April 13, 2014

JOVO COP'S LAST STOP?: Ed Jovanovski's Future In Doubt ... Panthers, Captain Will Discuss Next Season Later

TWITER: @GeorgeRichards

Captain Ed Jovanovski reiterated his desire to play one more season with the Panthers although he knows the team may have other plans.

Jovanovski, 37, returned from hip resurfacing surgery this season and played in 37 games since coming back Jan. 4. Jovanovski has one year remaining at $4 million, although the Panthers could buy that out over the summer.

"There are no decisions right now,'' Jovanovski said. "I have another year on my contract and I want to play. Can I? That's a different situation. We'll see where it goes.''

Said GM Dale Tallon: "There's a lot to talk about, talk about his fitness and his health. He showed some flashes of 'old Ed.' That was a major surgery and it takes time. We will have some heart-to-hearts and see what happens.''

On Saturday, Edmonton's Ryan Smyth had a tearful goodbye as he announced his retirement the day before. Smyth played big minutes in the Oilers' win over Vancouver and was feted by teammates and opponents alike when the game concluded. Jovanovski, the top pick of the 1994 draft by the Panthers, noticed Smyth's grand exit.

"I love to compete, do what I do,'' Jovanovski said. "Having watched Ryan Smyth, that's the right way to go out. Will I play beyond next year? Probably not. But I have another year on my contract. We'll figure something out.''

If Saturday was Jovanovski's last game with the Panthers, it ended early. He was ejected -- and fined $5,000 on Sunday -- for an retaliatory elbow to the head of Columbus' Corey Tropp in the first period.

 

THEN WE WERE DONE: Panthers, Tallon Look Forward after Dismal 2013-14 Season

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

Dale Tallon isn't happy with how the Panthers season went down although he wasn't necessarily all that surprised.

Before this season started, most experts picked the Panthers to finish near the bottom of their new competitive division and be out of the playoff chase weeks before the end of the season.

With little money to spend in the offseason with a team for sale, Tallon tried to salvage things once training camp started by offering tryout deals -- and later one-year contracts -- to the likes of Tim Thomas, Brad Boyes and Tom Gilbert.

Those moves helped the team out, although in the end it was too little and too late. Florida ended this season with a 3-2 loss to visiting Columbus on Saturday night and end 2013-14 ranked 29th out of 30 teams. Only Buffalo finished behind than the Panthers.

"I'm disappointed with the year, disappointed with a lot of things,'' Tallon said at his end-of-season meeting with the South Florida media before Saturday's game.

"We're moving forward. I'm going to fix it. We have great support now from [new owner] Vinnie Viola and we're going to add the pieces to help these kids get where they need to be.''

For the Panthers to contend in their 20th anniversary season, just about everything had to go right. Although Florida got better than expected seasons from rookies Aleksander Barkov and Nick Bjugstad as well as veteran winger Scottie Upshall, it got way too many disappointing seasons from others.

When the team opens camp in September, a number of familiar faces could be replaced as Tallon reworks the roster throughout the summer.

With a top-end goalie in Roberto Luongo as a key selling point, Tallon is confident players want to come south and help put the Panthers back on track.

"You sell winning, the desire to win,'' Tallon said. "We now have the ability to put the pieces together and that's what players want. You can have the best facilities in the world; guys just want to win.

"I was denied for two years in Chicago. We were an Original Six team, great city. No one wanted to come because the perception was we didn't want to win. That perception has gone away, and it has gone away here. We're going to get guys who want to win.''

The Panthers offseason begins Monday although the first order of business comes Tuesday in Toronto. Florida is back in the NHL draft lottery and hopes to hop Buffalo and secure the top pick.

Last season, Florida finished last and was jumped by Colorado. The Panthers picked second and took Barkov, a player Tallon said was all but irreplaceable. When he got hurt in January, the Panthers were still in the mix for a playoff spot -- only without Barkov, they weren't for much longer.

Barkov is one of many young pieces the Panthers are going to work around moving forward.

"We definitely have a bright future with a lot of kids with talent who can be good NHLers,'' said Luongo, who came back to the Panthers last month and is signed through 2022.

"That's a good stepping stone for us.''

Bjugstad became the first rookie to lead the Panthers in scoring (albeit with just 38 points) and Jonathan Huberdeau should be improved after a rough sophomore season following rookie of the year honors.

The Panthers got a nice jolt from centers Brandon Pirri and Vincent Trocheck -- a pair of proven scorers.

