February 05, 2016

FLORIDA PANTHERS ARE POWERED UP: Special teams fueling Florida's five-game winning streak ... Panthers tough on penalty kill, great on power play

Bark3
TWITTER: @AricDiLalla

Forget all the noise about punt returns and missed extra points as Super Bowl Sunday approaches. The Florida Panthers are putting on a special teams display of their own at the BB&T Center.

And on Thursday, the Panthers continued to excel during hockey’s two biggest opportunities for success or failure: the penalty kill and power play.

Since a Jan. 2 win over the Rangers, Florida has shut down 90.7 percent of its opponents’ power plays. In those previous 54 chances, they’ve allowed just five goals. The defensive performance wasn’t quite as sharp on Thursday, as the Panthers allowed two goals on seven power play chances, but coach Gerard Gallant seemed pleased with the effort.

“The penalty kill has been strong for us for the last number (of games),” Gallant said. “They got two against us tonight, but (we) still did a real good job against a power play that was really dangerous every time they touched the puck.”

Florida’s ability to fight off the opposition’s power play has been a constant theme during this five game win streak. The league-leading Washington Capitals score on the power play at a 25 percent clip, but the Panthers killed off all eight of Washington’s power play chances at the Verizon Center on Tuesday.

The showing only served to bolster the Panthers’ seventh-ranked penalty kill unit that has staved off opposing power plays at an 83.4 percent rate this season. There’s also still plenty of room for improvement, as the Panthers have racked up 14 penalties in their last two games.

“Our penalty kill’s been phenomenal all year,” center Vincent Trocheck said. “(Derek) MacKenzie, (Reilly) Smith, Jussi (Jokinen) and (Sasha) Barkov, and then all our defensemen have been great on the kill. Power play, we’ve been working on it. We were struggling there pretty badly for a stretch and special teams is going to be big going late into the season, into the playoffs.”

That 0-for-28 stretch lasted most of January but has ended in a big way. Since Nick Bjugstad ended the drought against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Jan. 23, the Panthers have poured in goals on six of their last 15 chances.

Florida jumped from 25th to 22nd in the NHL after Thursday's game and hold a 17.7 percent power play conversion rate. Their most recent success would put them above even the Capitals. The Panthers scored on two of their four power play opportunities on Thursday, and they’ve now tallied a power play goal in four consecutive games.

Gallant said he couldn’t explain the recent surge, but he said his team has been skating hard and pointed to the chemistry on various lines.

“We work a lot on it,” Brandon Pirri said, “and there’s a lot of homework that goes into it. I think our coaches do a great job setting us up on tendencies, what they do, and at the same time, we’re executing. That’s what it comes down to.”

ANOTHER YOUNG GUN: Vincent Trocheck stepping out of the shadows, into prominent role with Florida Panthers ... Roberto Luongo takes day off, Panthers pull replacement from ticket office ... Attendance keeps growing, another sellout with Pens in town

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards
When the national hockey media talks about the Florida Panthers core group of young players, one usually gets overlooked.
While it's easy to fixate on the likes of rising stars Aaron Ekblad, Sasha Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and Nick Bjugstad, Vincent Trocheck sometimes slips through the cracks.
Those who sleep on Trocheck, however, do so at their own risk.
"He's a big part of our team and it's not just the four or five people everyone talks about,'' Florida coach Gerard Gallant said on Friday, a day after the 22-year-old Trocheck scored twice against Detroit.
"There are five or six other guys who are also very important. If we're going to win, it's not about three or four guys, you need a team. And [Trocheck] is a big part of that. He's a good player and we know he's going to put up points. I see a guy working hard on both ends, playing a complete game.''
Trocheck has most definitely come into his own in his second full NHL season since being drafted in the third round by the Panthers in 2011.
Last year, Trocheck scored seven goals in 50 games; Thursday in his 51st game of this season, he took the team lead with 17.
With five goals in his past four games, Trocheck -- not Barkov or Jaromir Jagr -- currently leads the Panthers in goals.
"I think experience has a lot to do with it, I've worked at a lot of different aspects to my game,'' said Trocheck, a Pittsburgh native who faces his hometown Penguins Saturday.
"I'm focusing on the defensive side of the puck more and realize if you work hard on the defensive side, it will create more offense. You always want to improve and I've worked on everything throughout the summer and year. I feel good about things. You don't want to get to high or too low on yourself.''
Trocheck is a restricted free agent after this season with the team working on a long-term contract extension with their second-line center.
Although Trocheck gives the standard "I'm only playing hockey" line when it comes to his contract, he makes it clear he wants to keep this thing going with the Panthers.
"I love it here in Florida, love the staff, love everyone in this locker room,'' he said. "We have something special going on here, a lot of young guys. This could be a team that does well for a long time."
Trocheck's speed plays well on a line with two other fast players in Jussi Jokinen and Reilly Smith. Those two are also having stellar seasons.
"We have a lot of chemistry, I've played with Jokinen a lot over the years,'' Trocheck said.
"Smith is someone who can play with anyone. He works hard, has a lot of skill. He can put the puck in the net whenever he pleased. We've clicked."
Those three are playing so well, Gallant won't designate either as his first line.
As far as he's concerned, the Trocheck line as well as the more publicized trio of Barkov, Huberdeau and Jagr are on equal footing.
"There are two lines which are the top lines to me,'' Gallant said. "I like them both. We have some really good players. It's a good problem to have.''
-- Roberto Luongo took Friday off to rest a bit but will start Saturday against the Penguins.
"He's 100 percent,'' Gallant said.
With Luongo absent, the Panthers pulled Bobby Segin out of their ticket office and put him between the pipes for practice.
A former goalie at UConn, Segin has been working on the Panthers' sales team this season and plays in the organization's morning hockey games at the arena.
Segin is a longtime family friend of Florida executive Peter Luukko and was noticed during those morning games by assistant coach John Madden who got his information in case they needed him.
Friday, they did.


"This was a dream come true,'' Segin said after a long workout. "I love playing hockey ... I wasn't nervous today, I knew it was going to be light. All the guys were great.''
Said Brandon Pirri: "You feel a little bad for the new guy sometimes, because you're shooting a little higher and harder than you usually would without Luongo yelling at you. He held his own, did a good job.''
-- The Panthers, who have won five consecutive games, are expecting their seventh sellout of the season on Saturday.
Last year, Florida sold out five of 41 home games.
The Panthers' average attendance of 14,620 is up almost 30 percent from last season as they have moved from last in the league to 25th.
The Panthers' announced crowd of 20,289 on Jan. 4 against the Rangers is their biggest of the season and third-largest all-time.
-- With Erik Gudbranson questionable for Saturday's game, Florida called up 26-year-old Brent Regner from its AHL team in Portland, Maine.
Regner, the Pirates' captain, was a fifth round draft pick by Columbus in 2008 and has played in over 400 AHL games.
If Regner plays Saturday, it will be his NHL debut in what is his first NHL recall.
Gudbranson has apparently been bothered by something since getting hit last week against Toronto.
Saturday: Penguins at Panthers
When, where: 7 p.m.; BB&T Center, Sunrise
TV/Radio: FSFL; 560 WQAM, 640 WMEN, WNMA 1210
Series: Pittsburgh leads 44-35-4
Scouting report: After a slow start which cost coach Mike Johnston his job, the Penguins are within striking distance of a playoff spot and had won four consecutive games heading into Friday's game in Tampa. Going into Friday, star Sidney Crosby had 11 goals and 18 points in his previous 12 games.

