April 06, 2015

HEADED TO CALDER?: Florida Panthers' Aaron Ekblad in the hunt for Rookie of the Year Award

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

Dale Tallon realized it in one of the first conversations he had with the towering defensemen.
It took a few games until the bright lights of the NHL, but his teammates figured it out pretty quickly as well: This Aaron Ekblad kid is a pretty special player.
The top overall pick in the draft last June, Ekblad is now in the conversation to win the Panthers' second Calder Trophy -- which goes to the league's top rookie -- in three seasons.
Although Nashville forward Filip Forsberg got a lot of early Calder talk, lately Ekblad has garnered much attention not only for his play but in the position he plays in.
It's rare to see an 18-year-old jump into the league and play top pairing defenseman minutes as Ekblad has with the Panthers.
It's even rarer to see him excel at that position and be a team leader at such a young age.
Jonathan Huberdeau won Florida's first and only Calder Trophy after the lockout-shortened 2013 season.


"It would be great, it would be awesome,'' Ekblad, now 19, said after scoring Florida's lone goal in Sunday's 4-1 loss to the Canadiens in Sunrise.
"It has been a goal of mine but my focus is on the Florida Panthers.''
Ekblad will have plenty of competition for the Calder with Forsberg finding a new forward challenger in Calgary's Johnny Gaudreau.
Known as 'Johnny Hockey,' the rookie out of Boston College came into Monday with 22 goals and 61 points.
Forsberg has 24 goals and 67 points; Ekblad has 12 goals and 37 points.
Unlike those two, however, Ekblad is in his first non-junior season.
Forsberg, 20, spent three seasons playing professionally in Sweden before joining Nashville in 2013. Forsberg spent time with the Predators as well as in AHL Milwaukee last year, coming into this season with 65 professional games in North America.
Gaudreau, 21, spent three seasons playing collegiate hockey at Boston College putting up strong numbers for the Eagles.
In three seasons, Gaudreau -- who played with newly-signed Florida defenseman Mike Matheson -- scored 78 goals.
"We play different positions so however the media chooses, I have no idea,'' Ekblad said. "I know for a fact the guys going after this trophy are great guys. Best of luck to whomever wins it.''
Ekblad is not only playing a position that is tougher to assimilate to, but he's doing it after playing on the junior level just last year.
If rookie defensemen are supposed to hit a wall, Ekblad hasn't.
And with just two games left in his season, it's safe to say he won't.
The Professional Hockey Writers' Association will vote on the Calder Trophy among other awards next week with the results announced in June at the NHL Awards Show in Las Vegas.
"It's out of sight and out of mind for me right now,'' Ekblad said. "If they're going to pick me, they would have picked me already and not depend on the last two games. The last two games don't define a season. I'm just trying to finish and win games with the Florida Panthers. That's what everyone should be focused on right now.''
END IS NEAR
The Panthers have just two regular season games left and will likely hold their final open workout at the Coral Springs IceDen Tuesday at 11 a.m.
Florida is scheduled to hold its final two practices (Wednesday and Friday) at the BB&T Center.
The Montreal Canadiens, who decided to stick around in sunny South Florida an extra few days after beating the Panthers on Sunday, are scheduled to take the ice in Coral Springs at 9:30 on Tuesday morning.

 

April 05, 2015

ALL BUSINESS: Canadiens come to town early, take care of Panthers in 4-1 rout

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

As the Panthers battled Tampa Bay on Saturday night, the Montreal Canadiens were in town early, enjoying the sights and sounds of Fort Lauderdale beach.
Unfortunately for the Panthers, the Canadiens seemingly had nothing but the business of the upcoming postseason on their minds Sunday afternoon.
With its 4-1 win over Florida at BB&T Center, Montreal moved back into sole position for second place in the Eastern Conference.
The Canadiens will make their 83rd playoff appearance in the coming weeks.
Florida was eliminated for the 17th time in the franchise's 21 seasons after Saturday's 4-0 loss to the Lightning.
The hangover from Saturday night seemed to belong to the Panthers and not the visitors from Quebec.
"We weren't very good; we checked out it looked like,'' coach Gerard Gallant said. "I wasn't very happy with our performance. Montreal got the lead and we took a lot of penalties. When we take that many penalties, we're not going to beat anyone.''
Since routing Carolina 6-1 on Thursday, the Panthers have been outscored 8-1 in their past two home games.
"You go from playing for a playoff position to knowing you're out of it,'' goalie Dan Ellis said. "Those games are more difficult to grind through mentally.''
Although the Panthers are now playing out the string after being on the periphery of the playoff race the past month or so, the Canadiens actually have something to play for.
Montreal, which won four of five against the Panthers this season, is trying to hold off the Lightning while chasing down the Rangers for the top overall seed in the conference.
Montreal trails New York and Anaheim by a point for the top slot in the President's Trophy race although the Rangers have played two fewer games.
"They're playing for first overall in the conference and are battling hard,'' said Gallant, an assistant with the Canadiens the previous two seasons.
"To me, every game is important and I want us playing all of them hard. But we didn't do that.''
Montreal took a 1-0 lead as Florida's Dmitry Kulikov and Erik Gudbranson both took penalties around the same time giving the Canadiens its first (of two) 5-on-3 advantage with Tomas Plekanec scoring 6:36 into the game.
That power play chance may prove costly, however, as leading scorer Max Pacioretty got wrapped up by Kulikov and ended up slamming his head into the boards.
Pacioretty didn't return to the game and his injury status is unknown.
The Panthers tied it at 1 in the second with rookie Aaron Ekblad slamming home a power play slap shot.
Yet just 46 seconds later, the Canadiens took the lead back for good when Brandon Gallagher scored. That came moments after Alex Petrovic narrowly missed scoring to give Florida the lead.
The Panthers wouldn't be this close again.
Montreal scored three times in the second period to take a 4-1 lead it wasn't challenged in losing.
"It wasn't a good enough effort from us, first of all me,'' Willie Mitchell said. "It's hard to describe. Our goal was to make the playoffs and after the last game we were officially eliminated.
"Sometimes your mind is in a different place. You have to find a way to play better although the games don't mean anything. We're disappointed. Our heads were in a different place. We put a lot into this.''
BOYES, UPSHALL SIT
Gallant sat forwards Brad Boyes and Scottie Upshall with Shawn Thornton going back into the lineup.
Defenseman Steven Kampfer also started up on a forward line for the second time in a week.
"We switched some guys, that's all,'' Gallant said. "He played well on the right side the last time we did it. You want to see some of that stuff.''
-- Goalie Roberto Luongo backed up Ellis but spent the final two periods of the game not on the bench but in the locker room.
Gallant and GM Dale Tallon said Luongo was ill.

