NEW YORK – At 19-years-old, Erik Gudbranson is learning a lot about life, including his craft as a defenseman in the National Hockey League.
Gudbranson played just his 24th professional hockey game on Sunday. It came against the famed Rangers at the 'world's most famous arena.' It is at Madison Square Garden where the Panthers prized prospect-turned-regular may have learned more about what it takes to make it in the NHL than he did in any of his previous games or weeks of training camp.
The NHL is a league of give and take. In one moment, Gudbranson is celebrating after scoring his first NHL goal. Not long after, he's limping to the ice after taking a couple of rough hits. Mind you, Gudbranson laid out some doozies of his own. Yet the picture of him slowly skating off the ice pretty much summed up Florida's 6-1 loss to an unforgiving Rangers team that night.
“Some of the goals were bounces, some were mistakes,'' Gudbranson said after a game in which he left with less than 10 minutes remaining. He said he suffered a charley horse and should be back in the lineup Tuesday against the Devils. “I take full responsibility for the third goal. It was just one of those games and their tough to be in. You need to bounce back in the next one.''
Like many of his teammates, Gudbranson will take home a souvenir from the big city. Although unlike the watches and leather belts and expensive winter coats, Gudbranson will likely hold on to his keepsake from New York for a long time.
Like Keaton Ellerby did last season, Gudbranson scored his first NHL goal at the Garden against the Rangers. Like Ellerby, the team grabbed the puck after it went past Henrik Lundqvist so to present it to the rook in a proper way.
Of course, an NHL equipment manager's 'proper way' is to put white stick tape around the rubber puck and write the puck's significance on the tape with a black Sharpie. There will be no ceremony; Gudbranson will likely find the puck sitting in his locker on Tuesday.
“It was nice to score. It was a good goal at the time and it's nice to get that monkey off my back,'' Gudbranson said. “But it's overshadowed by the night. This is a new league. Guys hit hard and you have to hit harder. I took one in the corner. That's the way it is.''
The Panthers have high hopes for Gudbranson, a player considered part of Florida's future success. The third overall pick in 2010, it appeared Gudbranson would play for the Panthers as an 18-year-old. Only he and the Panthers couldn't work out a contract and Gudbranson was returned to his junior team. It was probably for the best.
Gudbranson played in Florida's first 11 games before “given a break,'' by coach Kevin Dineen. Gudbranson watched six of the next 10 games from the press box as Ellerby replaced him in the lineup. Gudbranson got back on the ice on Nov. 23 and hasn't sat since. He played in his 10th consecutive game Sunday.
“He's played extremely well the past two weeks,'' Dineen said. “I went through a long experiment and I know it's no fun for Keaton right now. But it's not good to keep flip-flopping guys. Just to keep both fresh is self-defeating. I made a decision not based on potential or contract, I did it on performance. I felt Gudbranson's body of work was deserving of staying in the lineup. He's building confidence.''
The Panthers had considered loaning Gudbranson to Team Canada so he could play in the popular world juniors tournament. Had he gone back, Gudbranson would be a candidate to captain the Canadian team.
Only the Panthers decided against it for various reasons. One is, Gudbranson has become a regular in the lineup. That, and he played for Canada last year. He's a professional now.
Gudbranson also knows he needs to keep moving forward. After Sunday's game, it's very possible he'll find himself in the press box again Tuesday.
Ellerby, after all, has been good about being replaced. The two are good friends – “I love Goody; he's an unbelievable kid who has played well and well enough to stay in the lineup,'' Ellerby said – but he wants to play too. If he gets into the lineup Tuesday, he's going to do everything he can to stay in it.
Gudbranson understands that just as Ellerby does. The Panthers have carried seven defensemen all season yet only need six per game. Someone has to be the odd man out. Lately, it's been Ellerby.
“It sucks. You want to be playing, but the team has been winning so I support the guys and am doing the things off the ice to help us be successful,'' said Ellerby, who has been scratched eight straight games in favor of Gudbranson. “You can't let this put you in a bad mood. You have to be a good team guy.''
() The Panthers put center Tim Kennedy on waivers Monday in order to return him to AHL San Antonio. Florida have been carrying an extra forward – center Mike Santorelli was benched Sunday – and could get Marcel Goc (concussion) back this week.
TUESDAY: DEVILS AT PANTHERS
When, Where: 7:30 p.m.; BankAtlantic Center, Sunrise
The series: Devils lead 43-24-7
The game: The Devils had lost five of seven before playing at the equally-struggling Lightning on Monday. The Devils are expected to start Martin Brodeur in net Tuesday. In the previous meeting last month, Jersey had a 3-0 first period lead before Florida stormed back for a 4-3 win. The Panthers have won four of the past five at home (4-0-1) and will play seven of their next nine in Sunrise.