 

 

 

February 04, 2016

SPACEY IN SUNRISE?: Actor Kevin Spacey films short clip for team ... Florida Panthers hope 'SpaceyInSpace' comes for a game or two

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

The Panthers' relationship with Kevin Spacey continues to grow.

Thursday, the Panthers released a video the actor filmed for them and played it on the video review boards during the third period. Spacey, the focal point of the team's 'Spacey In Space' sweatshirt awarded to top players after victories, was shown leafing through various team jerseys before coming upon his own with the number 1738 on the back.

Spacey pulled the jersey off the rack, smiled and put a thumbs up.

"That was pretty cool," said Brandon Pirri, who scored a goal with an assist.

"You don't really want to be looking at the Jumbotron during a game but we were all nudging each other."

The reference to '1738' apparently goes back to the team's victory song -- which is 'Trap Queen' by rapper Fetty Wap -- in which Remy Martin 1738 cognac is referred to.

The team is apparently working on getting the Oscar-winning actor to a game or to somehow interact with the team.

"If we keep going the way we are,'' Pirri said, "I'm sure he will be."

It's believed some players ran into and met Spacey while the team was in New York back in December, leading to the sweatshirt and the subsequent craze.

The team sold out of the first 150 replica sweatshirts it ordered last week but restocked and had them for sale again Thursday before Florida's 6-3 win over Detroit for the team's fifth consecutive victory.

Sales of the sweatshirt benefit the Florida Panthers Foundation as well as Spacey's foundation.

Photo courtesy of Jameson Olive/@JamesonCoop

 

FLORIDA'S CRAZY TRAIN KEEPS ROLLING: Panthers keep scoring and keep winning as they trounce Detroit 6-3 ... Brandon Pirri makes big return, Vincent Trocheck gets two goals, assist ... Jaromir Jagr gets in on action as well

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards
The Florida Panthers have never scored this many goals and it feels like they've never beaten so many good teams.
Yes, they keep setting them up and knocking them down these days.
Detroit is the latest Eastern Conference challenger to get run over by the Panthers' as Florida jumped to a three-goal lead and rolled to a 6-3 win over the Red Wings at BB&T Center.
"Hopefully we can keep playing like this,'' Jaromir Jagr said.
Florida extended its lead on Tampa Bay to seven points atop the Atlantic Division and are now nine points up on the Red Wings.
The Panthers have now won five consecutive games in runaway fashion, outscoring the likes of Chicago, Tampa Bay, Washington and the Wings by an impressive 25-8 tally.
The Panthers' five-plus goals in their past four games is a franchise record.
"We're clicking, playing great hockey,'' said Vincent Trocheck, who scored twice and had an assist on Jagr's goal to make it 5-2.
"There's just something about the boys in this room. It's been a ton of fun. We have a great team here.''
Detroit, which lost in Tampa Bay on Wednesday night, came out flying and put goalie Roberto Luongo to the test early.
Yet as was the case Tuesday in Washington, the Panthers quickly turned the tables and started scoring in bunches.
"Well we didn't play our best and Louie kept us in the game,'' Jagr said.
"We gave them too many scoring chances in the first two periods. It looked like they were all over us, but we had the lead."
Brandon Pirri, benched the past four games, got back in action quickly as he got a stick on Alex Petrovic's 45-foot shot and got the puck past Jimmy Howard 8:30 in to make it 1-0.
"Getting the early goal really helps," Pirri said. "When I wasn't playing, I saw the stat of how good we are when we score first [26-3-3]. It's insane. We know that's important. We get the first one and we're in good shape."
The goals started pouring in after that, with Sasha Barkov cashing in on Florida's first power play with a soft top-shelf wrister at 10:41.
Just 25 seconds later, Trocheck broke loose off a Jagr pass, charged in on Howard and beat him to make it 3-0.
Detroit got back into the game late in the first period when Jagr got sent to the box for slashing.
As all four Florida defensemen converged on the puck in the corner, Dylan Larkin -- Detroit's 19-year-old All-Star -- was all alone in the slot across from Luongo.
Larkin got a pass and beat Luongo to make it 3-1 with 5.5 seconds left in the period. Early in the second, Larkin made it 3-2 by breaking loose when Aaron Ekblad was interfered with and walked in on Luongo again.
The Panthers gave themselves some breathing room with 3:47 left in the period.
Pirri was back at it, firing an odd-angle shot from the side boards that caught a piece of Derek MacKenzie and went into the back of the net.
After a pair of reviews -- one to make sure MacKenzie didn't kick the puck in, another on an interference challenge by Detroit -- MacKenzie's goal stood and Florida took a 4-2 lead into the second break.
"It wasn't pretty but it worked out,'' Pirri said.
The Panthers continued their assault on Howard, who hasn't won a game for the Wings since Dec. 3, with Jagr getting his first goal since Jan. 10.
Later in the proceedings, after the Red Wings pulled Howard and got their third goal, Trocheck all but ended things with five minutes left by scoring into the empty net.
The Panthers go for their sixth consecutive win Saturday against Pittsburgh before visiting the Red Wings in Detroit on Monday.
Florida now has its third five-game winning streak of the season, all since Thanksgiving.
"We played a pretty good game overall and you’ve got to give Detroit credit,'' coach Gerard Gallant said. "That’s a good hockey team with a lot of talent and they looked really good tonight.”

 

READY TO RETURN: Brandon Pirri is back from benching, will play on third line Thursday against Detroit

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards
Brandon Pirri will return to the Panthers lineup Thursday after being a healthy scratch the past four games.
Coach Gerard Gallant has been vague with why Pirri has been on the bench so long, saying Tuesday he didn't want to mess with a winning lineup -- although Gallant did switch up goalies Tuesday and Pirri is in tonight after four consecutive wins.
"It was frustrating at first but you have to put that aside,'' Pirri said. "I'm part of this team. There isn't added pressure, but it's an opportunity.
"You know what, I've done this before, I have confidence in myself. It's just a matter of going out, playing my game, and not trying to do too much. I also can't do too little. I'll compete, be consistent and we'll see what happens."
Pirri hasn't scored in his past six games and was a minus-5 during that span.
Gallant made the change when Florida was in the midst of a four-game losing streak and the Panthers bounced back, winning their past four.
"The team has been going good and that's a silver lining,'' Pirri said. "Now it's my time to contribute and I know I have a lot to offer. But I know, when we weren't doing well, it's competitive here. Other guys should have been playing. I've been on that side of it, on the outside looking in then when you get a chance, you make the most of it.
"We've been playing pretty well, but now I get the opportunity and need to make the most of it.''
That said, Pirri can score goals in bunches -- and while the Panthers have been great in that department, bringing him back can't hurt.
Florida has 19 goals in the four games Pirri has missed.
Pirri will be on the third line with Nick Bjugstad and Logan Shaw, players Pirri knows well.
He's ready to go.
"There's chemistry there, we're friends and it's important to play alongside people you like," Pirri said. "That should make it easier to gel a little quicker."

