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25 posts from January 2014

January 05, 2014

GUDBRANSON RETURNING: Panthers Still Nicked Up

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

Defenseman Erik Gudbranson could be back in the lineup Monday in Montreal but will do so wearing a steel cage on his helmet.

Gudbranson needed orbital bone surgery after being struck in the face by a puck Dec. 20 in Winnipeg. That was a rough trip for Gudbranson as he was slashed by a skate in Montreal a few days prior.

"We're hopeful he could play on this trip, as early as Monday,'' coach Peter Horachek said. "He'll have to wear the cage because of the surgery. You can't risk a direct hit.''

Florida's defensive depth has been receding of late with Alex Petrovic going down with an upper body injury Saturday. Horachek said Petrovic will not be on this road trip. Dylan Olsen (lower body) will not fly to Montreal but could meet the team later on in its travels.

"We're going to let [Petrovic] get some treatment and see where he is,'' Horachek said. "We'll know in the next few days. It's better to have our doctors here look at him.''

-- Winger Jesse Winchester is three weeks removed from injuring his hand blocking a shot in Montreal. He doesn't have a cast on the hand anymore and said he should be back later in the month. Winchester won't be on the trip.


KOPECKY STILL SOLID: Goal Scoring is Done, Defensive Play is Not

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

Tomas Kopecky isn't scoring at the rate he did last year although he said Sunday that he is OK with the role he plays with the Panthers.

Kopecky tied a career-high with 15 goals last season, doing so in just 47 played due to the lockout-shortened campaign.

Although Kopecky is doing many of the same things he's done in the past, the scoring hasn't come as he hoped. He feels like things are going to even out.

In Saturday's 5-4 shootout win over the visiting Predators, Kopecky scored his fourth goal of the year before ending the contest in the sixth round of the shootout.

"Each year is different and I'm playing against the other team's top lines,'' said Kopecky, who got the shootout-winner in Florida's 10-round marathon against Washington on Dec. 13.

"The priority is on the defense. Last year I was playing on the first power play and this year I'm not. Whatever helps the team win. I learned a long time ago not to feel sorry for yourself, just accept your role. Obviously it's more fun when you're scoring goal. But I'm putting the priority on shutting the other guy down.''

Kopecky's forte is creating traffic in front of the net and playing tough defense.

"He and Marcel Goc have been doing a lot of our penalty killing duties,'' coach Peter Horachek said. "He's a smart guy, a big body who you put in a lot of responsible situations like late in the game. He's come up big in a few shootouts and has been a guy who gets you 10, 15 goals. He's a guy who look at who has some skill and think he could hit that 20 goal plateau sometime.''

As for Kopecky moving up higher in the Panthers' shootout pecking order, don't expect that to happen anytime soon. Florida's top three of Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and Brad Boyes are pretty solid with Nick Bjugstad a nice option if a shootout goes longer.

Kopecky is 3-for-7 in shootouts over his career with both game-deciding goals coming this season.

"You have to have a feel for what you have,'' Horachek said.



When, Where: 7 p.m.; Bell Center, Montreal

TV/Radio: FSNF; WQAM-560

The series: Panthers lead 36-34-6

Scouting report: The Panthers, one of three teams in the NHL with an all-time winning mark against the Canadiens, have won the first two meetings of the season. Montreal has lost three of its past four games.


January 04, 2014

JOVO'S TRIUMPHANT RETURN: Panthers Top Predators 5-4 in Shootout after Nashville Rallies in Third ... Jovo Plus-3 in Win, Petrovic Hurt

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

The Panthers started the second half of the season with their captain back on the ice after being denied his services for almost a year.

Ed Jovanovski didn't make the scoresheet but celebrated Saturday's 5-4 shootout win over visiting Nashville as if he scored each of the goals himself.

The Panthers feted their captain with a closed-door celebration following the game. Jovanovski, who played 15:54, received the hero hat from his teammates.

"It was nice to celebrate a goal,'' said Jovanovski, who had been out since having hip resurfacing surgery last spring. Jovanovski was on the ice for three of Florida's four regulation goals.

"I got a little antsy there, jumped around in warmups. It was nice to get the first shift out of the way, move the puck a little. It was good to move on from there.''

