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Florida Panthers Solid Defense Helps Lift Team into Playoffs ... Additions of Jovanovski and Campbell Beneficial to Cats Defense ... News, Notes

Campbell3BY GEORGE RICHARDS grichards@MiamiHerald.com

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Dale Tallon didn't have much of a roster when he left South Florida for the NHL Draft in June. The Panthers had just a handful of forwards under contract and only one goalie. 

What the Panthers did have, however, was a solid defensive core. 

Tallon traded for Brian Campbell at the draft and later signed Ed Jovanovski as a free agent. Those two joined incumbents Mike Weaver, Dmitry Kulikov, Jovo5Jason Garrison, Keaton Ellerby and rookie Erik Gudbranson.

It should be of little surprise the Panthers strength this season has come on the defensive end. 

“It's fun to watch,'' coach Kevin Dineen said. “We've been pretty solid and have had some stability on our blueline.''

Florida's two goalies – Jose Theodore and Scott Clemmensen – have garnered most of the credit for the Panthers allowing less than three goals per game (12th in the league). Florida's defense also deserves a Defenderlot of the kudos. 

“This is just a good mix of guys and from the first game on, they played well together,'' Theodore said. “We were quickly able to adjust and be on the same page.''

Health has been a big part of the Panthers success. Both Campbell and Weaver didn't miss a game this season; Jovanovski (broken hand) and Kulikov (knee surgery) are the only defensemen to miss substantial time. 

With everyone relatively healthy on the blue line, Dineen and assistant coach Gord Murphy didn't have to tinker with Florida's defensive pairings. Campbell and Garrison spent the season together – and both put up terrific numbers.

Campbell's 49 assists were second among NHL defensemen and Garrison's 16 goals were third.

Weaver1Weaver hooked up with Kulikov for much of the year as that duo was faced with holding down some of the league's top offensive lines. 

“We have seven defensemen who have all had excellent years,'' said Murphy, a defenseman with the Panthers from 1993-99.

“Bringing in Jovanovski and Campbell was more than just bringing in talented players. They have provided leadership off the ice, they are a calming influence and hold guys accountable. They lead by example and it's been great for our younger guys to see. They've been a great group to work with.''

Then there is the third pairing. Jovanovski, whose Gudbransonplayoff beard has a lot of gray in it, was put together with Florida's youngsters. For much of the year, it has been the 20-year-old Gudbranson. As was the case when Jovanovski was a rookie in 1995-96, the Panthers put one of their cagey veterans with one of their rising stars. 

It's a combination that has paid dividends.

Gudbranson, the third overall pick in 2010, has played well and doesn't much look like a rookie anymore. Jovanovski's play has been solid – Dineen said he looked “rejuvenated” – as he gears up for what he hopes is another deep run through the playoffs with the Panthers.

Jovanovski was a rookie when the Panthers advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals. He hopes Gudbranson gets the same sort of run in his inaugural postseason campaign.

“I think these last couple months have brought his best hockey. You can see him maturing,'' said Jovanovski, who was traded from the Panthers in 1999 yet has played in 27 of the franchise's 31 postseason games. 

“Early in the year he fought the puck a little bit, didn't know the time he had. Now he cradles the puck, makes that nice first play. That comes with confidence and playing games. But his play has picked up and he has a nasty streak when he gets going. The sky is the limit with him. I see him as a Shea Weber type player.''

AROUND THE RINK

Theodore said Dineen not announcing a starting Theo1goalie for Friday's postseason opener isn't a distraction. He's going about things the same way. 

“He's been like that all year and it worked for us, we won the division,'' Theodore said. “We're not doing anything different. You don't change what you do when you're winning.''

() Winger Marco Sturm missed the third period of Saturday's game against Carolina with an undisclosed 'lower body' injury and hasn't practiced this week.

Dineen called him questionable for this weekend's games. Krys Barch has replaced him on the fourth line with John Madden and Tomas Kopecky.

() The Devils, as coach Pete DeBoer said earlier in the week, will not be practicing in South Florida until Friday's morning skate. The Devils will practice at Prudential Center in Newark on Thursday morning before flying south. 

PresspassPANTHERS PRACTICE

When, Where: Thursday, 10:30 a.m.; Saveology.com Iceplex; 3299 Sportsplex Drive, Coral Springs. (954) 341-9956. 

Admission: Free

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