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2 posts from October 29, 2013

October 29, 2013

NICE SURPRISE: Jesse Winchester Making Most of Chance with Panthers

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

After spending last season out of the NHL, Jesse Winchester came into Panthers training camp determined to do anything to stick around. Winchester even joked he would play any position, well, anything but goalie.

Not only did Winchester's play catch the eye of coaches during camp, but he's been one of the nice surprises so far this season. Winchester scored his second goal of the year Friday against Buffalo and got his second assist Sunday against the Lightning.

Last week, coach Kevin Dineen told Winchester to go ahead and pack up his temporary home and find more permanent living arrangements.

"I had one of the great joys in coaching when I told him to go ahead and get a place here in town, get out of the hotel he'd been living in,'' Dineen said. "He's a kid who has been hungry since Day 1. He developed a trust level that he can be a dependable player and offer a dynamic we had been missing. He can kill penalties, is responsible defensively and is physical. He's done what has been asked. He's been a great addition.''

Most didn't give Winchester much of a chance of sticking around in South Florida this long. Winchester spent four seasons in Ottawa after graduating from Colgate although his 2011-12 season cut short because of concussion issues.

The Sens passed on giving Winchester a contract in 2013 and he couldn't find work in the league. Winchester spent the lockout playing for a second-tier team in Finland before coming home hoping for an NHL job offer that never materialized. Winchester finished the season playing for Jokerit in Helsinki.

On Sunday, Winchester's line started against the Lightning, his 12th NHL game this season.

"I've been around so I wasn't nervous coming in here, I just wanted to put my best foot forward," Winchester said. "The guys here have welcomed me and the coaches and management have given me a chance to play. I'm just trying to run with it every day and do what I do.''

Although Winchester was helped along by Steve Pinizzotto's hip injury during training camp, he's earned his keep with the Panthers by being hard-nosed with the puck as well as being one of the team's most dependable penalty killers.

When Winchester said he would play anywhere the Panthers asked, he wasn't kidding.

"I've been playing hard I guess, but it's tough when you aren't winning games,'' Winchester said. "We compete and want to win. We're competitive people. I like to chip in when I can. I want to play the right way, be hard to play against. That's my role and I hope to do it every night.''

Dineen has made it clear he doesn't want players who only want to be playing in the NHL. He wants players who want to win in the NHL and are willing to make a difference in making that a reality with the Panthers.

Winchester is filling that order.

"I don't want guys who want to be NHL players on a bad team. We had that last year,'' Dineen said. "We want players who are bringing something to the table. Jesse Winchester may have been our best forward in the past couple of games. .-.-. If you watch the games, you see guys who play with Jesse seem to have a little extra spurt. He's had a fine start to his year.''

-- Dineen called a timeout soon after Steven Stamkos scored Tampa Bay's second goal within the first three shots on Sunday. He blamed that quick goal on Florida players coming off the ice as the likes of Stamkos, Ryan Malone and Martin St. Louis charged toward the net.

"There was some real correctable hockey on the second goal,'' Dineen said. "We had two change when we have skill guys coming up the ice. Shame on us. Those are areas we have to address and talk about. We're not pointing fingers because we're all in this together. But those are correctable mistakes.''

-- Dineen said Tomas Fleischmann was the latest player to be hit by the flu with Scottie Upshall and Ryan Whitney also being affected. Dineen said players were offered flu shots at the arena following Sunday's game.

"It's that time of year,'' Dineen said. "I would rather have guys hungry and healthy than talented and sick.''

Winchester photo courtesy of AL DIAZ/Associated Press


FLYING FAST: Jonathan Huberdeau Hopes to Get Season Back on Track ... Tim Thomas Could Practice Wednesday

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

Jonathan Huberdeau is finding out that winning the NHL's rookie of the year award brings some nice perks.

The latest one came Monday as he spent his off day at Homestead-Miami Speedway tooling around the 1 1/2 mile oval in a souped up Shelby Cobra Mustang thanks to his friends at Ford.

"It was pretty powerful,'' said Huberdeau, who bought himself a new Mustang convertible not long after arriving in South Florida last year. His track exploits will be featured on the South Florida Ford YouTube page.

"I really enjoyed going out there. I pushed it a little bit. It was great. I was coming in hot on the curves but they gave me some driving pointers. It was pretty exciting. I was very lucky to have a day off and be able to get away from hockey and go out to the race track. I would do that any time.''

One of the downsides of being the Panthers' lone Calder Trophy winner, however, is bigger expectations.

Huberdeau has three goals this season through the first 12 games and none in his past four.

After playing with a hip injury for most of last season, Huberdeau had offseason surgery to correct the problem. Although Huberdeau refuses to use the injury as an excuse, he hasn't gotten off to the start he would have liked.

"If I'm being negative, the puck won't go in,'' Huberdeau said. "I just need to keep skating, move my feet. I need to help this team win some games.''

The Panthers need Huberdeau to be one of, if not their top, forward just about every night if they hope to have any sort of success.

And although his three goals are tied for second-most on the team, Huberdeau knows fans are wondering why he doesn't have more. He feels he should have a few more as well.

"I feel like I'm getting chances, getting the opportunity,'' he said. "The puck may not be going in right now, but that's the way it goes sometimes. I'm going to get one and it'll pick up for me. I'm staying positive about things.''

The Panthers would like to see Huberdeau be a little more aggressive on both sides of ice, and coach Kevin Dineen liked the grit he showed when he used his speed to backcheck Martin St. Louis in the second period of Sunday's shootout loss to the Lightning.

"He put his head down and put his effort into his backcheck as he does for us on the offensive side,'' Dineen said. "He's an elite player because of his hockey IQ as well as his skill set. His game is really starting to take form.''

As for speeding off the ice, Huberdeau says he really had to check the speedometer on the long ride back from Homestead. Being the league's top rookie last year may mean something to a lot of people, but not to the Florida Highway Patrol.

"You really want to go fast after you race around that track,'' Huberdeau said. "But you can't. I had to be real careful."

-- Dineen took advantage of the Panthers having an opening in their schedule to hold a team workout away from the ice on Tuesday. The team will return to the ice at the Saveology.com Iceplex in Coral Springs for practice Wednesday at 10:30 a.m.

The Panthers don't play again until Friday night when St. Louis comes to Sunrise for the finale of Florida's six-game homestand. The Panthers have gone 1-2-2 so far.

"We've been going hard for the past 40, 50 days here with just the odd day off here and there,'' Dineen said. "I looked at the schedule and it looked like a good time to get some quality off-ice time. We're going to hit the ground fresh on Wednesday.''

-- Goalie Tim Thomas finally has his new Panthers-themed goalie mask in and will likely break it out for Wednesday's workout. Thomas, who has been out with an undisclosed lower body injury since last week, skated on Monday and Tuesday and is expected to practice with the team Wednesday.

Thomas can now come off the injured list at any time and would be eligible to play Friday if he feels up to it.

"He's coming along,'' Dineen said. "We'll see where he is."