 

April 04, 2015

PLAYOFF PUSH COMES TO A CLOSE: Lightning eliminate Panthers with 4-0 victory ... Bruins, Red Wings win anyway ... Alex Petrovic likely to lead trio back to San Antonio for AHL playoffs

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

With no margin for error remaining, the Panthers hoped to win their final five games and thereby not eliminate themselves from the playoff race.
Saturday night, Tampa Bay sharpshooter Steven Stamkos and goalie Ben Bishop did the honors for them.
Stamkos' two second period goals and Bishop's 34 saves led the Lightning to a 4-0 victory over the Panthers ending any chance -- as slim as it was -- Florida had of making the postseason.
For the 17th team in the franchise's 21 seasons, the Panthers will sit out the Stanley Cup playoffs.
With Detroit and Boston winning not long after the final horn sounded in Sunrise, Saturday's loss became a moot point anyway. Even a win Saturday wouldn't have saved Florida from mathematical elimination.
"It was disappointing,'' coach Gerard Gallant said. "We had chances but didn't work hard enough, compete hard enough. If don't work 20 guys, we don't win.''
Florida -- which will miss the playoffs for the third straight year since winning the 2012 Southeast Division title -- didn't have much of a chance after Tuesday's regulation loss in Boston.
The Panthers had hope, however, that with five straight wins perhaps they could catch Boston or even Detroit.
Florida won Thursday but then the Lightning scored three goals within a 15-minute span over the second and third periods to finish things off.
Tampa Bay, which won three of four against the Panthers, pulled into a tie with Montreal for the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference.
The Panthers play host to the Canadiens on Sunday.
"It's frustrating, there is a lot of pride in this locker room,'' Brandon Pirri said. "No way are we going to mail it in. We're going to finish this season strong.''
Stamkos' first goal came came 6:10 into the second as he one-timed a cross-ice pass from Tyler Johnson from the left circle.
Five minutes later, Stamkos made it 2-0 on a similar shot from the right side.
Ryan Callahan had the biggest goal when he drove in on Roberto Luongo and scored 1:03 into the third. Tampa Bay's fourth goal came with 1:47 left.
"I'm disappointed. We were right there,'' said Luongo, who turned 36 on Saturday.
"There are going to be a lot of 'what ifs' over the next week. I wish I would have been better for the guys down the stretch, maybe steal a game or two more. Unfortunately that didn't happen.''
Said Jaromir Jagr: "I don't look at the score even if it's 4-0. I thought we did good things, had our chances. [Bishop] was in a zone. We didn't give up on the game. We just weren't lucky, hit a hot goaltender.''
PLAYOFF BOUND
Although its parent club won't be going to playoffs, after winning its franchise-record ninth straight game Thursday, the San Antonio Rampage clinched a spot in the AHL postseason.
Florida is moving its AHL operation to Portland, Maine, after this season.
"We have a real good team down there, a great group of guys,'' Florida defenseman Alex Petrovic said.
Petrovic, Vincent Trocheck and Dan Ellis are all able to return to San Antonio for the postseason and likely will head back to Texas following Florida's season finale next Saturday.
Although defenseman Steven Kampfer spent the first four months of the season with San Antonio, he would have to clear waivers to go back -- something Florida won't likely subject him to after signing him to a two-year contract extension.
-- With Scottie Upshall back in the lineup Saturday, Florida scratched Shawn Thornton.
-- Ellis is expected to start Sunday against the Canadiens.
MON@FLA
When, where: 5 p.m.; BB&T Center, Sunrise
TV/Radio: FSFL; WQAM 560
Series: Canadiens lead 39-37-6
Noteworthy: This is the fifth meeting between the two with Montreal winning three of the first four. All four games have been decided by one goal.


April 03, 2015

BRIAN CAMPBELL: Second consecutive games played streak continues ... Campbell, Scottie Upshall reflect on four seasons in Sunrise ... Al Montoya works out again

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards
Over the past decade, the Panthers have had two defensemen who just refuse to take a night off.
First it was Jay Bouwmeester, who played in 342 consecutive games before leaving the Panthers in 2009.
Today, Brian Campbell holds the team's 'Iron Man' status.
On Thursday, Campbell played in his 300th consecutive game (not counting 14 postseason contests) including all 290 games since joining the Panthers in 2011.
In 2010, Campbell -- then with Chicago -- had played in 377 straight games before he suffered a broken clavicle and rib from an Alex Ovechkin hit.
Campbell's latest streak started in a game against the visiting Panthers on March 23, 2011.
Bouwmeester holds the record for consecutive games played by a defenseman at 737, a run that ended earlier this season.
"I just try to take care of myself on and off the ice,'' said Campbell, who last missed a game March 20, 2011 in Arizona.
"I've been lucky in my career and have had other streaks. I think it takes a lot of preparation and sometimes you don't feel so good. I've played through injuries. I think it's a challenge and try and embrace it. I want to be out there every night. For me to take a night off, it's going to have to hurt pretty good.''
Campbell is one of only three players remaining from the 10-player roster makeover engineered by general manager Dale Tallon in 2011.
Both Campbell and Tomas Kopecky arrived via a trade at the draft that year with eight others either signing during free agency or coming over in a trade (Kris Versteeg).
Of those 2011 free agents, only Scottie Upshall remains.
"We were part of a rebuild, brought in to try and change the culture here and I think we've accomplished that,'' Upshall said.
"We've had some great young players come through the past few years and it has been an honor to see them grow into adults and fine hockey players. We're all it in together.''
In their four seasons in Sunrise, Upshall, Campbell and Kopecky have enjoyed high times (making the playoffs in 2012, this season's potential for 90-plus points) as well as the lows (a last-place finish in 2013 and finishing 29th last season).
"It does go by quick especially when you factor in a lockout-shortened season,'' Campbell said.
"The first year here was a lot of fun. There have been a lot of ups and downs but hopefully we've picked it back up again. Hopefully there's more stability now. But I miss those guys. We had a good group and a lot have moved on.''
-- Al Montoya worked with goalie coach Robb Tallas and strength coach Tommy Powers before Thursday's morning skate and participated in Friday's full practice with Roberto Luongo taking the day off.
The Panthers are hopeful Montoya, who pulled a groin muscle against Toronto on March 3, could be ready to play by next week.
"He's not ready to go into a role with the team just yet,'' Gallant said. "He's been skating for the past week. I think everything has gone OK. When he's ready, we'll see what happens.''
-- Upshall has missed the past two games after "taking a nice spill" against Ottawa on Sunday. Upshall has skated the past few days and said Friday he should be ready to return to the lineup Saturday.
"I've been feeling good,'' Upshall said. "I hope to jump back in.''
TB@FLA
When, where: 7 p.m.; BB&T Center, Sunrise
TV/Radio: FSFL; WQAM 560
Series: Panthers lead 58-48-10
Noteworthy: The Panthers snapped a long home losing streak (2011) to Tampa Bay with their 4-3 win in Sunrise on March 1. The Lightning are finishing off a five-game road trip with losses in three of its first four.

 

 

 

April 02, 2015

FROWNS UPSIDE DOWN: Panthers bounce back from Bruins loss with 6-1 rout of Hurricanes ... Florida sweeps season series from Carolina/Hartford for first time ... Nick Bjugstad returns to Sunrise ... Jaromir Jagr ties old pal Ron Francis

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

Few would blame the Panthers for having a letdown Thursday night after their playoff hopes took a devastating blow in Boston two nights prior.

Instead of pouting, the Panthers did a whole lot of scoring in a 6-1 win over visiting Carolina.

For the first time, the Panthers swept a season series from the Hurricanes/Whalers franchise as Florida won all three games this year by a combined 9-1.

"We played hard,'' coach Gerard Gallant said. "I thought we played a complete game from start to finish.''

Although Florida's playoff chances are dim, by winning Thursday, the Panthers remained on the periphery of the race.

After coming from behind to beat Detroit, Boston needs just two more points to officially and mathematically eliminate the Panthers.

Both teams have four games left including another matchup next Thursday in Sunrise.

"We still believe because you never know what can happen,'' said Jonathan Huberdeau, who ended with two more assists to pad his lead as Florida's leading scorer.

"We're going to keep working. This is a good group. We feel we can't let down now. You miss hockey in the summer. We're going to go all out and hope we can squeeze in there.''

Carolina, which has been out of the playoff race since Halloween it seems, came out firing. At one point, the Hurricanes had 12 shots on goal to Florida's one.

Things quickly turned around. By the start of the third period, Florida was outshooting the Hurricanes 27-20 and had four goals on the board.

Although Florida's scoring was welcomed Thursday, so too was a bounce back performance from Roberto Luongo.

The Panthers' goalie gave up two goals in the third period Tuesday -- including the game-winner with just over a minute left -- but was terrific Thursday.

After the game, Luongo's teammates presented him with a tricked out performance Scott road bicycle to celebrate his 400th career victory.

When asked about the milestone, Luongo said he wished to have gotten it either in Montreal or Boston -- losses that hurt Florida's playoff chances.

