

The Cats came out with a defensive frame of mind in the first period. No doubt worried about Clem, after the goaltender had had such a slow start to the season, and the focus was on playing simple defensive hockey and helping the goalie as much as possible.

Florida was badly outshot in that opening period, and ultimately lucky not to fall behind, but took the intact score sheet to the second period with renewed confidence.

Knowing now that Clem could do his stuff when called upon, the Cats surged forward and were perhaps unlucky to lose the period by the lone goal from Datsyuk.

However, as many times before this season, the Panthers remained unfazed by being a goal down and could tie the game in the third period—courtesy of a fine link-up between Nathan Horton and Stephen Weiss.

Horton out-battled Zetterberg behind the Detroit goal and threw a pinpoint pass to Weiss—who had wide open net at the back post—to shuffle in the equalizing tally.

Filled with confidence, it was then the same pair of felines that set up Captain Bryan McCabe for a big slapshot in the ensuing overtime. McCabe shot an unstoppable puck past Chris Osgood—and then it was off to seventh heaven for the Cats.

They’ll have to come down quick however, as they today face a tough Conference foe in the NY Rangers at the MSG. And they will do so without one of the Florida players that’s been playing best of late: Cory Stillman.

Stillman went down with a knee injury against Detroit and “will be out for some time”. Pete DeBoer will call up a forward from Rochester to fill Cory’s skates, rather than trusting Ville Koistinen for the job.

It remains to be seen if the Panthers can take a bite out of the Big Apple tonight, but either way, the future is starting to look rather more promising for the fans and team as they are finally finding some hockey chemistry.

The Florida Panthers are now back to .500 and have gone 7-2-1 in the last 10 games. In addition, we are now a mere three points behind the Tampa Bay Lightning; who currently sit in eighth spot of the East. The NY Rangers are ninth—also three points ahead of us.

That makes tonight’s game all the more important.

Tomas Vokoun is expected to be back in goal for the contest. But now that we are starting to see the real Clemmensen perform; Tomas might be getting more nights off in the future. And considering the tight schedule—that’s definitely good news for the team as a whole.

Scott really did do a good job of Clam-ing up the Panthers goal and was very stingy when it came to letting go of any rebounds.

Now that’s the kind of play we want to see from the big man!

Clem the Clam—it has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?

Panthers Find Their Wings in Buffalo

November 19th, 2009 Comments off

Panthers’ fans haven’t been spoiled with top-end offensive performances from their team this season. And there was nothing to suggest it would be different in Buffalo as the Cats took on the outstanding Ryan Miller and his Sabres last night.

However, the Floridians have been playing better of late and collected 11 out of 16 possible points in the previous eight contests.

Only against Washington had the Cats been defeated in regulation time, albeit in two straight games.

The Panthers also had a score to settle with the Sabres; who had come to South Florida and embarrassed the Cats a month ago at the Bank Atlantic Center. The visitors effectively won that match in a 5-1 first period drubbing.

Since then the Cats have slowly started to find their feet and their game is improving despite the occasional setbacks—such as the one in Washington earlier this month (4-7 defeat, despite leading 3-2 when entering the third period).

The defense in particular is looking more unyielding and robust.

The defensemen are now standing up at their blue-line, making less costly turnovers, and are also helping out the goalie by limiting the shots on goal.

Equally, the offense has simplified its approach.

The forwards are being responsible defensively and going more north-south, rather than east-west, when attacking the net.

In addition to the overall simplifying of individual duties, and the more direct approach on a team level, it must also be said that some players in particular are starting to step up their game.

In defense, Keith Ballard is starting to dish out those punishing hits more regularly; Dennis Seidenberg is looking solid and blocking shots; whilst Bryan Allen is starting to find his game again—after having been injured most of last season.

In the offense; players like Rostislav Olesz, Michael Frolik, Stephen Weiss, Cory Stillman, and Nathan Horton, are finding their way back to good old ways after a slow start to the season.

