It sure was fun.
The best part? Seeing all the diehard fans -- when you're talking about the Florida Panthers, are there any other kind? -- at the practices day in, day out. It's always good to talk hockey (and tennis or the Yankees when Harvey X. is around) with everyone each day. Makes things fun, no doubt.
Also going to miss my morning iced coffee and toasted bagel from the fine folks at Brooklyn Water Bagel. I'm voting the addition of that bagel factory in the arena and training facility as the Panthers' biggest free agent acquisition this season.
It really is one of the best moves this franchise has made in years (sad statement there, yes? True? Yes).
Not to rain on anyone else's proclimations, but the staff at On Frozen Pond has voted Brooklyn Water Bagel as the best Bagel in South Florida. Your plaque is in the mail.
Still working on the Best Wings in South Florida Award. Lots of homework to do on that one.
Anyway, on to hockey:
In an otherwise bleak season, the Panthers hope they have seen glimpses of the future offensively in the recent play of Evgeny Dadonov.
With over $30 million to spend just to get to the league-mandated salary cap floor this summer, the Panthers are expected to go after offensive-minded players either through trade or via free agency. But with most – if not all – of the league's top players locked into contracts, the Panthers are going to have to develop scoring through what they have as well.
The Panthers think they have a real keeper in the 22-year-old Russian winger.
“We're looking for top two-line forwards in the organization, guys with skill who play the right way,'' coach Pete DeBoer said. “Winning teams have that. .-.-. The reality is you can't sign four of five of those guys because they're just not out there. He has that kind of potential. He can fit in in one of those roles. He just needs to keep developing.''
It took Dadonov a little while to make it to the Panthers. After coming into his first training camp last year out of shape, the Panthers stashed him with their AHL affiliate in Rochester, N.Y., until the end of the year, finally calling him up with four games left.
Dadonov had hoped to make the roster after a strong training camp this year, but he lost out in a numbers battle, going back to Rochester. Yet once the Panthers called him up in December, Dadonov was here to stay, scoring three goals with 10 points in his first 17 games. Dadonov went through a rough patch where he didn't score in eight straight games before breaking a finger. That cost Dadonov six weeks.
Since returning to the lineup, Dadonov has four goals in seven games – including a pretty back-handed wraparound goal against Columbus' Steve Mason on Tuesday. When DeBoer says Dadonov can't “take his foot off the gas,'' Dadonov says he understands what he has to do to build on this season in the offseason.
“Everyone is trying to play their best right now, end their season good because it's important going into next year,'' said Dadonov, who plans on returning to his hometown of Chelyabinsk, Russia, soon after Florida's season comes to a close next week. “Every player has highs and lows in a season, as did I. I'm just trying to be a better professional, eat good food, get good rest. I know what it takes to play at this level and I just need to keep it going.''
Darcy Hordichuk had Thursday's game against the Senators in his mind for weeks, the Panthers enforcer itching for a chance to fight Ottawa's Francis Lessard to right what he thought was a wrong. In the previous matchup, Lessard's hard hit knocked Florida's Scott Timmins out.
Hordichuk tried to engage Lessard as soon as that hit happened, although Lessard declined as officials herded him off the ice. Lessard received a game misconduct for the hit and was ejected from that game. Thursday, Hordichuk took on Lessard less than three minutes into the game.
“That's my job, to protect our guys,'' Hordichuk said. “If guys think they're going to come in here and take liberties with our guys, well, there are repercussions.''
Timmins has been out since the hit with a concussion and may not return this season. The Panthers are taking Timmins' return slowly and he has just begun skating.
“Every time you see him fight it's exciting, but knowing that was for me was great,'' Timmins said. “That's the kind of guy he is. He always sticks up for his guys. I can't thank him enough.''
-- DeBoer said he's treating Clemmensen like the Panthers starter while Tomas Vokoun is out with a back injury saying Clemmensen deserves the chance to play. Vokoun could be out some time – although DeBoer says it's too soon to tell whether Vokoun's season is over.
Vokoun has not skated since being hurt Sunday in Pittsburgh. Clemmensen will start Saturday against the Penguins.
“We're trying to win every game and Clemmensen has paid his dues here,'' DeBoer said before Thursday's loss to Ottawa. “He's been here every day for two years, practiced every day and has been a good teammate. He's also played well. This isn't training camp. We're trying to send the right messages and the message is he deserves to play for what he's done. Vokoun is a free agent so there's a question mark about our goaltending going forward. Clemmensen is under contract and we know he'll be back for sure.''
-- Winger Jack Skille (ankle) practiced again on Friday and DeBoer said he was probable for Saturday's game.
SATURDAY: PENGUINS AT PANTHERS
When, Where: 7 p.m.; BankAtlantic Center
TV/Radio: FSN; WQAM 560
The series: Pittsburgh leads 34-30-4
The game: The Panthers have lost seven straight games and haven't scored more than two goals in any of their past six games. Florida is on the verge of not getting a win in a season series against the Penguins for the first time since the inaugural season of 1993-94 when Florida lost three and got a tie. Pittsburgh has lost to Philadelphia and Tampa Bay since beating Florida 2-1 in a shootout last Sunday. Sidney Crosby is still working his way back from a concussion and is practicing with the Penguins without contact. Crosby will not play Saturday.