"I don't take it for granted because I know I'm blessed to play in the NHL, do something I love,'' said Luongo, who had 31 saves.

"At the same time, I would have liked to get it a few games earlier, get a few more points in the standings.''

Florida took the lead with 49.4 seconds left in the opening period when Willie Mitchell's snap shot off a faceoff win by Vincent Trocheck (two goals in the third period) went off a Carolina skate and past goalie Anton Khudobin.

The Panthers then scored three times in the second (Brandon Pirri, Jaromir Jagr and Sasha Barkov) to take a commanding lead into the third.

Florida came within 1:19 of shutting out the Hurricanes for an entire season but Chris Terry stuffed a rebound past Luongo on a power play for Carolina's lone goal.

BJUGSTAD'S BACK

Nick Bjugstad was back with his teammates for the first time since having lower back surgery last week. Bjugstad had been playing in pain for about a month before deciding to have surgery on a dislocated disc.

Although he won't be able to do anything physical for the next couple of weeks (Bjugstad said he bought an Xbox for all his down time) he's expected to be ready for training camp.

"It all went well, it was tough to walk around a few days later but I feel pretty comfortable now,'' Bjugstad said. "There's progress and I can't complain.''

-- With his goal Thursday, Jagr tied former teammate Ron Francis -- whom he won two Stanley Cups with Pittsburgh in 1991-92 -- for fourth on the all-time scoring list with 1,798 points.

Francis' number is retired in Carolina for his time with the Whalers and Hurricanes.

-- Al Montoya worked with goalie coach Robb Tallas and strength coach Tommy Powers before Thursday's morning skate.

The Panthers hope Montoya, hurt in the Toronto game March 3, could be ready to play by next week.

Roberto Luongo bike photo courtesy @FlaPanthers

 

April 01, 2015

MATHESON SIGNS: Panthers assign 2012 first-round pick to San Antonio

 
TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards
The Panthers came to terms with 2012 first round pick Mike Matheson on Wednesday.
The former Boston College captain will report to Florida's AHL affiliate in San Antonio where he joins former Minnesota center Kyle Rau who signed last weekend.
Matheson, a defenseman, helped the Eagles to three straight appearances in the NCAA tournament as he played in 112 games and scored 14 goals with 57 assists. He's been ranked Florida's top prospect by the Hockey News.
The 21-year-old will try and help the surging Rampage win a championship. Going into Wednesday, San Antonio had won a franchise-record eight straight games as well as set a record for wins in March (11).
San Antonio's 90 points led the Western Conference and were third-most in the entire league.

 

ROAD BLOCKED: Panthers come home for final five games, postseason elimination likely coming soon

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

BOSTON -- The few players still inside the Panthers' locker room following Tuesday's game weren't in much mood to talk.
The 3-2 loss to the host Bruins was a devastating one as Florida needed a victory to keep its playoff hopes alive.
With a win, Florida would have trailed the Bruins by two points with a five game homestand starting Thursday to end the regular season.
With a win, Florida had a chance.
Now, well, the ones who spoke Tuesday night were trying to say all the right things although they knew the road to the postseason is now pretty much blocked off to them.
"The odds are against us but we are going to regroup, keep fighting,'' goalie Roberto Luongo said.
"Obviously this was a tough loss. We just have to get on the plane, go home and come back ready for the next one.''
Said captain Willie Mitchell: "It's tough right now to talk about bouncing back or anything like that. We just need wins now.''
Florida likely needs to win its final five games starting with Carolina tonight then Tampa Bay and Montreal this weekend.
Boston returns to Sunrise on April 9 with the regular season finale April 11 against New Jersey.
If the Panthers were to get all 10 available points, they would have 95 points -- which is a huge jump from last year's 65.
For the playoffs, however, Boston and Ottawa would only be able to have 94 points for the Panthers to make it under that scenario. To accomplish that, the Bruins can only get three points in their final five games and Ottawa could only get five with six games left.
It sure doesn't seem possible.
"Our team has come a long way, and we’re real happy with it,'' coach Gerard Gallant said. "Our young guys are getting some great experience. We’re not out of it yet, so we’re going to keep working and battling hard. Until somebody says, 'you can’t make the playoffs,' then we’re still there.''
CAR@FLA
When, where: 7:30 p.m.; BB&T Center, Sunrise
TV/Radio: FSFL; WSBR 740
Series: Carolina leads 52-45-11
Noteworthy: After losing all three to Carolina last year, the Panthers have won the first two this year. The Hurricanes have lost two straight and six of eight.

 

March 31, 2015

PAINFUL, COSTLY LOSS: Panthers give up late goal, watch Bruins gain playoff ground with 3-2 win ... Jaromir Jagr injures hand, played in third

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

BOSTON -- As the lights flashed, the bass pumped and the home team celebrated, Roberto Luongo stayed down on his knees with his head hung low.
A shot from Milan Lucic had just zipped through Luongo's legs and into the back of the net, a dagger of a goal which realistically ended the Panthers' season.
Sure, Florida has five games left. But in order to make the playoffs, the Panthers needed to beat these Bruins on Tuesday night and Lucic's goal with 69 seconds left gave Boston a 3-2 victory.
Florida needed a win to come a bit closer to the Bruins yet Lucic landed Boston's knockout punch.
"We needed a win. That was it,'' Willie Mitchell said in soft, reserved tones.
"On to the next one, you know? We'll be playing our tails off doing everything we can to put points on the board. That's all we can control. On to the next one.''
A win in regulation would have pulled Florida within two points of the Bruins with five home games left -- including a date with Boston next week.
Instead, losing in regulation gave Florida no points and Boston a pair of them as it opened its lead on the Panthers to six points.
Since Florida loses the first tie-breaker, it's really seven points out with only 10 points available. Ottawa remains three points back of the Bruins and returned to three up on the Panthers.
"We still have a mathematical chance,'' coach Gerard Gallant said.
"It's probably going to take five wins. Can we do it? We just played five outstanding games on the road, went 2-2-1 and could have won all five. We're going to work hard, battle and see what happens.''
Luongo kept the Panthers in the game with one key stop after another.
Yet up 2-1 in the third, Luongo lost sight of a long shot from Ryan Spooner that David Pastrnak appeared to get a piece of and tie the score with 10:13 left.
Later, with the game seemingly headed to overtime, Lucic pulled the puck back into the Florida zone and sent a wrist shot from 25 feet out that was the biggest goal the Panthers allowed this season.
"I'm disappointed in myself, felt like I let my teammates down there tonight,'' said Luongo, who ended with 25 saves including an unbelievable blocker stop on a point blank shot from Carl Soderberg early in the third to keep it 2-1.
"I made some pretty big saves at the start of the third but there are no excuses for the last two. My job is to make saves. When I don't make them, I feel responsible. Those are goals that shouldn't go in.''
Florida had a final run at Tuukka Rask and the Bruins in the final minute when David Krejci took a penalty.
With Luongo on the bench, Florida had six skaters to four but couldn't connect.
Boston has now won eight straight against the Panthers at TD Garden and hasn't lost to Florida here since 2011.
"We came out in the third and sat back which is not what we wanted to do,'' Gallant said. "They were in their building and they really came hard in the third period.''
Boston led 1-0 after the first period but as has been the case throughout this five-game road trip, Florida was terrific in the second.
Brandon Pirri tied the score less than a minute into the period on a power play bomb from the right circle.
Later in the period, Brad Boyes picked off a mishandled puck by Matt Bartkowski and was off thee races, driving in on Rask and beating him to give Florida its first lead. It wouldn't last as long as it hoped.
"There were two things we couldn't do,'' Boyes said, "and that's sit back or take penalties and give them opportunities. We did both.''
Although the Panthers played decent in the third, they didn't do enough to get this one done.
It will be another long summer for South Florida's hockey team.
"We're not ones to feel sorry for ourselves,'' Pirri said. "We're going to play these final five games and if we play hard, maybe we'll get some luck.''
JAGR HURT
Jaromir Jagr got slashed in the hand during the second and spent the rest of the period in the training room.
Jagr had two mangled fingers taped together and returned for the third. Gallant said the fingers aren't broken and Jagr should be well enough to play Thursday against visiting Carolina.
-- Pirri scored his 21st goal of the season in his 100th NHL game.
Pirri has played in 65 games with the Panthers since making his Florida debut in Boston last March after being acquired in a deal with the Blackhawks.
-- Dave Bolland's empty net goal with 55.5 seconds remaining Sunday not only sealed Florida's win over the Senators but finally gave the Panthers a shorthanded goal.
The Panthers were the only team in the league not to score at least one goal while killing off a penalty.
Bolland's goal came with goalie Craig Anderson on the bench as Ottawa sent six skaters against Dan Ellis.