Alan Diaz/AP

 

February 03, 2016

GETTING IT DONE: Florida Panthers can't go wrong with either Roberto Luongo or Al Montoya in net

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

WASHINGTON

Robb Tallas is charged with coordinating the Panthers' goalie rotation.
With Roberto Luongo and Al Montoya as his options, Tallas admits it isn't the toughest gig in the world.
"Both guys have been terrific all year and that gives you so much confidence whichever way we go,'' Tallas said after Montoya improved to 8-2-1 by beating the Capitals 5-2 on Tuesday.
"The players have confidence in both that they will step up and make the saves they need to make.''
With the Panthers in first place and riding another winning streak, Tallas tries to strike the right balance between working Luongo too much and not giving enough work to Montoya.
On most nights, either choice has been the right one as Luongo and Montoya may be the best 1-2 option in the NHL.
Luongo is ranked in the NHL's top 10 in save percentage (93) and goals-against average (2.08) as well as wins (22) and shutouts (four).
Montoya would be ranked as well, although he hasn't played enough games (13) to be considered.
Montoya has stopped 93 percent of shots faced, with an average goals-against at 1.93.
Florida's 109 goals allowed are second-fewest only to Washington's 108.
"They both give us a chance to win every night,'' Brian Campbell said. "Both make huge saves for us at times. You need consistent saves every night and they both bring it. Montoya gets put into a tough spot a lot of times and nothing seems to change."
A former NHL goalie himself, Tallas has been credited by both Luongo and Montoya as a hands-on coach who doesn't make them do too much.
During the summer, Luongo seeks out Tallas' help in working on drills while Montoya says Tallas hits the right balance on making sure his goalies are rested yet ready.
"He doesn't overwork us,'' Montoya said after he became the first goalie this season to beat the Washington Capitals twice.
"We do what we need. We work on specifics but it's not about facing 100 extra shots after practice. It's about feeling good, keeping that game mentality in practice."
Montoya has done a good job this season of being ready when called upon.
Although Luongo -- who is having, statistically, perhaps the best season of his long career -- gets most of the work, Montoya has turned in some top performances.
Even though he has only started four games since the New Year, Montoya earned the 'Spacey In Space' sweatshirt for the second time on Tuesday.
Against the Capitals, Montoya was stellar especially early when the Panthers needed him most.
Florida looked like it enjoyed its All-Star break a bit too much and the Capitals, perhaps overcompensating without Alex Ovechkin in the lineup, came out guns blazing.
Montoya stopped eight shots in the first half of the opening period, many of which were tough, point blank saves.
Then, the Panthers got a goal from Jonathan Huberdeau to take an unlikely 1-0 lead. By the start of the second, Montoya had made 16 saves only the Panthers had a 3-0 lead and were rolling.
"I'll take what games I can get and contribute when I can,'' said Montoya, whose 36 saves Tuesday were second only to the 39 he made in a win over the Wild last month.
"I prepare to play every game and when I get called, I know I can give this team a chance to win and that's all I focus on. I try not to do more than that. I make the saves I can.''
On Thursday, Detroit comes to Sunrise and Luongo will be back manning the nets. Luongo will likely start Saturday as well, with Montoya's next opportunity to play next week when Florida visits Detroit and Buffalo on consecutive nights.
Montoya will keep working, waiting until called again.
"Montoya knows his role and there's no deflecting things,'' Tallas said. "They are a tandem, a team out there. Luongo has been a rock and Montoya has been as well."
-- The Panthers are the only team to beat the Capitals twice this season and it was their first win in Washington since 2010.
Montoya went 2-0-1 against the Capitals this season, handing Florida its first season win over Washington since 2010-11.
Dmitry Kulikov was there for most of Florida's 10 consecutive losses at Verizon Center and is enjoying his team's success in buildings they've struggled in over his tenure.
"My memories here aren't good. We've been destroyed here,'' Kulikov said. "For this team, though, this was just another win in our season. We keep collecting points. It's awesome being a part of this team. We have a great group of guys. We're all having fun. It's much better than being miserable.''
-- Jaromir Jagr left Tuesday's game midway through the third with what is said to be lower body tightness. The Panthers do not believe the injury is anything serious.
-- By killing off all eight penalties incurred on Tuesday, Florida's penalty kill jumped from eighth to fifth in the league.
Washington's first goal, however, was directly linked to Florida's final kill as it was scored seconds after Derek MacKenzie raced out of the box. He was slapped with an extra two minutes for unsportsmanlike conduct after being called for hooking -- Florida's third such penalty.
"Our penalty kill was just terrific,'' Tallas said.
Thursday: Red Wings at Panthers
When, where: 7:30 p.m.; BB&T Center, Sunrise
TV/Radio: FSFL; 560 WQAM, 640 WMEN, WNMA 1210
Series: Detroit leads 16-8-5
Scouting report: The Panthers have won four of five against the Red Wings under coach -- and former Detroit winger -- Gerard Gallant in the past two seasons.

Photo: Terry Renna/AP

 

February 02, 2016

CAPITAL IMPROVEMENT: Florida Panthers keep on rolling, snap 10-game losing streak in Washington with 5-2 rout of Capitals ... Al Montoya out of this world with 36 saves, wins 2 of 3 v Caps this season

