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GROWING UP: Florida Panthers Figuring Things Out

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

Too bad this lockout-shortened NHL season is almost over. The Panthers, it seems, are growing up and finally figuring things out.

The Panthers have been beset with injuries throughout this abbreviated season, losing close to 250 man games to injury.

Veteran leaders such as Stephen Weiss, Kris Versteeg, Sean Bergenheim, Jose Theodore and captain Ed Jovanovski haven't been around much as they all have been knocked cold because of various injuries.

"They are being given the opportunity, and sometimes that's all you can ask for,'' defenseman Brian Campbell said.

"There are situations where they are having success. They are learning quickly. Mistakes have been made, but they are working hard and learning from them.''

Filling that void hasnt been easy although players such as Calder Trophy candidate Jonathan Huberdeau, Shawn Matthias and Drew Shore have taken on bigger roles with the Panthers than previously thought.

Rookie goalie Jacob Markstrom has also settled into a starting role and is playing lights out lately.

"Leaders grow into those roles and you are seeing snapshots of our future right now,'' coach Kevin Dineen said, adding that veterans like Marcel Goc and Tomas Kopecky have been a big help on and off the ice.

"We know what those kids are doing. They are starting to develop and take on a significant role within the team.''

On Saturday, as the Panthers won for the second straight game as Matthias continued his hot streak.

Matthias surpassed his previous career high for goals in a season with his 11th on Thursday against the Sabres. He's scored three more since -- getting two goals in each of the past two games.

Matthias became the fifth player since 1989-90 to score more goals in one month (11 in March) than has as a previous career-high for a season.

"He's getting an increased role,'' Dineen said. "When you smell opportunity sometime, it's what you do with it. You can read the motivational books, do what you want but when the opportunity is there, you have to take advantage of it. That's what he has done.''

The Panthers still remain far out of playoff contention with 12 games remaining. Yet with eight points in their past seven -- and the Panthers playing well lately -- players say the race isn't over.

Time, however, isn't on their side. At least not when it comes to this season anyway.

"We're not going to quit,'' Matthias said. "We may be down, but we're going to keep battling to the end. Guys are maturing and we're becoming a team. We're young but there's a fire under us. We want to win every night.''

-- The Panthers could add a few more young players to their roster in the coming days.

Speaking to a group of potential season ticket holders before Saturday's game, general manager Dale Tallon said collegiate players Nick Bjugstad (Minnesota) and Mike Matheson (Boston College) could leave school and sign with the Panthers.

Florida would like to have its collegiate players start in the minors but may have Bjugstad -- projected to be a top-end center -- finish this season in Florida.

Tallon reiterated Saturday that the Panthers aren't pushing any of their college players to leave school early and are leaving that decision up to them.

Bjugstad was a first round pick (19th overall) by the Panthers in 2010 and just finished his junior season with the Gophers. Matheson was Florida's first round pick (23rd overall) last June and played strong as a freshman for the Eagles.

-- Tallon said he had an informal meeting with the agent for pending free agent Stephen Weiss on Saturday. Weiss, the Panthers' all-time leader in games played, had season-ending wrist surgery last month in Cleveland.

-- With enforcer George Parros back in the lineup Saturday, Greg Rallo was returned to Florida's AHL affiliate in San Antonio.


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