 

 

 

March 30, 2015

A TERRIFIC TRIO: Panthers head to Boston with Jaromir Jagr, Jonathan Huberdeau and Sasha Barkov leading the way ... Showdown with Bruins huge if Florida is to make up ground ... Luongo probable for Tuesday

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards
OTTAWA -- The Panthers enter their final road game of the season Tuesday knowing a victory over the Bruins is essential to staying in the hunt for a spot in the playoffs.
Florida does so with one of the hottest forward lines in the entire league.
The trio of Jaromir Jagr, Jonathan Huberdeau and Sasha Barkov have given the Panthers an offensive spark necessary in keeping them in the postseason conversation.
"From the first day [Jagr] got here they've played really well with those two kids,'' coach Gerard Gallant said. "They aren't just a good line for this team, but a real good line anywhere in the NHL. That's what we've needed every night.''
Since this final five-game trip started last week in Tampa, the trio has six goals and 10 assists.
In Sunday's win over Ottawa, Jagr had a pair of pretty goals off primary assists from Huberdeau.
On Monday, the NHLPA gave its player of the week award to Huberdeau after he recorded a pair of goals with four assists in Florida's four games last week.
"We're all playing well right now and we just have to keep it going,'' Huberdeau said Sunday evening.
"I don't why things are going the way they are other than we just keep working for each other every game. When we're scoring, we seem to win.''
Jagr hasn't been secretive in his admiration for his new linemates.
Although he's older (43) than both Huberdeau (21) and Barkov (19) combined, the three have been inseparable on the ice since general manager Dale Tallon snagged Jagr in a deal with the Devils last month.
Not only have the three played together exclusively during games, but they spend a lot of time during -- and following -- practice working on different parts of their game.
In the postgame locker room, Barkov and Huberdeau are often seen huddling with Jagr talking about ways to improve upon what they did just moments before.
“I've said it before. Nobody really gives these kids credit,'' Jagr said.
"They’re so talented and they’re going to surprise the league in two years. They might just win the Cup the way they play. You know they’re going to get better and better. They don’t even have to do anything and they’re going to get better.''
Said Huberdeau: "He doesn't have to care about us, what we do, but he does. He's been trying to help us. Every day he helps us. This has been great.
The Jagr affect has been a positive one for the Panthers. Florida has won nine of the 14 games he's been in the lineup.
Since Jagr's arrival, Huberdeau and Barkov have nine goals and 26 points between them; Jagr has four goals and eight assists.
"I've really enjoyed the games I've played here,'' Jagr said. "I think I can help the young kids and by the way they play, they can help me. They've surprised me in how talented they are. Even though they're very young, they make plays like they've been in the league 10 years. I had no idea.''
BIG CHALLENGE
The Panthers are 2-1-1 on this road trip as they head into Boston for the second of three showdowns with the Bruins before the end of the regular season.
Florida beat Boston 2-1 in a shootout on March 21 to snap a nine-game losing streak to the Bruins.
The Panthers likely need to win both of these final games against Boston to have any chance at making the playoffs for the first time since 2012.
Boston holds a four-point lead over the Panthers for the final playoff spot. Since Florida loses the first tie-breaker (regulation and overtime win total) against the Bruins, the Panthers are realistically five points out of eighth.
"We're four points back but still don't control our own destiny because we need to make up five,'' defenseman Brian Campbell said.
"We play them twice and it's an absolute must to win these games. But this is fun. This is a great time to be playing meaningful hockey.''
-- Gallant said Sunday that he expected goalie Roberto Luongo to return to the lineup Tuesday.
Luongo didn't play in Ottawa because his injured shoulder tightened up after Saturday's overtime loss in Montreal.
"It was a back-to-back and those are tough on any goalie,'' said Ellis, who made 25 saves in Sunday's win.
"This gave him a chance to get a little rest and hopefully come back even stronger. We were able too get the win and he was able to rest and recover -- enjoy a spa day, maybe.''
FLA @ BOS
When, where: 7 p.m.; TD Garden, Boston
TV/Radio: FSFL; WSBR 740
Series: Boston leads 42-33-6
Noteworthy: Florida hasn't won at the Garden since 2011. Boston, after going on a six-game losing streak, has won two straight. The final meeting between the two is April 9 in Sunrise -- the second-to-last game of the regular season.

 

March 29, 2015

TAKING CARE OF BUSINESS: Panthers top Senators, still four points back of Bruins

Panthers 4 Senators 2
By Darren Desaulniers

The Florida Panthers took care of their own business Sunday with a 4-2 win over the Ottawa Senators in what was essentially a must win.

“It was a big game for us obviously. It’s a tight race and we want to stay in that race so we had to win, so we’re staying around,” head coach Gerrard Gallant said.

The Panthers kept their playoff hopes alive and moved to within a single point of the Senators, who occupy ninth place in the Eastern Conference.

The Boston Bruins, who will host the Panthers Tuesday and currently hold down the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, remain four points up on the Panthers following a 2-1 over the Carolina Hurricanes Sunday.

“We can’t worry about that we can only worry about our game. We’re right there, we’ve got six games left and we want to stay in the race and obviously the next game in Boston is a huge game,” Gallant said.

Sunday was also huge for the Panthers as they played the fourth game in a five-game trip, their last road trip of the season.

Jaromir Jagr had a pair of goals, including the winner 14 minutes into the third period. After drawing Senators netminder Craig Anderson out of the net with a fake shot, Jagr scored his second goal of the game on a wraparound to give the Panthers a 3-1 lead.

“It’s our line’s job to score goals and luckily we did it. This was a Game 7 for us and now we have to get ready for the Next Game 7 against Boston,” said Jagr, who offered up a lot of praise for the young talent on the team.

“It said it before that nobody really gives these kids credit. They’re so talented and they’re going to surprise the league in two years and they might win the cup the way they play. You know they’re going to get better and better. They don’t even have to do anything and they’re going to get better,” Jagr said

Jussi Jokinen and Dave Bolland, into an empty net, also scored for the Panthers, who also got two assists from Bolland and Jonathan Huberdeau. They also got 25 saves from Dan Ellis.

“You don’t want to get too stressed out. We knew it was a big game but we just tried to have fun with it. Now it’s on to Boston and we have to try to get two points and not let them get one. It’s going to be crazy in Boston so we have to keep going,” Huberdeau said.

The Panthers came storming out of the gate and in the first 10 minutes held an 11-2 edge in shots although the game was scoreless through the first period.

“I thought we came out of the gate real good in the first 10 minutes and that was real important for our club. Dan made some great saves and I thought he was outstanding. He didn’t know he was going to play until about 12 o’clock today,” Gallant said.

Jagr opened the scoring at 7:36 of the second period when he cut to the front of the net and beat Anderson through the legs with a shot from the hash marks.

That goal came with Senators defenceman Eric Gryba in the penalty box for interference. Gryba was again in the box, this time for roughing, when Jokinen scored at 15:49 to give the Panthers a 2-0 lead.