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards
WASHINGTON
The Florida Panthers haven't been in the national spotlight much in the past two decades.
They put on quite the show Tuesday.
Florida came out of the All-Star break much like they went into it, scoring a bunch of goals and getting great goaltending -- this time from Al Montoya -- in a 5-2 win over the host Washington Capitals.
"We're playing the best teams in the league and we're winning,'' Sasha Barkov said. "It says we can beat any team in the league, we can dominate any team."
The win was Florida's first in Washington since Tomas Vokoun pitched a shutout here in 2010 -- a run of 10 consecutive losses (by a combined 36-13) in the District.
"We know we're a good team and we believe in ourselves,'' said Jonathan Huberdeau, who scored twice and had an assist in the rout.
"We're showing that on the ice. We got the lead early and our goaltender did the job. It's a team effort. We're in first right now ... Every game we want to show we're a really good team.''
Playing on national television for the first time since in two years, Florida raced out to a 2-0 first period lead on the Eastern Conference leading Capitals before Vincent Trocheck made it 3-0 just 21 seconds into the second.
The win was Florida's fourth consecutive; three victories have come against the defending Stanley Cup finalists (Chicago, Tampa Bay) as well as the current east-leading Caps.
The Panthers have their past four games (cellar-dweller Toronto was Florida's last game before the break) by an impressive combined score of 19-5.
"I was on my toes the whole game,'' said Montoya, who got the 'Spacey In Space' MVP sweatshirt.
"They came out firing and we know teams aren't going to quit. This was a big win after the break.''
The Capitals came into the game without two of their biggest stars as Alex Ovechkin served his suspension for skipping the All-Star Game and goalie Braden Holtby took a breather in the midst of his monster season.
And even thought the Panthers looked a step slow coming out of the gate, Montoya saved them time and again until the goals started coming.
Montoya, who won two of three starts against the Capitals this season, was forced to make 16 saves in the first period alone.
The Capitals didn't get their first goal until their 28th shot seconds into the third at the end of Florida's eighth penalty of the night.
Washington then added a second moments later to slice Florida's four-goal lead in half.
Florida took the initial lead midway through the first when Jaromir Jagr bull rushed around the net and sliced a pass to Huberdeau who charged in front of the net and beat Philpp Grubauer.
Five minutes later and Florida took advantage of a healthy 5-on-3 chance.
Huberdeau worked the puck around to Nick Bjugstad who flipped a backhanded shot to Sasha Barkov coming up the side. Barkov's high heat was way too much for Grubauer to handle.
"We're playing a more simple game, getting pucks to the net,'' Barkov said. "We have guys in front and that's why we're scoring and that's why we're winning.''
In the second, Trocheck took off after beating All-Star Evgeny Kuznetsov on the opening faceoff and sliced an odd-angle shot from the right side boards, somehow beating the goalie.
By the time Huberdeau got his second with 4:50 left in the period, Washington had Florida doubled up in shots yet trailed 4-0.
The Panthers, up 4-2 in the final minutes, capped things off when Quinton Howden got an empty-net goal.
"I thought we played well,'' Bjugstad said. "We had two good periods and we weathered the storm in the third."
-- Brandon Pirri was out of the Panthers' lineup for the fourth consecutive game.

-- Jagr left the game in the third period and didn't return with what one team source said was minor, lower-body soreness. Jagr didn't appear to be injured and his condition may just be fatigue-related and isn't thought to be serious. Jagr is expected to play Thursday against Detroit.

-- By losing Tuesday, Washington saw its run of 13 consecutive home games with at least a point end.
The Capitals, 18-4-2 at Verizon Center this season, dropped to 12-1-1 in their past 14 home games.
-- Before losing to the Panthers in December, Washington had picked up at least a point in 14 consecutive games against the Panthers.
Florida won two of three against the Capitals this season -- two of which came in regulation -- and took the season series for the first time since 2010-11.

 

February 01, 2016

A HAPPY ALL-STAR: Jaromir Jagr enjoys time in Nashville, says he's not surprised John Scott did well in Nashville

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards
NASHVILLE
Jaromir Jagr may have been a reluctant member of the All-Star team but once he got to Nashville, seemed to enjoy himself.
"We weren't even sure he was going to be on the plane Thursday so that was a nice surprise right off the bat,'' Roberto Luongo said.
Saturday, Jagr was one of the stars of Saturday's Skills Challenge as Montreal's P.K. Subban came out for his breakaway competition dressed as Jagr complete with a flowing wig.
After Sunday's game, he didn't rule out a return perhaps next year in Los Angeles.
"You never really know what's going to happen,'' Jagr said. "We'll see. I said before I wanted to stay home to practice for the next 30 games. But this was fun, no doubt about it."
No one thought Jagr would dog it once on the ice but both Gallant and Luongo seemed taken back by how much Jagr put into Sunday's game.
Jagr scored in the first period -- he is in a seven-game slump, not scoring since Jan. 10 -- and was working hard defensively in the championship.
"He back-checked hard twice and I'm going to use that video for our games," coach Gerard Gallant said.
Said Luongo: "He doesn't even do that in Florida. I might have to have a chat with him on the flight home."
After the game, Jagr couldn't hide his pleasure in current AHLer John Scott winning the game's MVP vote after all he had been through.
The NHL, Jagr said, thought Scott's inclusion to the game would be a black-eye on the event since he was a fourth-line enforcer with Arizona. Then, he was traded to Montreal and demoted to the minors to void his All-Star invite.
The NHL eventually relented due to overwhelming backlash toward its dealing with the popular Scott and he became the belle of this country music ball.
"Was I surprised? No. He played in the league, played in the NHL. He played for a lot of years," Jagr said.
"The difference between the best player in the NHL and the worst player is very small. It's not a huge gap, not like it used to be. That's why it's so tough to score right now. The difference between the guys who score a lot of goals -- Ovechkin, Malkin, Crosby, Kane, Toews -- is the power play time.
"There are a lot of guys on the fourth line who have the skill to play on the top two lines. They just didn't get the oppportunity. That's why I'm not surprised at all. The game has changed."
As for Jagr's previous comments that he thought Scott would kill him during the All-Star Game, Jagr said it was in the back of his head.
"I'm glad we didn't have a big lead or he may have jumped on me," Jagr said of the championship game, won by Scott's Pacific team 1-0. "That's why we kept it close."

 

BACK AFTER IT: Florida Panthers ready to keep winning ways going after All-Star break ... Panthers visit Capitals Tuesday ... Alex Ovechkin, Braden Holtby out as Cats rest Roberto Luongo

