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Florida Panthers Have a Blast in Central Park as they Get Back to their Roots ... Evgenii Dadonov Sent Back to Texas ... Rangers NEXT

IMG_0354NEW YORK – Brian Campbell sat on the stanchions of the rink along with three of his teammates, his feet dangling over the edge over the ice as if he was a little kid once again.

On Saturday, Campbell wasn't alone in feeling like he had gone back in time. The entire Panthers team hopped into the past as they took to the open ice at the Lasker Rink in Central Park in Manhattan, playing childhood games on the small slab of ice more so than they did and real practicing in the early winter chill of the great outdoors.

The Panthers coaching staff got in on the fun as well. Head coach Kevin Dineen and crew donned colorful team practice jerseys and participated while wearing red ski caps with the New York Fire Department logo on the front.

Dineen said center Stephen Weiss picked out the different teams that skated and competed in feats of IMG_0355skill; Weiss also came up with the idea the coaches wear the 'FDNY' toques.

“There are a lot of smiles out here,'' Dineen said after the lighthearted hour long practice was almost finished. “The fun factor was very high.''

Dineen seems to have been pushing all the right buttons when it comes to his dealing with the Panthers in his first few months as head coach. 

After talking about the disappointment of losing 2-1 in overtime to Buffalo on Friday, Dineen became jovial when talk turned to the possibility of Saturday's 'pond practice' outdoors in Central Park.

IMG_0359“Oh yeah it's on,'' Dineen exclaimed when asked if the team would indeed skate Saturday.

The Panthers equipment staff were first to arrive at the outdoor facility around 11:30 on Saturday morning with the already-dressed team showing up on a charter bus a few minutes later. The players walked down a set of stone steps into the rink while wearing gym shoes, their skates hanging from their sticks as if they were meeting their friends at the municipal rink.

And, yes, they kind of were. The team started the day off by signing autographs for the crowd that gathered. On the ice, things were loose. Goalies Jose IMG_0361Theodore and Scott Clemmensen, like everyone else, left their pads at home. That's perhaps what Theodore loved most. 

“It was a lot of fun and I think I'm ready to play on the point [of the power play],'' Theodore said after putting a puck into the net. “It was the perfect weather, not too cold. We had a real good time out here that's for sure.''

When the skate was close to being done, the Panthers gathered at center ice for a team photo that included those who work at the rink and helped make Saturday happen. 

Although the Panthers haven't practiced outdoors in the past decade it's becoming a popular option for IMG_0365teams when they come to New York. With a lack of ice in the city, teams are looking at the outdoor rinks as an opportunity for team bonding as much as a chance to stay loose. The Toronto Maple Leafs practiced at Lasker last Sunday as part of their father's trip; the Philadelphia Flyers have worked outdoors as well.

This may not be the Panthers only trip here if Dineen has any say in it.

“It's been a hard schedule, there's a lot of time on the road,'' he said. “These are the ones that stick out at the end of the season. It was a good day for the IMG_0368Florida Panthers. It was a great day for all of us. We got back to our youth.''

() Rookie defenseman Erik Gudbranson will remain with the Panthers and will not be loaned to the Canadian national team for the upcoming world junior tournament. 

The 19-year-old played in his 23rd game with the Panthers on Friday and has played in nine consecutive games.

“He's a member of the Florida Panthers and has earned that right from the first day of training camp,'' assistant coach Gord Murphy said.

“Obviously it was a tough decision. Playing for Team Canada is a big deal but he's played in it already. We just look at it that he's a member of our team and an important member of our team. We don't want to lose players for any reason, although this is a big honor. He's a valued member of our team and we need him.''

() With Mikael Samuelsson ready to dive into the lineup full time and Marcel Goc and Matt Bradley gearing up for a return, Evgenii Dadonov was deemed expendable and sent back to AHL San Antonio on Saturday. Dadonov was given a prime spot on Florida's top line last week after Kris Versteeg was hurt; he disappointed and was scratched the next game.

“He had some real timely giveaways [Friday] so he needs to go to San Antonio and get his game in order,'' Dineen said. 

SUNDAY: PANTHERS AT RANGERS

When, Where: 7:30 p.m.; Madison Square Garden, New York

TV/Radio: FSN; 560-WQAM

The series: Rangers lead 38-30-6

The game: The Panthers took the opening game of the series with a 2-1 win on Thanksgiving week. The Rangers played at Buffalo on Saturday night and sent out backup Martin Biron, meaning Henrik Lundqvist will likely go against Jose Theodore and the Panthers. Florida had its three-game winning streak snapped with a 2-1 overtime loss at Buffalo on Friday. The Panthers have won 10 away games this season.

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