The Panthers will need plenty more wins in the final 40 games if the hope to play any role in the postseason chase. After closing to within four points of Toronto for the final playoff spot last month, the Panthers have fallen back.

Florida came into Saturday's game 10 points back of Detroit for the last slot.

On Saturday, Florida went the long way to victory after taking a 4-2 lead early in the third. Nashville scored twice within the final 4:08 yet its shootout struggles continue as Florida won it in the sixth round via Tomas Kopecky.

"It wasn't pretty but it felt pretty good,'' said interim coach Peter Horachek, who spent the past decade as an assistant in Nashville before being fired after last season.

"You want to beat your former team and they're all friends over there. The main thing is we need to keep moving forward, find ways to win. We let them tie it up but they stayed on point, got the extra point.''

Florida, which hadn't beaten the Preds since 2011, fell behind 1-0 before scoring the final two goals of the first period to take a 2-1 lead into the break.

Midway through the first, Brad Boyes got his team-leading 11th goal by jamming a loose puck past Marek Mazanec. With 2:04 left in the first, Kopecky gave Florida its first lead by teeing off on a poor clearing chance from Mattias Ekholm.

"I'm just working whatever strengths I have,'' said Kopecky, who has four goals in 37 games after tying a career-high with 15 in 47 last year.

"We have to learn from this. We have to learn to play if we're up, stick with the gameplan. We have to realize to play a little more defensively, keep it away from our goalie.''

Nashville tied the score late in the second on Mike Fisher's 11th of the year, but it took Sean Bergenheim 57 seconds to give Florida the edge again.

Bergenheim whiffed on his initial shot, but rookie Aleksander Barkov -- who now looks like a lock to represent Finland at the Sochi Games -- tapped the puck back and Bergenheim buried it.

Marcel Goc, who spent two years in Nashville, scored early in the third but the lead wouldn't hold up.

Seth Jones, whom the Panthers bypassed in last June's draft to take Barkov, make it 4-3 with 5:08 left. Playing with an extra skater and empty net, Nashville tied things with 48 seconds remaining when Paul Gaustad swept in a puck that got behind Tim Thomas (38 saves; five in the shootout).

Nashville is now 0-4 in shootouts off 1-for-16 shooting. Florida improved to 5-5.


General manager Dale Tallon said the 'lower body' injury to defenseman Dylan Olsen wasn't anything too serious. Olsen will be eligible to come off the IR in time for Thursday's game at Buffalo.

Olsen was placed on the IR to make room for Jovanovski.

-- Florida played shorthanded when defenseman Alex Petrovic left with an undisclosed injury five minutes into the third.

-- Winger Scottie Upshall returned to the lineup after missing the past three games with an undisclosed upper-body injury sustained against Tampa Bay just before the Christmas break.

-- The Panthers will hold an open practice Sunday at the Coral Springs Iceplex at 11 a.m.

Photo courtesy of @ChunkyNHL


January 03, 2014

JOVO IS BACK: Panthers Captain Returns Saturday v Preds

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

The Panthers announced Friday that captain Ed Jovanovski has been taken off IR and will make his season debut Saturday against the Predators.

Jovanovski has been out since having radical hip surgery last spring. Dylan Olsen has been placed on IR with a lower body injury making room for Jovo.

Here's what I wrote earlier this season:

Jovanovski underwent hip surgery in April after radical treatments in Germany didn’t help with the pain. On Thursday morning, five months after his surgery, Jovanovski — who turned 37 in June — was back on the ice with his teammates for the first day of training camp.

Just being suited up and participating on the opening day of camp seemed out of the question to Jovanovski a few months ago.

“It’s been a long summer,” he said. “You always have those doubts, I would be lying if I said I didn’t. I had a major surgery done. I had no options. I’m happy where it is right now. My quality of life is much better.”

Now, however, the battle for Jovanovski is to see if he can get back to game speed and help the Panthers on the ice.

“I’m skating right now, and it’s pretty much pain-free,” Jovanovski said. “But that’s skating where pretty much everything is controlled. Getting into a game-like situation, we’ll see what happens.

“My goal is to be an everyday player, to lead these guys. It’s been tough, but I think I’ve been happier lately. I can do everyday things again like playing with my kids.”