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

NASHVILLE

Vacation is over for the Florida Panthers.
No more strolling Duval Street in Key West, tanning in the Bahamas or jamming in the Nashville honkey tonks.
"There are a lot of guys who were on vacation and didn't practice,'' Jaromir Jagr said after three Panthers and coach Gerard Gallant took part in Sunday's All-Star Game in Nashville.
"We're starting from zero I guess.''
Tuesday, the Panthers get back to the task at hand as Florida kicks off its final stretch by visiting the Washington Capitals -- the top team in the Eastern Conference -- in a game nationally televised on NBC Sports Net.
The Panthers, who come into Tuesday five points up in the Atlantic Division, have 33 games left as they make a run for just their third postseason berth since 2000.
"We need to get the right mindset right away,'' said Roberto Luongo, who won't play Tuesday.
"These are all important games down the stretch. We don't want things to slip away."
Florida opens against the Washington Capitals, a team it has earned three of the available four points so far this season.
The Panthers haven't fared well in the nation's capital lately, however.
Florida has lost 10 consecutive games at Verizon Center, its previous win coming on Dec. 9, 2010 when Tomas Vokoun made 36 saves and the Panthers got goals from Michael Frolik, Steve Bernier and Mike Santorelli.
Since 2010, Washington has won 13 of 14 home meetings between the two.
Florida, however, is playing its best hockey in years if not decades.
The Panthers have won their past three games and are 21-6-1 since Thanksgiving. One of those wins came against the visiting Capitals.
"Things have been going well for us the past few months and we want to keep it going,'' Gallant said. "We always talk about it's not about what we did our last two months, but what we do in our next two months.
"We all know what our goal was at the start of the season. We have 33 big ones left. We have to win our share of them to get into the playoffs. It's not about getting 90 points; it's about getting into the playoffs."
Washington will be minus some of its star power as Alex Ovechkin is suspended for Tuesday's game for skipping the All-Star Game.
The Capitals will also rest leading Vezina Trophy candidate Braden Holtby as both teams will bring out their backup goalies. Florida will rest Luongo as well, with Al Montoya getting the start against Washington for the third time this season.
Luongo has yet to face the Capitals this year.
"I'm saving it for the playoffs,'' he quipped.
Washington coach Barry Trotz said he has been impressed with the Panthers and the job general manager Dale Tallon has done building the roster up through the draft.
"He cropdusted the first and second rounds the past couple of years,'' Trotz said. "People in Florida should be very excited. ... They are one of the great up-and-coming teams."
Trotz had a lot of good things to say about defenseman Aaron Ekblad, saying the top pick in 2015 is growing into a superstar.
"He's going to be not only the face of the Panthers, but of the league,'' Trotz said.
Said Ekblad: "That's very sweet of him, he's one of the better coaches to ever coach. Those are kind words. It's an honor."
Tuesday: Panthers at Capitals
When, where: 7:30 p.m.; Verizon Center, Washington
TV/Radio: NBCSN; WQAM 560, WMEN 640
Series: Washington leads 60-46-9
Scouting report: The Eastern Conference leading Capitals have won seven of nine and went into the break with an overtime loss to the Flyers. The Panthers are 1-0-1 against the Caps this season with both games played in Sunrise and with Al Montoya in net.

 

 

BACK AFTER IT: Florida Panthers ready to keep winning ways going after All-Star break ... Panthers visit Capitals Tuesday ... Alex Ovechkin, Braden Holtby out as Cats rest Roberto Luongo

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

NASHVILLE

Vacation is over for the Florida Panthers.
No more strolling Duval Street in Key West, tanning in the Bahamas or jamming in the Nashville honkey tonks.
"There are a lot of guys who were on vacation and didn't practice,'' Jaromir Jagr said after three Panthers and coach Gerard Gallant took part in Sunday's All-Star Game in Nashville.
"We're starting from zero I guess.''
Tuesday, the Panthers get back to the task at hand as Florida kicks off its final stretch by visiting the Washington Capitals -- the top team in the Eastern Conference -- in a game nationally televised on NBC Sports Net.
The Panthers, who come into Tuesday five points up in the Atlantic Division, have 33 games left as they make a run for just their third postseason berth since 2000.
"We need to get the right mindset right away,'' said Roberto Luongo, who won't play Tuesday.
"These are all important games down the stretch. We don't want things to slip away."
Florida opens against the Washington Capitals, a team it has earned three of the available four points so far this season.
The Panthers haven't fared well in the nation's capital lately, however.
Florida has lost 10 consecutive games at Verizon Center, its previous win coming on Dec. 9, 2010 when Tomas Vokoun made 36 saves and the Panthers got goals from Michael Frolik, Steve Bernier and Mike Santorelli.
Since 2010, Washington has won 13 of 14 home meetings between the two.
Florida, however, is playing its best hockey in years if not decades.
The Panthers have won their past three games and are 21-6-1 since Thanksgiving. One of those wins came against the visiting Capitals.
"Things have been going well for us the past few months and we want to keep it going,'' Gallant said. "We always talk about it's not about what we did our last two months, but what we do in our next two months.
"We all know what our goal was at the start of the season. We have 33 big ones left. We have to win our share of them to get into the playoffs. It's not about getting 90 points; it's about getting into the playoffs."
Washington will be minus some of its star power as Alex Ovechkin is suspended for Tuesday's game for skipping the All-Star Game.
The Capitals will also rest leading Vezina Trophy candidate Braden Holtby as both teams will bring out their backup goalies. Florida will rest Luongo as well, with Al Montoya getting the start against Washington for the third time this season.
Luongo has yet to face the Capitals this year.
"I'm saving it for the playoffs,'' he quipped.
Washington coach Barry Trotz said he has been impressed with the Panthers and the job general manager Dale Tallon has done building the roster up through the draft.
"He cropdusted the first and second rounds the past couple of years,'' Trotz said. "People in Florida should be very excited. ... They are one of the great up-and-coming teams."
Trotz had a lot of good things to say about defenseman Aaron Ekblad, saying the top pick in 2015 is growing into a superstar.
"He's going to be not only the face of the Panthers, but of the league,'' Trotz said.
Said Ekblad: "That's very sweet of him, he's one of the better coaches to ever coach. Those are kind words. It's an honor."
Tuesday: Panthers at Capitals
When, where: 7:30 p.m.; Verizon Center, Washington
TV/Radio: NBCSN; WQAM 560, WMEN 640
Series: Washington leads 60-46-9
Scouting report: The Eastern Conference leading Capitals have won seven of nine and went into the break with an overtime loss to the Flyers. The Panthers are 1-0-1 against the Caps this season with both games played in Sunrise and with Al Montoya in net.

 

 

January 31, 2016

A SURPRISING MVP: John Scott wins the All-Star day, earns MVP honors ... Atlantic team, led by three Florida Panthers and coach Gerard Gallant, loses 1-0 in final