Jokinen was in the slot when he took a pass from Dave Bolland and fired a shot past the glove hand of Anderson.

Erik Karlsson and Jean Gabriel Pageau were able to beat Ellis in the third, but Bolland’s empty net goal sealed the deal.





PICKING UP SOME POINTS: Panthers get another strong start from Dan Ellis, old-school goals from Jaromir Jagr and beat Senators 4-2

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

OTTAWA -- Say what you will about the Panthers but they're never boring.
Sunday's 4-2 victory over the host Senators pulled Florida one point closer to ninth place. A win by Boston kept the Panthers four points back of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with a big meeting with the Bruins coming up Tuesday.
"It was a big win obviously and we had to win to keep hanging around,'' coach Gerard Gallant said. "We’re staying around. .-.-. We’ve got six games left and we want to stay in the race. Obviously the next game in Boston is huge.''
Florida snapped a nine-game losing streak to the Bruins on March 21 but haven't won in Boston since 2011.
"This was a Game 7 for us and now we have to get ready for the next Game 7 in Boston,'' said Jaromir Jagr, whose scored a pair of highlight goals.
Although Jagr will get much of the glory for Sunday's win, Florida wouldn't have pulled to within a point of the Senators in the standings if not for a standup performance from backup goalie Dan Ellis.
Gallant said after Saturday's overtime loss in Montreal that Roberto Luongo would play Sunday but his injured shoulder tightened up after the game.
Plans had to be changed.
Ellis was told he could start in the morning; a few hours before the puck dropped, it was made official.
"I try not to worry about the pressure, I've been up here for a while and I'm enjoying it,'' said Ellis, who is 4-2-1 since being recalled when Luongo was initially hurt March 3.
"This was a big atmosphere with a full building and a lot on the line. It was fun. We played great.''
Sunday, Ellis held down the fort as Florida gave him a few two-goal lead thanks to power play goals from Jagr and Jussi Jokinen in the second period.
Jagr made it 3-1 in the third with a goal reminiscent of the ones he scored 20 years ago. Dave Bolland ended things with an empty net goal in the final minute.
"I went to church before the game. I didn't think I still had it,'' said Jagr, 43, who pulled Craig Anderson out of the crease, whipped around the cage and tucked the puck into an empty net.
"I was surprised myself.''
Florida has played Boston and Ottawa -- teams directly in front -- in the past week or so and won both.
That gives this team confidence it can win its final two against the Bruins (Tuesday and at home on April 9) as it continues a desperate climb into the postseason.
"We knew we needed the two points with another big one coming up,'' said Jonathan Huberdeau, who was instrumental in both of Jagr's goals.
"We're just trying to have fun with it. It's fun being in the playoff push.''
BOYES BENCHED
Defenseman Steven Kampfer got back into the lineup Sunday but not in the position he figured. Kampfer was informed in the morning that he would be jumping up to the Panthers' fourth forward line.
Gallant benched veteran Brad Boyes -- he hasn't scored in eight games -- and moved Scottie Upshall up to the third line.
"I just tried to use my speed to get pucks in and get them out,'' Kampfer said. "I played one game at forward with [Shawn] Thornton in Boston and it was funny because I was sitting with him when I was told."
Said Gallant: "I thought he was great. He kept things simple. I really liked him.''
-- Bolland's goal with 55.5 seconds remaining not only sealed Florida's win but finally gave the Panthers their first shorthanded goal of the season -- the final team to get one.
-- Anderson, who spent three seasons with the Panthers from 2006-09, lost two of three starts against Florida this year.
Anderson came into the season 10-2-0 against the Panthers.
-- Ottawa fans had to be warned not to throw garbage onto the ice on two separate occasions. No delay of game penalties were called.
-- University of Minnesota senior Kyle Rau signed with the Panthers and will report to the team's AHL affiliate in San Antonio. Rau was a third round pick of Florida in 2011.

 

March 28, 2015

TALK LATER: Panthers, Jaromir Jagr to talk contract extension once season concludes ... Nick Bjugstad 'couldn't tie skates' before back surgery

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards
MONTREAL -- Florida general manager Dale Tallon said he met with Peter Svoboda, the agent for Jaromir Jagr and expressed the team's desire to sign the pending free agent for next season.
Tallon said he and Svoboda spoke about a number of things and that a contract for Jagr isn't forthcoming with the team focusing on its playoff push.
"This is too important a time; we'll get to it when time is right,'' Tallon said.
"We'll talk after the season. .-.-. He has interest [in staying] but is a free agent on July 1. He'll make up his mind when he makes up his mind. From what I've seen and what has gone on, it would be tremendous to have him back here.''
-- Tallon said center Nick Bjugstad got the opinion of three specialists before deciding to have back surgery on Friday in Minneapolis.
Bjugstad and his family decided to have the procedure for what Tallon called a herniated disk in Minnesota so he would be at home for recovery.
The injury initially happened in Florida's previous visit to Montreal last month and Bjugstad continued to play through the pain until he couldn't do it any longer and left last Saturday's game against the Bruins in the third period.
"He showed a lot of heart, wouldn't take himself out of the lineup,'' Tallon said, "even though he had a hard time tying his skates.''

 

A TOUGH POINT FOR FLORIDA: Canadiens cash in on OT power play, top Panthers 3-2 ... Senators lose to Toronto in OT setting up Sunday's date in Ottawa


TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

MONTREAL -- Moments after Toronto did the Panthers a gigantic favor by beating Ottawa in overtime Saturday night, Montreal got a little gift of its own.

A questionable high sticking call on Vincent Trocheck in overtime led to a Montreal goal and a 3-2 win over Florida at Bell Centre.
The Panthers stayed three points back of the Senators in the playoff race as both got a point in their overtime losses. Boston picked up two points on both after beating the Rangers.
Florida sure would have liked to get that extra one point especially since it visits the Senators on Sunday evening.
As big as Saturday's game was, Sunday may be even more important.
Goalie Roberto Luongo will get the start.
"We just have to forget about this one. Ottawa is going to be huge,'' Jonathan Huberdeau said.
Florida didn't get much love from the officials, getting one power play as the home team scored twice on its four chances with the man advantage.
After Max Pacioretti scored the game-winner seven seconds after Trocheck hit the penalty box, Florida coach Gerard Gallant followed the officials off the ice and into the Zamboni tunnel.
One official was seen gestering to Gallant to head back toward his exit but instead he kept going with the referees. General manager Dale Tallon came down from the press gondola with plenty of colorful yet unprintable quotes.
"I didn't say much, it was just tough for us to get a power play,'' Gallant said.
"I thought we battled hard, played hard and to get just one power play is disappointing. The call [on Trocheck] was probably the [right] call, but when you don't call it all night that's disappointing.''
Montreal, which locked up a playoff spot with the win, took a 1-0 lead in the first before Sasha Barkov brought Florida back with a pair of pretty goals.
The first, coming 6:09 into the second, came off a rush between himself, Jaromir Jagr and Huberdeau. Barkov corralled the puck from Huberdeau, deked left before backhanding a shot over Carey Price's shoulder.
Eight minutes later, Barkov took a feed from Huberdeau in the slot and sent a softer offering that found its way home.
"We deserved the two points,'' Barkov said. "We have a big one [Sunday] and we need to win these games. We're playing pretty great. I think we have good chance to make the playoffs.''
Montreal tied it just over a minute later and the two played a scoreless third with both Luongo (looking for his 400th NHL win in his hometown) and Price making one good save after another.
-- Defenseman Erik Gudbranson was back in the lineup -- he bodyslammed Brendan Gallagher to the ice in the first period -- after being benched for a poor game in Tampa on Tuesday.
Shawn Thornton missed the game with a lower body injury.
FLA @ OTT
When, where: 5 p.m.; Canadian Tire Centre, Ottawa
TV/Radio: FSFL; WQAM 560
Series: Senators lead 48-31-3
Noteworthy: With rookie goalie Andrew Hammond ailing after being hit last week, former Florida goalie Craig Anderson returned to action Saturday in Toronto. Anderson could start again Sunday -- he's 11-3-0 lifetime against the Panthers.