Jovanovski was the first overall pick of the 1994 NHL Draft by the Panthers and played from 1995 to ’99 in Florida before being traded to Vancouver as part of the Pavel Bure deal.

Jovanovski returned and signed a four-year deal with Florida in 2011 and was named the seventh captain in Panthers history on the eve of last season’s opener.

Although he had dealt with the pain in his hip over the past few years, things really got bad at the start of last season.

When Jovanovski was knocked out of a game in Tampa five games in, the pain in his hip was becoming unbearable. In a desperate effort to find relief without having surgery, Jovanovski went to Germany for advanced platelet rich plasma therapy, something a number of athletes are turning to in trying to heal without surgery.

How bad was his pain?

“It got to the point where I couldn’t bend down to tie my laces anymore,” he said.

He came back to Florida and worked his way back into the lineup, returning after missing 22 games. Jovanovski didn’t last long as he left Florida’s game against the Islanders after the second period. He made the decision to have surgery soon afterward.

“I exercised every single option,” he said. “I needed to get it fixed. So that’s what we did.”

Some would ask why Jovanovski is putting himself through this, through trying to come back from such a debilitating injury. Money isn’t what drives Jovanovski, at least not in this case as he has two years left on his contract with $8.25 million guaranteed.

Jovanovski said just being able to continue playing the game he loves is his motivation. Being there and trying to help the Panthers win is right there as well.

“I just love the game, love being around it,” he said. “I don’t know anything different. My passion is hockey — it is everything. It’s the competition, the opportunity to be able to compete day in and day out. And there’s the camaraderie. Most guys say that is the biggest thing they miss when it’s over. I’m just driven to play.”

Jovanovski’s work through the pain hasn’t gone unnoticed.

“That’s why he’s our captain. He’s our leader and he’s our front man,” said Erik Gudbranson, Jovanovski’s defensive partner for much of his rookie year in 2011-12.

The question now is whether Jovanovski can make it all the way back.

Panthers coach Kevin Dineen knows the type of drive that is fueling Jovanovski, saying Thursday that when it came to the end of his career, “They had to boot me off the ice.”

Dineen, who was 39 when he retired four games into the 2002-03 season, is definitely rooting for the guy he named captain of the Panthers last January. Dineen will, however, be watching the situation closely.

"I got around November and knew the pace wasn’t going to stay where I was at,’’ Dineen said. "In saying that, he’s made a heck of an effort to come back. He’s a hockey player. This is what he does, this is what his life is about. We’re hoping surgery worked for him, although that hasn’t been answered yet.’’

Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/2013/09/13/3623630/ed-jovanovski-takes-first-step.html#storylink=cpy


January 01, 2014

ATTENDANCE LAGGING: Despite Recent Uptick, Panthers Numbers Down After 'Stagnant' Offseason

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

Coming off their first playoff appearance in more than a decade, the Panthers had one of their best attended seasons last year despite a lockout that cost half the home dates.

A last place finish for the first time in franchise history and a complete lack of activity on the free agent market over the summer has cost the Panthers at the gate this season.

Although Florida has gotten a recent push from big draws Detroit, Montreal and the New York Rangers, the Panthers are still near the bottom of the league in average attendance (26th) and capacity percentage (29th).

"Finishing last is always an issue as is getting off to a slow start,'' team president Michael Yormark said.

"Two years ago we went to the playoffs then we were hit with a work stoppage. When we start up, we finish last in the league. We had concerns last summer. The franchise was in transition. We were stagnant last summer.''

With the team up for sale, the Panthers not only didn't make a splash with free agent signings, but also let center Stephen Weiss - the team's all-time leader in games played and face of the franchise - walk away without much of a fight.

The team tried to create excitement in a market that yawned. The Panthers slashed prices on season tickets - some were going as low as $7 per game - with a number of perks to those who signed on.

Swag the Panthers offered season ticket holders include free parking (they now charge $20 per car), a free home jersey and tickets to select concerts (which turned out to include Barry Manilow and comedian Jeff Dunham) and other home games.

Through 21 home dates this season, the Panthers are averaging 2,334 less per game than they announced in 24 home games last year.