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards
NASHVILLE
Midway through the championship period of Sunday's 61st annual NHL All-Star Game, fans began chanting John Scott's name.
Each time he stepped onto the ice, they roared 'M-V-P!'
And although the NHL didn't include him in their three nominees to vote for game MVP on Twitter, the social media site was flooded with write-in votes for him.
So, after taking the a long, strange road to the NHL All-Star Game, Scott, the most unlikeliest of candidates, won the day.
Although Scott didn't score in the Pacific Division's 1-0 win over the Atlantic to win the game and $1 million prize, the former Arizona enforcer who now toils for a minor league team in Canada was named the Most Valuable Player over all the millionaire superstars surrounding him.
"You can't put it into words,'' Scott said after being hoisted onto the shoulders of the likes of Brent Burns, Taylor Hall and Joe Pavelski.
"This has been a whirlwind. The best weekend of my life."
After winning an online vote to become captain of the Pacific team -- Florida's Jaromir Jagr was voted to captain the Atlantic -- Scott was suspiciously traded from the Coyotes to Montreal.
The Canadiens immediately demoted him to their minor league team in Newfoundland, the St. John's IceCaps.
Scott chronicled his journey in a story he penned on The Players' Tribune website, shedding light on how the NHL didn't want him playing in this new 3-on-3 format.
Commissioner Gary Bettman addressed Scott's selection on Saturday, saying "he wanted to be here and we're happy he is."
Bettman also met with Scott in Nashville to smooth things over.
Scott also got in a dig at NBC analyst and former NHL star Jeremy Roenick which sent his online stock even higher.
During an interview on the bench, Roenick apologized for comments he made about Scott not belonging to be at the game.
"It's not the first time you've been wrong, let's just say that," Scott told a stone-faced Roenick.
Bettman handed over the oversized check representing the winning team's haul.
Each player on the Pacific team will pocket close to $91,000 -- which works out to be about 15 percent of Scott's base NHL salary this season.
"You saw the fans but also his teammates and our team were so excited to see him win that,'' said Florida's Gerard Gallant, coach of the Atlantic team.
"He worked hard and has a lot of things going on in his life right now. But that was a real special moment."
As MVP, Scott also gets a new Honda minivan, something he said he asked his temporary teammates to donate to him if they won.
His wife Danielle, after all, is about to give birth to twins.
"I need it,'' he said. "I'm going to have four kids pretty soon."
Scott, who has five goals in 285 NHL games, scored twice in the Pacific's 9-6 victory over the Central team which set up a championship showdown against an Atlantic team featuring three members of the Florida Panthers.
In the championship period, Roberto Luongo stopped all 12 shots he faced in the opening 10 minutes before handing things over to Tampa Bay's Ben Bishop.
With 6:22 left, Anaheim's Corey Perry beat Bishop and, surprisingly based on the wide-open nature of the 3-on-3 session, that was it.
Although Perry scored later, Gallant and Jagr challenged it with a little help from celebrity coach Amy Grant and won, wiping the second goal off the books.
"I had to explain what we could get from the challenge,'' Gallant said. "It worked well, it was great. She really seemed to enjoy it. It was fun.''
The Atlantic, despite pulling Bishop and going 4-on-3 for the final 90 seconds, couldn't beat Anaheim's John Gibson and the All-Star win belonged to Scott and his Pacific teammates.It was a great moment, obviously, one not lost on the guys from the other side.
"As much as I hate to lose, if I ever wanted to lose a game, I'm glad we lost [Sunday],'' Jagr said.
"It's a great story. Everyone thought it would be bad for hockey and it turned out to be one of the best stories in hockey. He truly deserved it. The fans voted for him and he played good. The [NHL] probably doesn't know what good he did."
Said Luongo: "He deserves it, popped in a couple in the first game. I can't imagine what it means for him to be here. We're all happy for him that he got a chance to win this. It was a fairytale ending.''
The Panthers got into the championship period -- the All-Star Game was broken up into three, 20-minute periods with the league broken up into its four divisions -- by winning the opener 4-3 over the Metropolitan.
Of the four goals, two were scored by Florida players as Jagr tied the score at 2 before Aaron Ekblad tied it at 3.
Montreal's P.K. Subban, who impersonated Jagr in Saturday's Skills Competition, gave the Atlantic its first and final lead with 4:38 left.
"I thought it was outstanding, the guys worked hard," Gallant said. "I didn't think it was going to be that competitive but the guys didn't want to make any mistakes."
-- Luongo and Washington goalie Braden Holtby met Sunday but won't face each other Tuesday when the Panthers visit the Capitals.
Both Luongo and Holtby, favored to be Vezina Trophy contenders, will both take the night off.

 

January 30, 2016

#SpaceyInSpace All-Star Edition: Panthers' Aaron Ekblad breaks out sweatshirt ... P.K. Subban does best Jaromir Jagr impersonation


TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards
NASHVILLE
The biggest winners at Saturday night's All-Star Skills Competition may just have been the Florida Panthers.
Not only did P.K. Subban win the Breakaway Challenge dressed as Jaromir Jagr -- complete with Florida's white road jersey with Jagr's No. 68 and a graying mullet wig -- but Florida's 'Spacey In Space' sweatshirt also made an appearance.
Defenseman Aaron Ekblad wore the lucky blue sweatshirt -- the one the Panthers give out to their game MVP after victories -- for his turn in the hardest shot competition.
"The team wanted to do it, get some good press for the Panthers,'' Ekblad said.
"A lot of guys around the league hadn't seen it yet. And no one knows the true story behind it, either."
Goalie Roberto Luongo got into the act, shoving former Vancouver teammate Cory Schneider out of the way so Brent Burns' young son could score in the breakaway.
Luongo then stopped all nine shots faced in the shootout event.
"We had a good time,'' Luongo said. "We had a lot of stuff going on. A lot of funny things happened, not just from our guys. I really enjoyed it; that was probably the most fun I've had at the skills competition. We were trying to give the fans a show.''
How the Panthers got the sweatshirt to Nashville without many getting wise was stealthy stuff.
First, the team had to borrow the royal blue sweatshirt from Alex Petrovic, who, as the previous winner of it last Tuesday, technically holds onto it until the next win.
Petrovic handed the sweatshirt over to team COO Matthew Caldwell, a 2002 West Point graduate who told the Miami Herald he hid the sweatshirt until bringing it to Bridgestone Arena Saturday afternoon "like the nuclear football" where he delivered it to Ekblad.
Doug Cifu, a co-owner of the Panthers, said Ekblad was more than happy to wear the sweatshirt yet everyone needed to keep the secret so not to tip off any potential NHL "fun police" who may have objected to the stunt.
"I was tucking it down in my jersey,'' said Ekblad, who left the ice to put it on. "It was a good surprise."
Caldwell was trusted with bringing it to the Music City. "He's protecting it like it's the Shroud of Turin," Cifu said.


Also a secret was Subban's tribute to Jagr. For his second shot in the breakaway, Subban raced out of the locker room dressed as Jagr to loud cheers.
Subban, Montreal's star defenseman, was warmly greeted by Jagr on the ice as the two posed for pictures although Jagr said the painted wig had too many gray hairs in it for his taste.
"I didn't know he was going to do that and it was funny,'' Jagr said. "I have the nine 'Traveling Jagrs' around the league. He can be the tenth. He said he was looking for the job. He'll do fine."
Said Subban: "This was just a tribute to Jagr and the great career he's had. He's got great hair and is a good looking guy. That's where it starts."
-- By winning the Skills Competition, the Eastern Conference teams will play the first period semifinal at 5 p.m.; the west teams will follow at 6 with the championship scheduled for 7.
"Hopefully we win then we can take a break and get ready for the third,'' Luongo said.
Said Jagr: "If we lose I can go home right away and rest"
-- The NHL announced Saturday that it was donating $200,000 to help Denna Laing in her recovery from an accident at the Winter Classic in Foxboro, Massachusetts.
Laing, playing in the Outdoor Women's Classic game for the Boston Pride on New Year's Eve, suffered a severe spinal cord injury.
The Bruins and Canadiens, who played in the Winter Classic, have also been raising money for Laing.
Saturday, the NHL also announced it arraigned to have a specially-equipped Honda minivan donated to Laing.