"We need to get over this kind of culture of losing,'' said Upshall, who had a career-high 37 points to finish second in scoring. "We've had losing seasons here and we need to change that internally. It starts with hard work and it's not going to be easy. We have good young players and have made strides.''

Tallon says he is going shopping with an open wallet from Viola and is aiming at five new veteran players including a pair of defenseman.

Florida's abundance of young talent is very appealing to other teams. Tallon may just go to that well via trades to improve his team's lot.

"We have a lot of assets,'' Tallon said. "We have a lot of kids who are in college, 10 picks next year, a lot in the system. I'm open to any suggestions that make us better quicker without jeopardizing our future.''

 

April 12, 2014

DUBIOUS HONOR: Nick Bjugstad First Rookie to Lead Panthers in Scoring ... Cats Set NHL Record with 38 Point Team Leader

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

Nick Bjugstad ends the year as Florida's leading scorer with 38 points -- the lowest point total to ever lead an NHL team following a full 82-game schedule.

Scott Pellerin led the expansion Minnesota Wild with 39 points in 2000-01 despite ending the season with the Carolina Hurricanes.

"I did what I could do this season and it is what it is as far as the record goes,'' said Bjugstad, the first rookie to lead the Panthers in scoring.

"It's not one you think of very often so I hope it stays pretty deep in the books. .-.-. I don't know when it will be trumped. Or not trumped, however you want to put it. It's not an honor obviously, but it's my rookie year. I did my best and I learned a lot.''

Florida also became the first team to finish a season last in both power play and penalty kill since the 2009-10 Maple Leafs.

 

THAT'S ALL SHE WROTE: Panthers Finish Yet Another Regular Season Out of Playoffs with 3-2 Loss to Blue Jackets

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

The Panthers' 20th anniversary season began with a victory but wins came few and far between following opening night in Dallas.

On Saturday, Florida lost for the 53rd and final time this season as Columbus swept the season series with a 3-2 win at BB&T Center.

As the Blue Jackets head to the playoffs for the second time in their history, the Panthers go into another offseason without playoff hockey.

Florida missed the playoffs in 12 of the past 13 seasons and 15 of 19 overall. The Panthers will finish no better than 28th in the 30 team league fresh off a last place finish in 2013.

"It's a really bad feeling knowing that you're done, that you're not coming back to practice,'' said coach Peter Horachek, whose status for next year is not known.

"It's not a good feeling knowing we're not preparing for the playoffs. The most exciting and best part of the season starts now. I want our players to feel that. It's not about playing hockey; it's about making the playoffs. It's where we need to be.''

General manager Dale Tallon spoke before Saturday's game of his vision for a brighter future -- one that involves spending a lot more money -- but before Tallon can go to work, this wreck of a season finally had to come to a close.

Saturday, the Panthers played a pretty decent game against a Columbus team that dominated play in the first two games earlier this season.

Florida was in a scrappy mood after the Jackets took a 1-0 lead 47 seconds in on a Cam Atkinson goal.

Ed Jovanovski and Erik Gudbranson mixed it up a few times before Jovanovski was kicked out for his elbow to the head of Corey Tropp.

That penalty kill led to a shorthanded goal as Vincent Trocheck picked off the puck in the Florida zone and walked in on Sergei Bobrovski and scored with 1:01 left in the opening period.

Florida took its first lead of the season on the Blue Jackets early in the second when Jimmy Hayes scored on a nice slap shot, only the Blue Jackets scored the next two goals to escape Sunrise and head into the postseason.

"We obviously have a talented young group but we need more time to develop together,'' said Hayes, who ended with 11 goals. "I think we have a bright future here. We need to gel, get off to a good start next year.''

Columbus' win assures them of a first-round date with the Pittsburgh Penguins. A loss and the Jackets could have been forced into a meeting with the dreaded Bruins.

For Florida, well, Sunday means locker clean out day and the team dinner.

The offseason starts Monday.

"It's going to be great to see our young guys develop,'' goalie Roberto Luongo. "We're all excited to see what happens over the next couple of months. Then we'll get back together and start playing hockey again.''

-- Scott Clemmensen suited up in a Panthers jersey for the what is probably the final time on Saturday morning. Clemmensen was one of three goalies on the ice for morning skate but later in the day was sent back to AHL San Antonio.

Clemmensen is a free agent after five seasons with the Panthers.

-- Travis Viola, the Panthers' Vice President for hockey operations, will represent the team in Toronto for Tuesday's draft lottery drawing.

Florida had the worst record in the league last year but ended up being passed up by Colorado for the first pick. The Panthers came into Saturday with the third-worst record in the NHL but could slide into the second spot.