Last year was different not only because the team was coming off its first division title in franchise history, but also started playing in the middle of the winter once the lockout ended. October and November are traditionally hard sells not only for the Panthers, but for a good number of NHL and NBA teams.

"Having seven games in October hurt us; it's too much for us,'' Yormark said of Florida's early season struggles. "With the Olympic season, it's not a balanced schedule. We just had too much inventory in October and I think things are going to catch up. We have a lot of big games left.''

Yormark says the Panthers announced attendance is tickets sold and not necessarily fans in the seats. "We've had some no-show issues,'' Yormark said. Currently, Florida is playing to 76 percent of its capacity at the BB&T Center which holds 19,250.

The Panthers have reduced official capacity by putting up tarps in the upper deck for select games. The numbers used in this report reflect the arena's true capacity.

Although attendance figures have picked up at the same time out of state (and Canadian) license plates have infiltrated South Florida roadways, the start of this season was a nightmare for Yormark and his sales staff.

With a decrease in season ticket holders as well as a rough start by the team, demand was lower than usual. Although the Panthers drew an announced 18,584 for their home opener against Pittsburgh on Oct. 11, only 12,810 showed up two days later for a game against 2012 Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles.

During one two-game weekday stretch early last month, barely half of the BB&T Center was filled when Ottawa and Winnipeg came to Sunrise. Photos of swaths of empty seats quickly made their way around the internet.

Florida's announced attendance for Ottawa on Dec. 3 was 10,074 -- lowest since a game against Carolina on Halloween 2007. It has gone up from there in small increments although Florida drew 54,906 (average of 18,302) to its most recent three games.

The Panthers didn't do much to help their own cause as the team went into the Ottawa game with wins in just seven of their first 27 games and had fired their coach a few weeks before.

Craig Custance, NHL writer for ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine, covered the Atlanta Thrashers when that team played many games in a mostly empty downtown arena. The Thrashers were eventually sold and relocated to Canada, something some fans fear could happen to the Panthers.

"The optics of mass sections of empty seats in Florida aren't great in a time when the league talks of prosperity, successful recovery from the lockout and even rumblings of expansion,'' Custance said.

"Clearly, there's still work to be done in Florida. You certainly can't blame the fans for not showing up. The team wasn't good last year and didn't spend anything in the summer to dramatically upgrade the roster and then struggled to start the season. That's hard to bounce back from.''

There are distinct differences in the Atlanta situation and the Panthers, however.

When the team was sold to Vinnie Viola in September, one of the first things NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said was the stability Viola brought would end talk of the Panthers leaving South Florida for good.

The Panthers have a long-term lease with Broward County, one that allows them to run the building and keep most of whatever profits are raised from it. That helps keep the Panthers here as well.

The Thrashers couldn't find a local owner who would keep the team in town as tenants at Philips Arena to the NBA's Hawks. The Panthers, obviously, control their arena concerns.

"The key here is ownership,'' Custance said. "Florida fans have shown they'll show up if the product is good and that starts at the top with a commitment from Vincent Viola and a demand for something more than seasons that alternate between mediocrity and the basement. The NHL has proven it can work in non-traditional markets with strong ownership and good management. It doesn't stand a chance without it."

With the new ownership, which has promised to spend whatever is necessary to make the Panthers a winner, Yormark is confident fans will return. The team beginning to pull itself out of the cellar is most definitely helping.

Those Florida fans in the building sure seemed to enjoy serenading the large group of Montreal followers who left Sunday's game early. The Panthers won that one 4-1.

"It was great to see the place packed, that makes for a fun night'' Brian Campbell said. "And it was great that our fans got to stand up and be proud at the end of the game. We heard them. They deserved that.''



Via hockeyattendance.com



21 home games; Average 14,658 (26th in NHL); 76.1 of capacity (29th)


24 home games; Average 16,992 (22nd); 88.3 of capacity (24th)


41 home games; Average 16,628 (21st); 86.4 of capacity (23rd)


41 home games; Average 15,686 (22nd); 81.5 of capacity (25th)


41 home games; Average 15,147 (25th); 78.7 of capacity (27th)

(*) - Season not yet completed

(**) - Lockout shortened season