 

 


March 27, 2015

NICK BJUGSTAD OUT: Panthers leading scorer out for season after having lower back surgery Friday

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

The Panthers run to the playoffs will come without their leading scorer after Nick Bjugstad had season-ending lower back surgery on Friday.
“After consulting with Nick and thoroughly evaluating the extent of his injury, we mutually felt it was important to have this procedure done as soon as possible,” Florida GM Dale Tallon said in a release put out by the team Friday night.
Bjugstad had 24 goals and 19 assists in 72 games this season for the Panthers, but had been hampered by a mysterious 'lower body' injury over the past few weeks.
In last Saturday's win over Boston, Bjugstad's shifts were limited before he determined he couldn't go any more.
Coach Gerard Gallant pulled Bjugstad from the game in the third period and he hasn't been on the ice since.
Bjugstad had his surgery at the Mayo Sports Clinic in his hometown of Minneapolis.
"It has been an issue for a while and got to a point where he couldn’t do it anymore,'' Gallant said on Monday.
Added Tallon: "Nick showed a tremendous amount of character over the past month, playing through an injury, while helping our club compete down the final stretch for a playoff spot. He will be closely monitored by our medical staff during his rehabilitation process and will be ready for the start of training camp in September.''
Bjugstad, who centers Florida's second line, has been replaced in the lineup by Vincent Trocheck.
Although Bjugstad's size and skill has been missed the past two games, Trocheck and former San Antonio teammate Brandon Pirri definitely show some chemistry. Of Pirri’s three goals in the past two games, Trocheck recorded the primary assist.
"We’re all buddies off the ice so I think that really helps with the chemistry on the ice,'' Trocheck said Tuesday. "Our line just happens to work. I’m a passer, [Pirri] is a shooter and Jimmy [Hayes] gets to the net. We all bring something different to the table but it works out. This is an exciting run we’re on right now. We want to help this push to the playoffs.''

 

FLYING HIGH AGAIN: Florida Panthers feeling good after win in Toronto helps playoff positioning but next three games loom large ... Roberto Luongo starts v Habs ... Erik Gudbranson returns as well

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

The Panthers held a full workout Friday morning in Montreal with coach Gerard Gallant calling it "the best practice of the year."
After Thursday night's results, why not?
Florida is back within three points of both Boston and Ottawa. As the Panthers were beating the Maple Leafs 4-1, Boston lost in overtime and Ottawa got blown out by the visiting Rangers.
"We finally got some help for the first time in a while,'' Gallant said. "We're in the battle right now. We're in the fight."
Florida embarks on a tough four-day stretch in which it plays three playoff contenders -- including both the Senators and Bruins.
The Panthers visit Montreal on Saturday with a quick turnaround in Ottawa on Sunday evening.
Florida plays its final road game of the regular season Tuesday in Boston.
Wins in all three and the Panthers could be in a playoff spot by the time their charter plane touches down in Fort Lauderdale.
"The issue isn't playing three games in four nights because these games are so much fun right now,'' Gallant said.
"We are playing very well right now and just want to see where we end up when it's all said and done. We're just trying to get to that goal.''
Thursday's results helped the Panthers get over Tuesday's 4-3 loss at Tampa Bay as the Lightning scored twice in the third to get the win.
If they came into Toronto moping, the Panthers have a much different mindset in Montreal after everything went about as good as it could have for them on the ice -- and on the scoreboard -- Thursday.
"It was tough, we deserved the game in Tampa too,''said Jonathan Huberdeau, who scored Florida's opening goal Thursday.
"But to come back and get the two points in here was huge, now Montreal is going to be huge too.
"It was good to get some help, but we’re just focusing on this team right now, trying to get two points every night.''
LUONGO STARTS
Roberto Luongo will try for his 400th NHL victory Saturday as he will start in his hometown against the Canadiens.
Who starts Sunday in Ottawa is up for debate although it sounds as if Gallant is leaning toward riding Luongo down the stretch.
Backup Dan Ellis is the only goalie to play on consecutive days this season for the Panthers.
"Louie will play Saturday for sure,'' Gallant said, "then we will see after that. He's been good, very solid. We'll make a decision after the game Saturday.''
-- Defenseman Erik Gudbranson was benched after a rough game Tuesday in Tampa in which he turned over the puck a number of times and was on the ice for three of the Lightning's four goals.
Gallant said the two had a talk Friday and an extra film session adding Gudbranson would be back in the lineup Saturday.
"He knows we have tough decisions to make,'' Gallant said, "and the goal is for this team to make playoffs not worry about individuals. Sure he was upset, everyone wants to play, but he understands. He had a rough game but he's back in Saturday. And he'll have a great game for us, watch.''
-- Center Nick Bjugstad (lower body) remains in South Florida and has been ruled out for the entire road trip. His status for next week's homestand is not known.
"He won't be coming on the trip,'' Gallant said, "and it's too far away to think about anything else.''
FLA@MON
When, where: 7 p.m.; Bell Centre, Montreal
TV/Radio: FSFL; WQAM 560
Series: Canadiens lead 38-37-6
Noteworthy: This is the fourth of fifth meetings between the two with the Canadiens winning both games in Sunrise and Florida winning the lone game in Montreal.

































 

March 25, 2015

SUNSHINE STATE HATE: Panthers and Lightning rivalry continues but probably needs a playoff date to really get going

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards
The Panthers and Lightning have been on-ice rivals since the first time they played back in 1993.
Yet there's always been something missing from the rivalry.
A few years back, then-Lightning coach John Tortorella said he didn't think about the Panthers alll that much. Truth is, he said, this so-called rivalry would never amount to much unless there was a lot of bad blood shared between the two.
For that to happen, Tortorella explained, the two desperately needed to face off in a winner-take-all playoff series.
"I can't imagine if both of us had to play in a playoff series,'' Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.
"That'll be the next step in the state of Florida really jumping on board.''
Tampa Bay put a damper on Florida's playoff hopes this year with its 4-3 win Tuesday.
The Panthers were trying to pull to within three points of Ottawa for the final playoff spot yet Ryan Callahan's goal with 2:28 kept Tampa's long home divisional winning streak going and prevented the Panthers from picking up any ground.
Florida coach Gerard Gallant knows a little about the rivalry between the two teams as he was in on it from thee start.
Gallant came to the Lightning for its second NHL season.
Tampa Bay left the tiny Expo Center on the Florida Fair Grounds after its first season and moved across the bay to play in the spacious St. Petersburg Sundome -- now the current home of baseball's Tampa Bay Rays.
The Panthers, meanwhile, were an expansion team playing in a new but cramped arena near downtown Miami.
On Oct. 9, 1993, the two met for the first time in St. Pete with an announced 27,227 on hand.
A few days later, the Lightning returned to Miami Arena -- where it had played a home game just before H. Wayne Huizenga was granted an expansion team -- and drew just 13,059.
The two teams have no played each other 116 times -- not counting countless exhibitions -- more than any other team in their histories.
Florida's first game in its new home in Sunrise came against the Lightning in 1998.
A playoff meeting, however, has yet to happen as both teams are rarely good at the same time. This year, however, is not one of those times.
If Florida was somehow able to make it into the playoffs -- the odds are pretty small now -- it's possible Tampa Bay could be the first-round opponent.
The Lightning, after all, is one point back of Montreal for most points in the league with 99.
A few more wins down the stretch and Tampa Bay could bring the NHL's President's Trophy to the Sunshine State for the first time.
"I think it's good when teams come down here and know they're going to have a battle with Tampa Bay and Florida. That's good for both of us,'' Gallant said.
Tampa Bay is obviously ahead of the Panthers these days not only in the standings but in its standing in the community.
Tuesday's game drew over 17,000 to Amalie Arena with the Lightning averaging 18,793 per game -- good for 10th in the league. The Panthers, meanwhile, are averaging 11,190 which is the league low.
"Winning solves a lot of problems, at the gate, on TV, on the radio, in the newspapers,'' Cooper said. "When you are winning you seem to be pushed to the top story.
"The turnaround of both of these franchises, us last year and continuing this year, and Florida's clearly this year has turned around their team. It's a lot of fun.''
Said Gallant: "They’ve really turned it around down here. They have big crowds every night, they have a good, young hockey team and we trying to do the same thing. This year we’ve taken a big step. We’ve gotten better and have some great, young hockey players and we want to turn it around too. The first thing is winning and playing hard and I think we are doing that so far.''
-- The Panthers left Tampa following Tuesday's game and flew straight to Toronto where they will play the sinking Maple Leafs on Thursday.
Toronto has lost nine of 10 since beating the Panthers in the Luongo/Al Montoya injury game on March 3 and has lost six straight in regulation since beating Buffalo in a shootout.
FLA@TOR
When, where: 7:30; Air Canada Center, Toronto.
TV/Radio: FSFL; WQAM 560
Series: Maple Leafs lead 34-29-7
Noteworthy: The Panthers are trying to take the season series for the second straight year as they have won two of the first three. Since 2011, Florida has won nine of 14 against Toronto.