Then of course, there is Tomas Vokoun…

The Czech goaltender looked decidedly off at the beginning of the campaign, but has since grown in stature between the pipes.

Now that he’s finally being supported by the defense, we can see the real Vokoun starting to emerge.

And the goalie that denied Craig Anderson a starting job in Florida is looking better and more unyielding for every game played.

Apparently Tomas has been working very hard during the off-season to try and improve his game—and now he’s being rewarded for that hard work.

What’s especially impressive with Tomas is his positioning ability.

Vokoun is as best when he can step up at the top of the crease and just cut off all angles for the shooter—and simply lets his powerful body do the job for him. And that’s exactly what he’s doing.

The defense is then there to help him out with any tricky pucks that might come loose—or as in the game in Buffalo—a forward might even come down to make a crucial save (Rostislav Olesz).

That certainly hasn’t always been the case, but now that this infant team-symbiosis is developing in Florida, the Cats and their fans are the main beneficiaries.

In Buffalo last night the goaltending, defense, and offense, all worked together to grind down the Sabres in their own building.

To their credit, the Florida players didn’t get fazed by Buffalo drawing first blood, but rather kept plugging away until they were rewarded with the equalizer just before the first intermission.

Somehow that goal seemed to deflate the home side as they looked decidedly shaky in the second period.

The Cats then capitalized on a rare Ryan Miller howler and took the lead through Stephen Weiss. It is not often the Sabres netminder makes mistakes; so you’d better take advantage when they come your way.

Perhaps the shock of Miller’s gaffe resonated through Buffalo, but despite only trailing by one goal through much of the second and third periods, it always looked more likely that the Panthers would score the next goal—which they also did.

The home side was then gifted a brief reprieve and a glimpse of a comeback when they cut the lead to one with a late powerplay goal. It was not to be however, as the Cats got themselves a rare powerplay tally—to restore the two goal parity.

In the end the Sabres threw in the towel and Florida could put some gloss to proceedings by scoring two more late goals to pave the way for a comprehensive 6-2 victory on the road.

Next will follow another stern test as the Panthers roll in to Hockeytown on Friday and then set up camp at the MSG on Saturday.

Both Detroit and the NY Rangers will fancy their chances, but the Cats have found their feet and will hope to continue their streak on the road.

While this was a—by and large—positive performance and step forward for Florida; the fans will nonetheless remain grounded.

We have seen too many good performances followed up by one letdown after another, to get too carried away this time.

Besides, did I mention the next game is against the Red Wings?

The Wings may not be flying as freely as previously in the hockey heavens, but they still pack and impressive punch and come loaded with a fearsome one-two that entails both Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg.

The Cats will need to be on their toes for that game; especially as Detroit lost last night at the Joe (to Dallas, 1-3) and will be looking to bounce back quickly after having previously gone 7-1-1.

All too often have South Floridian hockey fans seen impressive play by the Panthers on one day—to then find our hopes of resurgence trampled upon—in the very next games.

While I hope the players can rejoice today in that impressive display I Buffalo, they must also be aware that there is no resting on their laurels this campaign. One win and a few points strung together, doesn’t make a season.

What this team desperately needs is prolonged consistency.

Can you spell that, Cats?

C-o-n-s-i-s-t-e-n-c-y

I know it’s a long word and all—but if this team is to ever move up the standings and make a credible playoff push—the players needs to master that word and its implied implication (I know that’s saying one thing twofold, I just want to make sure the point hits home).

The win in Buffalo, and the roaming offense displayed, is encouraging for sure: I just hope we can get this type of game-play ingrained into the walls of this club, rather than it being the occasional occurrence.

I don’t mean to get all wordy and verbose on you guys, but try and incorporate that word into your collective vocabulary. OK, Panthers?

And try to refrain from the use of sarcasm, please.

Yeah, I know…