NEW YORK – For months, Panthers coach Kevin Dineen rapped his knuckles on a wood table whenever the health of his defense was brought up.
For the first 43 games of the season, the Panthers had seven healthy defensemen.
It was a luxury that couldn't – and wouldn't – last.
In the past month, the Panthers have lost three of their core defensemen. The injury run started on Jan. 16 when Ed Jovanovski broke his hand in a fight. Five days later, Dmitry Kulikov injured his knee and has been out since having surgery.
On Saturday, Jason Garrison was the latest to go out after apparently injuring a foot. His status will be known later.
Fortunately for the Panthers, defensive depth didn't just exist on the big club. Florida had players who could step in playing for its AHL club in San Antonio, players who are being counted on now.
On Sunday, Tyson Strachan, whom the Panthers signed over the summer, played in his eighth game since being called up and scored his first NHL goal in his 75th career game. Strachan's goal tied the score at 1 in the first period.
“He has really opened some eyes and earned the respect of the staff and his teammates,'' Dineen said after Florida's 4-1 win over the Islanders on Sunday. “He has given us a level of stability that we have needed on the blueline. I think he looks good out there. He doesn't look out of place or get frazzled.''
Strachan, who played in 67 games over the course of three seasons with St. Louis says he feels comfortable with the Panthers as it's obvious they are getting more and more comfortable with him in the lineup.
“One of the big things about hockey is the chemistry of a team and fitting in,'' Strachan said. “I like the system here and I love the coaches and the guys here. I feel comfortable here and we're winning some games. That's always great.''
Strachan's landmark goal came in the NHL debut of Colby Robak, a 21-year-old whom the Panthers drafted in the second round of the 2008 draft.
Robak, in his second professional season, was informed that he was coming up to play with the Panthers during his afternoon nap. San Antonio, after all, was playing in Rochester, N.Y., on Saturday night. Robak – who like many members of the Rampage played for Rochester last season – wouldn't return to his old haunts as he headed to New York to meet up with the Panthers.
“It was a little surreal getting the call. I wondered if I was dreaming,'' said Robak, who played 14:40 on 20 shifts in his first NHL game. “I got it out of the way. I'm not going to lie, that was probably the most nervous I have ever been. I'm sure that's normal. But I had fun. You just have to play through it.''
Said Strachan: “We were roommates on the road and got along real well so I was very happy to see he got the call. Obviously this was his first game but I thought he played great. He fit right in. I told him to have fun with it, but he's a confident guy who knows what to do.''
() Goalie Jose Theodore picked up his first win since beating Toronto on Dec. 27 on Sunday as he stopped 26 shots to move to 2-0 against the Islanders at Nassau Coliseum this season.
Theodore missed 13 of 15 games with a knee injury.
He said Sunday that the knee feels good but he wouldn't say he's ready to re-establish himself as the Panthers starter.
“I was just looking forward to playing in that first game and getting it out of the way,'' said Theodore, who is now 15-9-5. “I only had a few practices. I felt better as the game went on. I'm going to work really hard in practice to get my game to where it was a few months ago. I'm ready to finish strong.''
With the way Scott Clemmensen played in his stead, however, Florida feels pretty comfortable with whomever is in net. Clemmensen is 7-4-3 since Theodore was hurt on Dec. 31.
“He has been their savior,'' said current Devils and former Panthers coach Pete DeBoer.
“We always knew he was a good goalie, you saw what he did in New Jersey and when he was given the opportunity when I was there, he gave us big games. I'm glad to see it. He's a good guy.''