 

March 24, 2015

LAST CALL IN TAMPA? Lightning rally from third period deficit, put damper on Florida's playoff hopes with 4-3 win ... Jaromir Jagr not looking ahead ... Nick Bjugstad stays behind

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

TAMPA -- In his first year as coach of the Panthers, Gerard Gallant has not let his emotions rise too high nor sink very low based on the outcome of a game.
Tuesday night, however, Gallant couldn't hide his disappointment nor frustration in what could be an extremely costly defeat.
The Panthers' playoff hopes took a major hit when Tampa Bay scored twice in the third period to come back to beat the visitors from South Florida 4-3.
Florida scored three goals in a span of 1:58 in the second period to take a lead into the third, but the hard-nosed Lightning never stopped coming.
"We battled back, we took the lead. The last goal cost us the hockey game,'' Gallant said.
"We played well, it's a disappointing loss. We gave up three weak goals -- not by the goaltending but by defensive zone coverage and not battling, not working. We played hard, but you can't give up three goals like that.''
Florida, which had been 18-2-3 when leading after two periods, watched Nikita Kucherov tie the score 90 seconds into the third. With the clock ticking down toward overtime -- and at least a point in the standings -- Ryan Callahan popped out from behind the cage and got a shot off under Roberto Luongo's glove from 10 feet out.
Tampa Bay gets the win and the two points; Florida got nothing. The Lightning is now 3-18-2 when down heading into the third.
"Bottom line is I have to be better,'' a depressed Luongo said. "You want to make a save when it's important. This is a tough one to digest.''
Callahan's goal with 2:28 left could be a final dagger into Florida's playoff hopes.
The Panthers now have nine games remaining yet trail Ottawa by five points for the final playoff spot in the East.
Florida can't afford any more losses down the stretch -- especially Sunday in Ottawa.
"This was a tough game to lose,'' Gallant said. "This would have been a great win for us. There is no room for mistakes now.''
Tampa Bay jumped to a 2-0 lead after Florida's defense broke down in the first with the Lightning scoring twice in a span of two minutes.
"We gave them two goals,'' Gallant spat, "by sleeping. It shouldn't have been a 2-0 game. We weren't thinking, weren't working. We made mistakes and they ended up in the back of our net."
In the second, Jussi Jokinen got Florida's scoring barrage going by whipping a shot from the right circle. Just 18 seconds later, Brandon Pirri scored on a similar shot and angle to tie the score.
With 11:46 left in the second, Florida took its first lead when Huberdeau dove at a loose puck and pushed it past backup Andrei Vasilevskiy.
That was all Florida would get, however.
Tampa Bay, which moved two points closer to the league's President Trophy, has now won an impressive 12 straight at home in regulation against divisional opponents -- something no team has done in 30 years.
Florida, meanwhile, heads to Canada hoping to stay in the playoff conversation.
The way Gallant walked to the bus and general manager Dale Tallon held his head in his hands, it sure felt like the end.
"It looked like it could have gone to overtime or we could have won it,'' Dmitry Kulikov said. "In sports, whoever wants it more usually wins it. That's the way it went [Tuesday].''
JAGR RETURN?
Although the Panthers have expressed an interest in resigning him, Jaromir Jagr said Tuesday he is only focused on the rest of this season and won't worry about next year.
Florida acquired Jagr -- a free agent on July 1 -- in a deal with New Jersey on Feb. 26. Coming into Tuesday, the Panthers had won seven of 10 with Jagr in their lineup.
"My goal is just to help this team make the playoffs,'' Jagr said. "I never think about the future; you don't know what's going to happen tomorrow. I don't worry about it.''
-- Center Nick Bjugstad was missing from the Panthers' lineup for the first time this season as he has been suffering from a lingering "lower body" injury the past few weeks.
Bjugstad didn't travel with the team to Tampa and Gallant said he would be evaluated throughout the week.

 

March 23, 2015

ROAD TRIP: Panthers hope this five-game trip isn't their last time on the road this season ... Nick Bjugstad expected to miss Lightning game at least

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

The Panthers left for their final road trip of the regular season Monday, a five-game jaunt which will help decide whether it truly does become their last road trip of the year.
Florida opens the trip in Tampa where the high-scoring Lightning await ready to avenge its loss in Sunrise earlier this month.
Of the Panthers' five games on this trip, four teams are in the playoff hunt.
Florida came into Monday trailing Boston by four points but by Tuesday it could be a five-point deficit to Ottawa.
Tough buildings and tough games await.
"We're going to go into these games with a sense of urgency and battle for every point we can get,'' defenseman Dmitry Kulikov said.
"There's a lot of pressure at this time of year, a lot of emotions. Some people perform better under these conditions, some people break. These are the type of games where you realize if you have character or not. You can't let the pressure get to you but use it to be better than the other team.''
The Panthers head to Tampa after winning their past two and playing strong hockey this month.
Florida dominated play in losses to the Rangers and Canadiens before finally getting rewarded with wins over Detroit and Boston.
Coach Gerard Gallant likes the way his team is playing and expects them to remain in the playoff race until the end.
"We're battling and there are two teams in front of us. It comes down to this,'' Gallant said. "We have a game coming up in Tampa; lets go play. We've done our job over the last number of games. The only games we didn't get points in were ones in which we probably played our best hockey. It's funny how things work sometimes.''
After this road trip ends next Tuesday in Boston, Florida closes with a five-game homestand with some of the same tough teams (Boston, Tampa Bay, Montreal) heading south.
"This is real exciting,'' Gallant said. "Our guys are ready to compete and battle on this trip and hopefully we're still in the race when we get back. We want to be right in the thick of the race and have a chance.''
Added Kulikov: "I know everyone realizes that every game counts for us. We have that awareness that every game is basically a playoff game. It's going to be pretty tight until the end. This trip is a huge test for us.''
BJUGSTAD OUT
A lower body injury suffered against the Canadiens last week will likely keep center Nick Bjugstad out Tuesday.
Gallant said he hoped Bjugstad would be able to return on the second game of the road trip in Toronto.
On Saturday, Bjugstad's minutes were limited and he didn't finish the game.
"He has lower body soreness and continues to get evaluated,'' Gallant said. "It's been an issue for a while, the soreness, and it's got to a point where the guy works hard every night but we had to sit him the last seven or eight minutes the other night.''
Bjugstad, who signed a six-year contract extension in December, is tied for the team lead in points (43 with Jonathan Huberdeau) and leads the team with 24 goals.
FLA @ TB
When, where: 7:30 p.m.; Amalie Arena, Tampa
TV/Radio: FSFL; WQAM 560
Series: Panthers lead 58-47-10
Noteworthy: The Panthers haven't won in Tampa since 2013 but snapped a long home losing streak (2011) with their 4-3 win in Sunrise on March 1.