 

ROBERTO LUONGO'S VISION COMING TOGETHER IN FLORIDA: Panthers' goalie enjoying view from the top, ready for a Twitter-friendly All-Star Game

 

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards
NASHVILLE
It was a happy time for Roberto Luongo as he was finally headed to his adopted home and a return to the Florida Panthers.
Yet when the blockbuster deal between Vancouver and Florida went down in 2014, some derided Luongo's decision to leave the Canucks -- a team he led to the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals -- for the sadsack Panthers.
"It means playing for a Florida Panthers franchise,'' one columnist wrote, "that always seems to be clinging to the edge of the cliff."
"Today is a rare victory for the Panthers," said another.
Luongo heard the dissenting voices, who assumed he was headed south to "ride into the sunset" and knew the only way to prove them wrong was to start winning -- with the Panthers.
"Anybody who knows me knows that is not in my nature," Luongo said from Nashville, where he will play in his fifth All-Star Game and second in as many year.
"What I'm all about, why I play the game is because I want to win. I want to have another crack at [the Stanley Cup]. One of the things that really upset me when this whole thing went down was people thought I was coming back to retire. That's not me. I'm competitive, I want to win badly. I want to go for it again."
Right now, things are looking up in Florida where the Panthers lead Tampa Bay and Detroit by five points atop the Atlantic Division.
Luongo is having fun with a easy to root for Florida squad. The team has plenty of characters to go with their talent.
"People are talking about us ,'' Luongo said. "When we were on that streak, it opened up a lot of eyes. The only thing we can do is keep winning. That will bring more attention to us. But we kind of like to keep it on the down low; keep it quiet. We don’t want to wake too many teams up regarding our team."
Luongo needed to get out of Vancouver, that much was obvious, only his long contract made things complicated.
So, too, was Luongo's insistence that he be dealt back to the Panthers.
Luckily for him, general manager Dale Tallon was interested in bringing him back and had the blessing of owners Vinnie Viola and Doug Cifu to make a deal near the trade deadline.
Luongo was scheduled to play the Arizona Coyotes that evening and spoke to the Vancouver media before the big trade happened.
"My desire to compete, my desire to win is as high as it has ever been," Luongo said.
A few hours later, and he was headed back to the Panthers.
Although Luongo's first few months back in Florida were forgettable -- save for the shutout he pitched in his return against Buffalo -- the past two seasons have been pretty memorable.
Now 36, Luongo is playing as well as he ever has.
Last season, Luongo was considered Florida's MVP as he kept the team in the playoff race until the final games.
This season, Luongo is playing even better.
Over the course of the season, Luongo has won 22 games, which with 33 left, has him on pace to top his career-high of 38 wins with Vancouver in his best season in 2010-11.
How good has Luongo been this season?
Not only is he a likely Vezina Trophy finalist, he currently has the lowest goals-against average (2.08) of his illustrious career with his highest save percentage (93).
Since Thanksgiving, the Panthers have gone 21-6-1; Luongo is 16-5-1 in those games.
During Florida's impressive run, Luongo has three shutouts, and has surrendered two goals or fewer in 17 of those games.
"I think we surprised a lot of teams, a lot of media guys around the league," Jaromir Jagr said.
"I still don't think a lot of people believe in us and that doesn't matter. As long as we believe in ourselves and [Luongo] is playing in net the way he has, we have good enough players to compete in every game."
The Panthers have four representatives at this year's All-Star weekend, most in franchise history.
Through his popular Twitter account,
Luongo will make sure everyone knows the Panthers are in town.
Like last year, when he tweeted out amusing thoughts from the bench, Luongo expects to make great use of social media again this year.
In Sunday's 3-on-3 All-Star tournament -- which will last at least one period -- Luongo expects to play at least 10 minutes with Tampa Bay's Ben Bishop playing the other half.
That gives Luongo plenty of time to tweet.
Saturday, he sent out a tweet directed to Jagr of a Life Alert pager, writing "just picked up a little something for the 3-on-3 tomorrow. Hope you wear it."


Expect more of the same from Luongo as the All-Star weekend continues.
Luongo said he didn't get any backlash from the league last season so he'll keep his Twitter machine going.
"I'm sure I'll be able to fire off a few," said Luongo, who goes by the handle '@strombone1' and as of Saturday afternoon, had close to 608,000 followers.
"I had fun with it last year and if a couple of funny ones come to me, I'll fire something off."
NHL ALL-STAR GAME
When, where: Sunday, 5 p.m.; Bridgestone Arena, Nashville
TV: NBCSN
Florida Panthers participating: Atlantic Division captain Jaromir Jagr, Roberto Luongo, Aaron Ekblad; coach Gerard Gallant
Format: This year, the All-Star Game is a tournament of sorts with the NHL's four divisions (Atlantic, Metropolitan, Central, Pacific) split up.
The Atlantic and Metropolitan will meet up in a 20-minute 3-on-3 session. The winner of that game will face the winner of the Central/Pacific period with the winner of the third and final championship period splitting a $1 million prize pool.

 

January 28, 2016

EKBLAD THE ALL-STAR: Florida Panthers defenseman continues to turn heads as he's set to make second All-Star appearance

