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February 13, 2013

KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT: Panthers Youngins Overshadowed In Loss to Capitals

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

If things had ended up the Panthers way on Tuesday night, the talk would have been all about how their "Kid Line" had their biggest game of the season in a much-needed win over a division rival.

Instead, the Panthers coughed up a two-goal lead late in the third period and lost 6-5 to the Capitals in overtime.

The great storyline of the continued emergence of rookies Jonathan Huberdeau and Drew Shore as well as 24-year-old Peter Mueller was completely overshadowed by Washington's comeback win.

In Tuesday's game, Huberdeau scored twice off assists from Mueller and Shore scored Florida's final goal to make it 5-3 with 13:35 left.

"Things were clicking and the puck was bouncing our way,'' Mueller said. "It was a tough one to swallow but thank goodness for the shortened season because we have 48 hours to focus on our next opponent. It was nice the bounces were going our way [Tuesday] and we need to keep that going.''

The Panthers philosophy since general manager Dale Tallon and assistant general manager Mike Santos took over hockey operations in 2010 is to not rush the organization's young players.

In the past, the Panthers threw top prospects such as Stephen Weiss, Nathan Horton, Jay Bouwmeester, Rostislav Olesz and Dmitry Kulikov into the NHL fire soon after drafting them with mixed results.

"This is our natural progression,'' Santos said. "We are developing our players at the right time and the right pace. You see the patience we've had is paying off.''

Although Florida now has what some hockey experts consider the top prospect pool in the NHL, the Panthers have shown patience.

Erik Gudbranson, Tallon's first draft pick in Florida, was sent back to the juniors for another year of seasoning in 2010 before being brought up last year. Huberdeau also had to go back to junior for an extra year. Mueller said Huberdeau has "all the talent in the world'' and Florida fans are starting to see that first hand.

"He has a nose, a knack whatever you want to use. He can smell opportunity and create a chance,'' coach Kevin Dineen said. "He's only going to get better as his confidence grows and as he physically matures. He's off to a solid start as a young player.''

On Tuesday, Huberdeau scored his fourth and fifth goals of the season. The Panthers feel they have an emerging star in Huberdeau -- although they didn't think he would have benefited enough from playing with the team last year.

Shore left the University of Denver after a junior year in which he lead the Pioneers in scoring for the second straight season. Shore had seen players he had competed against move on the NHL and find success; he felt it was his turn to follow suit.

Shore made his pro debut last spring with the AHL San Antonio Rampage and started the season there as well. The Panthers had him up for an abbreviated training camp but he lost out in the numbers game. Shore was back less than a week later and made his NHL debut at the Bell Center in Montreal on Jan. 22.

The Panthers weren't sure how long Shore would remain with the Panthers but he has made sure he isn't going anywhere.

"He's been solid on both ends of the ice,'' Mueller said. "You like to see that out of young guys who have been called up.''

Shore has been fantastic since coming up from the minors as he has created chances and been strong in the faceoff circle. Shore came into Tuesday winning 58 percent of his faceoffs -- although he won six of 14 against the Capitals.

Tuesday he finally got his first NHL goal -- on his 24th NHL shot on goal -- when he batted down a bouncing puck in front of the net. It sure wasn't a pretty goal -- but it still counts. The Panthers equipment managers saved the puck and will present it to Shore in the coming days.

Shore had to sweat it out for a few minutes as the play was reviewed by Hockey Central in Toronto to see if Shore batted the puck down with a high stick. He didn't.

"I thought 'finally I get a little break' but I was pretty confident the stick wasn't high,'' Shore said. "I was watching the replay the entire time. I just wanted to get the first one because I had a lot of chances.''

-- Kris Versteeg had a rough game Tuesday as he was slammed hard into the glass by Alex Ovechkin then got into a fight with Ovechkin (one he lost) before being run over from behind early in the second.

Versteeg played 18 shifts and 13:38 on Tuesday but was given Wednesday off. Dineen said Versteeg was questionable for Thursday's game against the Canadiens.

Dineen replaced Versteeg for a few shifts Tuesday with Shawn Matthias -- who picked up his second goal of the season during the game. Matthias had a strong game against the Capitals as he not only scored but took four shots and blocked one.

"I thought he was very straightforward, north-south with some good puck protection,'' Dineen said. "He took the cute out of his game. When the puck got on his stick he's looking to shoot the thing.''

-- Although fans are clammoring for Florida to recall goalie Jacob Markstrom from San Antonio after Washington scored 11 goals in the past two games against Florida, Dineen is being patient.

"I'm not being coy but we have two goalies who are proven NHL guys who haven't performed up to their expectations the past couple of games,'' Dineen said. "They have to be better and we have to be better as a team.''

THURSDAY: CANADIENS AT PANTHERS
When, Where: 7:30 p.m.; BB&T Center, Sunrise
TV/Radio: FSF; WQAM-560
The series: Florida leads 34-32-6
The game: The Panthers went unbeaten and untied against the Canadiens for the first time in franchise history last season, but the Canadiens are already 1-0 against Florida this year after a 4-1 win in Montreal on Jan. 22. The Panthers are 3-1-2 in their past six games; the Habs are coming off a 4-3 shootout win in Tampa Bay that snapped a three-game slide.