"That's why I'm not going this time,'' Tallon joked.

 

April 11, 2014

NICK BJUGSTAD: Poised to be First Rookie to Lead Florida Panthers In Scoring

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

Coach Peter Horachek says he doesn't really care that the Panthers could set an NHL record for having the fewest points lead a team in scoring.

Nick Bjugstad is Florida's current leader with 38 points -- one away from tying the mark of 39 set by Minnesota's Scott Pellerin in 2000-01.

Scottie Upshall (37 points), Brad Boyes (36) and Brian Campbell (36) could have big games Saturday and hit 40 points as well.

"The bad thing is we're not in the playoffs,'' Horachek said. "I really don't care about the rest of it, that our leading scorer has 38 points. I do care that we're not in the playoffs. I care about the dynamic of the team. We should surround Bjugstad with players scoring twice as many points as him. We need to help him become a better player.''

If Bjugstad does lead the Panthers in scoring, he would be the first rookie to do so in the franchise's 19 seasons.

"You don't worry about that right now,'' he said after recording three points Thursday. "When you look back on it, yeah, it would be pretty cool. But you have to play it out. We have one more game and see what we can do.''

 

PETER HORACHEK: Missing the Playoffs an 'Empty Feeling'

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

Although the final weeks of the Panthers' season has dragged on, coach Peter Horachek doesn't want his team to be happy the end is near.

He wants them to be mad that after Saturday's game against Columbus, it's over.

No more practice, no more morning skates, no more games.

As is usually the case around these parts, no Stanley Cup playoffs.

"It's an empty feeling when you finish the game, you know you're not going to the playoffs,'' Horachek said after he gave most of the team Friday off after Thursday's 4-2 win over the Maple Leafs.

"I want the players to know what a bad feeling this is. I want us to go out and win, put the effort in to win, and know this is a really [crummy] feeling. I don't want this feeling going forward. We should be in the playoffs. The only thing we should be thinking about is the playoffs.''

Horachek talks like he has a plan for the future although as the team's interim coach, he doesn't know whether he'll be back to be part of the solution or not.

General manager Dale Tallon has said there has been no discussion of whether Horachek returns next year, saying that a decision on that will come next month.

A number of experienced NHL coaches -- including Horachek's friend and longtime Nashville bench boss Barry Trotz -- could be available in the coming weeks and the Panthers are going to look at a number of different scenarios.

Horachek sure talks as if he'll be back with the Panthers and feels he deserves the opportunity.

Florida showed signs of improvement under his watch as the Panthers were 3-9-4 when Kevin Dineen and his staff was fired in November.

The Panthers were 21-24-7 after winning in Detroit on Jan. 26, but injuries and inconsistent play plagued them over the final months.

Florida goes into Saturday's season finale with wins in two of its past three games, but overall, has lost nine of 12.

"We should still be playing,'' Horachek said, "and in the future, we need to keep pushing to get to that point. We've just scratching the surface right now. There are so many things we can continue to get better. .-.-. After [Saturday], I'm going to go, 'ugh. This sucks.' It's an empty feeling. And I don't want us to feel it again.''

One player who is most definitely part of Florida's future plans is goalie Roberto Luongo. The Panthers re-acquired Luongo on March 4, Luongo coming to a team he knew was out of playoff contention.

Finishing out the string of games has been tough, but Luongo has been looking toward the future. He likes what he has seen in young players such as Nick Bjugstad, Brandon Pirri and Vincent Trocheck.

Florida is also excited to see rookie Aleksander Barkov blossom in his sophomore season after he missed the past two months with a knee injury that is close to being healed up in time for the offseason.

"It's a bit sad that this is it so we want to finish on the right note,'' Luongo said. "I'm looking forward to next year. It's bittersweet. It was a pretty good year for me. I want to re-establish myself as one of the top starters in the league and I think I've done that. It's disappointing not to make the playoffs, but I think it's about looking forward to building up next year.''

Saturday: Blue Jackets at Panthers

When, Where: 7 p.m.; BB&T Center, Sunrise

TV/Radio: No local TV (NHL Game Center blackout lifted); WQAM 560

The series: Columbus leads 10-4-0

Scouting report: Columbus is in the playoffs for the second time in franchise history but is without former Panthers' forward Nathan Horton who had abdominal surgery Friday. Columbus won the first two meetings this season, both in Ohio.