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards
NASHVILLE
Aaron Ekblad went to the All-Star Game in Columbus last year a fresh-faced rookie who didn't seem in awe of all the assembled talent around him.
Originally selected for the skills competition, Ekblad gained a spot in the actual game due to another player backing out the day before.
"Hopefully I'll get another chance at this sometime later in my career,'' Ekblad said after notching four assists in the game.
Ekblad didn't have to wait long for his next shot at being an All-Star.
This year, Ekblad's play earned one of three defensemen spots on the Atlantic Division team alongside past Norris Award winners Montreal's P.K. Subban and Ottawa's Erik Karlsson.
For the second consecutive year, Ekblad will take part in the All-Star skills competition as well as the game.
This time, however, his inclusion in the game was based on his merits and not someone else dropping out of the festivities.
All-Star weekend kicks off Friday in Nashville with the Skills Competition Saturday and the new 3-on-3 tournament-style All-Star Game on Sunday.
"It's 100 percent more rewarding,'' Ekblad said. "I didn't feel like I was supposed to be there last year. It's not something you want to be involved in if you're not supposed to be there.
"I was a rookie, just taking it all in, and then I'm playing in the game. I think the experience will help me this year but this is much more rewarding. And it's rewarding for my team.''
Ekblad is the second-youngest All-Star, a few months older than Detroit rookie Dylan Larkin who was drafted 15th by the Red Wings last June in Sunrise.
"Maybe he's not 19,'' coach Gerard Galland said of Ekblad's maturity. "He could be 23. He's a young superstar."
The reigning Calder Trophy winner as the league's rookie of the year, Ekblad is opening eyes around the league.
Aside from Ekblad and Jonathan Huberdeau's Calder wins as well as a pair of Rocket Richard goal scoring trophies for Pavel Bure and Brian Campbell's Lady Bing, the Panthers don't have many NHL award winners in their trophy case.
With Ekblad, however, that could change in the coming years.
Already considered one of the top young defensemen in the league -- he's a lock for the North American 'young guns' team at the World Cup of Hockey this summer -- Ekblad is quickly making a name as one of the top players at his position throughout the NHL.
Ekblad said one of his goals growing up was to someday win the Norris Trophy for top defenseman in the league, and just two years into his NHL career, he's already being mentioned as a possible candidate for the prestigious award.
Another of his goals: "I want to win the Stanley Cup with my team here in Florida."
Ekblad's maturity makes him stand out and it has since he stepped onto the ice for the Panthers' season-opener in 2014 at Tampa.
"The way he plays such a complete game at his age is very rare,'' said Gallant, who will coach the Atlantic team in Nashville.
"When you see young defensemen, they have skill and move the puck but they have trouble in the defensive zone. Now, [Ekblad] makes mistakes like everyone, but not near as many as you would think. He has skill and composure. He doesn't get rattled. There's no doubt he's a great all-around player.''
When Ekblad is asked which players he grew up idolizing or hopes to emulate, he rattles off a who's who of top NHL defensemen such as Duncan Keith, Shea Weber, Roman Josi and Drew Doughty.
Ekblad doesn't claim to be at their level right now yet the gap between them appears to be closing by the day.
"The most important thing to remember is that I'm not 30 yet,'' Ekblad said. "I still have to take things a day at a time, keep working hard. I want to be a great player so I'll keep working on it. ... I haven't done really anything in my life yet. That's the way I feel."
Growing up across from Detroit in Windsor, Canada, Ekblad followed the Red Wings closely.
It's no surprise Nicklas Lidstrom was his favorite player.
"Of course,'' Ekblad said. "That's an obvious one for me.''
Gallant played for the Red Wings from 1984-93 and watched Lidstrom's first two NHL seasons as closely as one could.
Does Gallant see similarities in Ekblad's game?
"It has to be Lidstrom," Gallant said.
"It's not [just] me saying it, it's everyone saying it. Obviously Lidstrom is a Hall of Famer. Now if the kid keeps going the way he is, he's going to have a chance at that. We hope he continues that path and we don't see why he won't. He does it every night for us. It's hard to believe he's 19."
Ekblad's value to the Panthers was on display earlier this month.
After being boarded by Edmonton's Matt Hendricks on Jan. 10, Ekblad suffered a concussion and missed the next four games.
The Panthers watched their 12-game winning streak end in Vancouver in Ekblad's first game out of the lineup.
Florida ended up losing four consecutive games, not winning again until Ekblad returned last Friday against Chicago.
Coincidence or not, Ekblad hasn't been on the ice for a Florida loss since Dec. 10 in Boston -- a run of 15 consecutive victories.
"In the end, I'm part of this team,'' he said. "So when we lose, even if I'm not on the ice, it's a loss. It stings just as much and made me want to get back even more.''

 

January 27, 2016

THE RIGHT PICK: Florida Panthers happy they took Sasha Barkov in 2013

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards
As NHL draft day approached in 2013, Florida Panthers general manager Dale Tallon was torn.
After losing the draft lottery to Colorado, the last-place Panthers dropped to second in the batting order.
The Avalanche were set to take Nathan McKinnon with the first pick, leaving top-ranked defenseman Seth Jones available to the Panthers.
As much as Tallon and the Florida scouts liked Jones -- a 6-4 blueliner with good puck moving skills who was the top-rated player in the draft -- they were intrigued by a Finnish center who, while just 17, was already playing professionally in Europe.
The Panthers also looked hard at forward Jonathan Drouin, the second-ranked North American skater behind Jones.
Yet Florida European scout Jari Kekalainen was absolutely in love with a kid who answered to the Russian nickname 'Sasha' and leaned hard on the Panthers to take him.
The Panthers' decision to select Finland's Aleksander Barkov turned out to be one of the best decisions the franchise has ever made.
"We feel very fortunate that he was there,'' Tallon said Tuesday, "and we made the right decision."
Drafting Barkov may have marked the true end of the franchise's dark days and should be considered a turning point in the resuscitation of a moribund organization.
"Great day for our franchise,'' Tallon said Tuesday as the team celebrated signing Barkov, now 20, to a six-year contract extension.
"I'm excited about this young man, not only for his hockey but for his ability to be such a class act. He's going to lead us to the promised land."
As much as Tallon liked Jones, the underlying truth was the Panthers really needed an NHL-ready center who would come cheap.
Unknown to the public, the team was for sale; spending was curtailed.
Free agent Stephen Weiss, considered by some to be the face of the franchise after playing in more games for them than anyone else, waited for an offer from the Panthers that never came.
With Weiss heading elsewhere -- he would sign for five years in Detroit -- Tallon decided Barkov was his guy.
For better or worse, the Panthers were going to build around young, talented players, most notably physical centers such as Barkov and 6-6 Nick Bjugstad.
"We like to be strong up the middle to be successful," Tallon said.
It hasn't even been three years since that draft day in Newark, New Jersey, yet the Panthers look like an absolutely transformed organization.


Months after Barkov was drafted, the team was sold to New York businessmen Vinnie Viola and Doug Cifu.
Tallon, albeit late in the proceedings, was given some money to bring in a few unsigned free agents such as Brad Boyes and Boston Stanley Cup hero Tim Thomas.
Although the 2013-14 Florida team struggled again, it won the draft lottery this time and finally had the top pick.
One could see things starting to turn around.
Barkov, obviously, has been a big part it.
During his rookie season, Barkov showed his value as the team's fortunes headed south after he missed a month after a knee injury.
Barkov was lost for the remainder of the season after reinjuring the knee playing for Finland at the Olympics as an 18-year-old.
The Panthers finished 29th in the 30 team league that year.
Barkov's star really took off last year when the Panthers traded for Jaromir Jagr in February.
Barkov said he initially didn't believe reports Jagr was going to join his team yet has been Jagr's centerman ever since he arrived.
The trio of Barkov, Jagr and Jonathan Huberdeau seemed to have instant chemistry and the three continue to lead the Panthers -- a team headed into the All-Star break with a comfortable lead atop the Atlantic Division and ranked second in the entire Eastern Conference.
When asked if he thought the Panthers would get to this point so quickly, Barkov smiled.
"To be honest, maybe not this good,'' said Barkov, who scored his 13th goal in the second period of Tuesday's 5-1 win over Toronto.
"But I believed in this team and that we would be in the playoffs this year and get our chances. We're in a good spot, but we have to keep looking at the next day, the next game. We're not satisfied yet. We're not where we want to be and that's the playoffs.''
As for Weiss, he was bought out by the Red Wings this past summer after two injury-plagued seasons in Detroit.
Weiss, Florida's all-time leader in games played (654) and assists (249), is currently out of hockey.
Drouin, drafted right after Barkov by Tampa Bay, is also out of hockey -- sort of.
After being sent to the AHL, Drouin made his trade demands public causing a rift between him and the organization. That chasm was only made wider when he left the AHL team to await a trade which may be a long way off.
Also, had Florida taken Jones in 2013, they probably wouldn't have selected another defenseman the following year.
That means the Panthers may not have rising star Aaron Ekblad around if they didn't take Barkov.
"I see a really bright future in this team and this organization,'' Barkov said. "I'm really happy to be here."