 

 

March 22, 2015

FLORIDA REUNION: Dale Tallon ends up with Brandon Pirri for a second time, results have been great ... Colin Stevens signs with Panthers out of Union College

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards
Locked out of a Chicago lineup littered with offensive talent, Brandon Pirri joined the Panthers last March hoping for an opportunity to show he could play.
The Panthers were struggling, finishing out a season in which they fired their head coach in November and would finish next to last in the entire league.
Things are different this March as the Panthers battle for a playoff berth -- and Pirri has been a huge reason they have stayed in the postseason hunt.
On Saturday, Pirri was the only scorer to lift Florida to a 2-1 shootout win.
Although the shootout goal doesn't count as an actual goal, lately Pirri has been racking the real ones up as well.
Pirri's goal Thursday against the Red Wings was his 17th of the season and 14th in a run of 19 games.
Not only has Pirri been given the opportunity to play in Florida, he's been able to thrive.
General manager Dale Tallon drafted Pirri in the second round of the 2009 draft while he was running the Blackhawks and kept an eye on him over the years.
"This is awesome. I'm so thankful Dale believed in me and brought me here,'' Pirri said Saturday night. "I'm just happy to be a part of this and have a role here. I'm building up trust with [coach Gerard Gallant] every game and he's giving me an opportunity. I believe in myself and I think the coaches and organization believe in me as well.''
In parts of four seasons with Chicago, Pirri only appeared in 35 games with the Blackhawks all while showing off his scoring prowess at the AHL level.
In 2012-13, Pirri's 75 points in 76 games led the entire league.
"I didn't know much about him, but I know he's always been a scorer,'' Gallant said.
On March 2, 2014 -- two days before Tallon would swing a blockbuster deal and reacquire goalie Roberto Luongo -- Tallon sent a third and a fifth-round draft pick to Chicago for Pirri.
"That was genius,'' Shawn Thornton said when told the price it took to get Pirri.
In 60 games with the Panthers since making his debut in Boston on the day of the Luongo deal, Pirri has 24 goals.
"It's hard to find scorers but we drafted him and knew his background, knew he was blocked in Chicago,'' Tallon said.
"It was a good deal for both teams. But we knew he could score and that's not easy to find. He's been terrific.''
Pirri is signed through next season and will remain a restricted free agent when his contract expires in 2016 so there's no rush to get another deal done although that is coming.
There's little doubt Pirri has become a core player the Panthers are building around.
"We have a deep team here and playing time isn't a given,'' Pirri said. "We have guys who have won Stanley Cups who are sitting out. But we're all working together. I was just looking for an opportunity here and it has turned out great. I can't say how thankful I am enough.''
NEW GOALIE
The Panthers signed collegiate free agent goalie Colin Stevens on Friday and assigned him to their AHL team in San Antonio.
Stevens, 21, participated in Florida's development camp last summer after helping Union College to the national title. Stevens was a second-team All-American in 2014 after he tied for the NCAA lead with 28 wins and was second with six shutouts.
"The kid won a championship and has played well,'' Tallon said. "We need depth in goal and we think he's going to be good for us.''
The Rampage currently have three goalies with Sam Brittain likely to return to his starting post at ECHL Cincinnati.
Stevens signed a three-year entry-level deal with the Panthers that kicks in next season.
-- The Panthers will hold an open practice at the Coral Springs IcePlex on Monday at 11 a.m. before flying to Tampa for their game Tuesday night.

Photo courtesy of Bruce Bennett, Getty Images

 

March 21, 2015

RATISFACTION: Panthers hold off Bruins, snap nine-game skid against Boston with 2-1 shootout win ... Panthers four points back from final playoff spot


TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

Just before the horn sounded to announce Roberto Luongo's final save of the night, a rubber rat came flying out of the stands and bounced on the ice.

In the minutes following, dozens more crashed down to signify one of the biggest wins by the Panthers in the past few years.
Florida finally beat Boston 2-1 in a shootout on Saturday to snap a nine-game losing streak against the Bruins and keep its playoff hopes going.
"It's a good feeling in here, the guys had a sense of urgency from the start,'' said Shawn Thornton, the former Bruins' tough who was draped in the Panthers' West Point hero jacket.
"There were no passengers, everyone played their hardest. We'll take the two points. We would rather have taken it in regulation, but we'll take this.''
The victory kept the Panthers in the postseason conversation as they trail Boston by four points. Ottawa, which topped Toronto, is a point back of the Bruins.
A loss, especially one in regulation, would have likely been the end of Florida's playoff hopes. Now with 10 games left -- with two remaining against Boston and one in Ottawa -- the Panthers feel they can pull this thing off.
As Brian Campbell espoused before the season, "why not us?"
"These are practically playoff games for us,'' Luongo said. "We have to dig deep and we know it's not going to be easy. We saw it [Saturday]. It's going to be physical, not a lot of room. One mistake can cost you. This was a good playoff-type game for us. We'll take the two points and focus on the next one.''
Said Erik Gudbranson: "You see a see a lot of desperation coming from us. We believe we can make the playoffs. If we continue to play they way we are, we're going to be in good shape.''
Florida drew first blood when Dave Bolland fired a no-look pass from behind the net, finding Jimmy Hayes in front.
Hayes, benched Thursday, bounced back as coach Gerard Gallant hoped and ended up scoring Florida's only goal of the night.
"Jimmy played hard, went to the net,'' Gallant said. "No one wants to be a healthy scratch.''
The Bruins tied the score less than three minutes into the second when Patrice Bergeron got a shot past Luongo.
The two teams played back-and-forth hockey with both having prime scoring chances snuffed out. Boston's Tuukka Rask made a clutch save on Bolland 6:55 left in front of the cage; Luongo made a number of key stops as well, ending with 26 saves.
"Lou was great,'' Gallant said. "He looks rejuvinated like the two weeks off really did him good. He has great jump in his legs.''
After a frantic overtime -- Florida took two shots on Rask in the five minute period -- the game went to a shotoout.
Boston, which hadn't lost to the Panthers since 2012, hasn't been very good in shootouts this season so much so, one of its television announcers predicted if the game went to a shootout, Florida would win.
Rask stopped the first Florida offering from Jonathan Huberdeau in the shootout but couldn't stop Brandon Pirri in Round 2.
Luongo stopped all three shots from the Bruins as the Panthers won it with just Pirri's slick goal.
"I think beating them, right now, instills a lot of confidence in our locker room,'' Pirri said. "We're riding pretty high. Lou is playing great and giving us a chance every night. If we get a couple [goals], he's going to win it for us.''
With just over 17,000 in the BB&T Center, Saturday's game definitely had that postseason feel.
Fans, split about down the middle, shouted each other down and cheered loudly throughout.
For the Panthers, it was an atmosphere they had been waiting on.
After making the playoffs in 2012, the Panthers finished either last or 29th in the NHL the following two seasons.
Being in games that matter, now, is welcomed.
"We have 10 games left,'' Gallant said. "We just have to stay in the race.''
BOSTON BREWIN
Thornton returned to the Florida lineup and played in his 600th NHL game.
Thornton, who spent seven seasons with Boston, became the third player to hit the 600 game plateau in both the NHL and AHL.
"Everything was about beating them,'' Thornton said of the Bruins. "We have to catch them.''
-- With Thornton and Hayes back in the lineup, Vincent Trocheck and Tomas Kopecky were Florida's healthy forward scratches.
Defenseman Steven Kampfer also sat out.