Michael Seff filled in for me today in Coral Springs. Here is his report. Michael also did a special audio segment, which you can listen to at the bottom of the file.
By MICHAEL SEFF
The Florida Panthers will be tested and then some as they embark on a three-game Western Conference road trip this week.
With their postseason hopes fading, the Panthers will visit a trio of playoff contenders, beginning Tuesday night with a trip to Minnesota.
If familiarity breeds contempt, perhaps Florida can benefit from facing teams they have little experience with. But recent history, especially with the Wild, would suggest otherwise. The Panthers are 1-7-1 lifetime against Minnesota.
“The Western Conference is tough,” head coach Pete DeBoer said. “The three teams we're playing are all very good teams in tough buildings. It'll be a great test for us.
“I'm excited, and I think the guys are excited to get out on the road. At least early in the season, we played some real good hockey on the road. We've gotta get back to doing that again.”
Easier said than done, however. The Colorado Avalanche, Thursday's opponent, have 80 points and trail the Vancouver Canucks by just two points in the Northwest Division.
And then there's the San Jose Sharks, Saturday's foe. All they've done is rack up 93 points, two better than the Chicago Blackhawks for best in the West.
“It's going to be a challenge for us, obviously,” winger Gregory Campbell said. “But I think we're looking forward to it. We're going into it with some confidence, which is good.
“For us it's about the two points. They're not divisional or conference games, so it doesn't matter how we get those two points.”
-- Ballard leaves practice early
Defenseman Keith Ballard left Monday's morning skate early, but DeBoer would not elaborate on what the injury was.
“He felt a little strain on something. So we'll have a better idea after [getting it checked out], but I think he'll be alright.”
Nicks and bruises are common at this time of year, which might also explain center Nick Tarnasky's swollen nose, suffered in Saturday's 4-1 win over Carolina.
“He took one off the nose and got a little bit of a nosebleed, and it swelled up a little bit. But he was fine. He finished the game, no problem.”
-- Homecoming for duo
Ballard is a native Minnesotan, but he won't be the only Panther making a homecoming of sorts on Tuesday.
Fellow defenseman Jason Garrison played collegiately at the University of Minnesota Duluth, so it's understandable that he has been a popular figure around those parts as Tuesday's game nears.
“I've had a lot of guys contact me over the last week,” Garrison said. “I think I'm probably going to have about 15 to 20 people at the game, so I'm pretty excited.”
The Canadian-born Garrison also knows just how big hockey is in Minnesota.
“When I first got there, I couldn't believe how big [Minnesota] was for hockey,” he said. “It reminded me of back home. The high school hockey there is huge, the college is huge, and the pro is huge. Everybody's a hockey fan.”
-- Three cheers for McCabe
The recent play of defenseman Bryan McCabe has not gone unnoticed, as the 14-year veteran was named third star of the week.
McCabe tallied eight points over three games, with one goal and seven assists. He credits the two-week Olympic break as helping him get re-energized.
“I think mentally it was a big thing just to get away from the rink for 10 days,” he said. “I think everyone's come back with a little more spark and a little more jump in their game.”
Colorado's Chris Stewart and Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos were named first and second stars, respectively.