 

April 10, 2014

RAKING UP: Bjugstad Breaks Slump with Two Goals, Three Points in 4-2 Win over Leafs ... Bjugstad Now Team Leading Scorer

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

The collapse is over for the Toronto Maple Leafs yet the free fall continued Thursday night.

With its playoff hopes extinguished two nights earlier, Toronto limped into BB&T Center with a pared down lineup and a journeyman goalie making his first NHL start.

Thanks to a pair of third period goals from Nick Bjugstad, Florida ran away with a 4-2 win to take three of four in the season series.

"We needed to get pucks at the net. That was the first game for their goalie and we wanted to get some shots,'' said Bjugstad, a rookie who is now Florida's leading scorer.

"We started off well which is a different technique for us. It was nice to have the lead.''

Any thought of the Panthers making the playoffs disappeared months ago, yet for Toronto, the sting of this disappointment is still very fresh.

On March 13, Toronto was ranked second in the Atlantic Division and held a seven point lead on a playoff spot.

The team lost its next eight games and will miss the playoffs for the ninth time in 10 years. Last year, Boston rallied and knocked the Leafs out of the first round.

For Florida, Thursday's win was its second in three games -- a rare bright spot in a season of bleak ones. Toronto, meanwhile, has lost 11 of 13 heading into Saturday's finale at Ottawa.

The Panthers' season also concludes Saturday against the visiting Blue Jackets.

"We had two games left and I really wanted to see that positive response at this time of year,'' said coach Peter Horachek, whose team never trailed. "We wanted to feel positive about these two home games. It was something we needed to do. We want to make sure we're doing the right things.''

With Roberto Luongo back for the Panthers, Toronto countered with 30-year-old Drew MacIntyre in net. MacIntyre, who broke into the minors in 2003, started well but found himself down 1-0 when Brandon Pirri continued his hot streak for the Panthers by scoring 6:06 in.

Toronto tied things 4:13 into the second when Tyler Bozak zipped some high cheese past Luongo. Florida took the lead into the second break when Brad Boyes popped in Nick Bjugstad's feed with three seconds left in the period.

Bjugstad, perhaps excited his Minnesota Golden Gophers were playing in the Frozen Four, made it 3-1 early in the third before putting the capper on the game minutes later.

"That was one of my longest droughts of my life,'' said Bjugstad, who hadn't scored a goal in 20 games. "It was good to get off that.''

CLEMM RETURNS

The Panthers had an old friend back in the building on Thursday as Scott Clemmensen was recalled to back up Luongo against Toronto.

Usual backup Dan Ellis, who filled in for Luongo on Tuesday, was "nicked up" at practice on Wednesday said Horachek.

Clemmensen wasn't able to take part in Thursday's morning skate however because of flight issues on Wednesday. Although Clemmensen arrived in Fort Lauderdale around 1 a.m. on Thursday, his equipment bag didn't get in until the skate had already concluded.

-- Bjugstad recorded three points to take over as Florida's leading scorer with 38 points.

The Panthers have one game left to try and avoid setting an NHL record for fewest points by a team's leading scorer. Minnesota's Scott Pellerin had 39 points for the expansion Wild in 2000-01.

-- Ron Young, the team's longtime timekeeper and crew chief for the NHL's off-ice officials, dropped the ceremonial first puck before Thursday's game.

Young has been working Panthers games since their first season in 1993 but is moving to Toronto after Saturday's season finale.

 

LEAFS NOTEBOOK: Ellis 'Banged Up,'' Clemmensen Recalled

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

 

With only two games left, there's not much left to talk about. The Leafs, eliminated from postseason consideration on Tuesday, didn't even bother to leave Fort Lauderdale Beach to take part in Thursday's morning skate.

 

Good move on their part in my opinion.

Anyway, Scott Clemmensen is back in Sunrise as Dan Ellis apparently got "banged up" in practice yesterday says Peter Horachek. Clemmensen flew back late last night but because of some air snafus, his equipment didn't get here until the skate was already done. Clemmensen will back up Roberto Luongo and his new mask -- plenty of photos on the post below -- tonight against the Leaves.

 

What else happened today? That's about it.

 

-- Ron Young, the long-time off-ice official for the Panthers, is retiring after Saturday's game and moving back to Toronto.

 

The Panthers will honor him tonight as he drops the opening puck against his hometown Leafs.

 

It's a nice honor for a good guy who has been around this team since its inception. He'll be missed around the rink.

 

 

 

LOUIE'S NEW LOOK: Roberto Luongo Breaks Out New Mask With Two Games Left

 

 

 

April 09, 2014

NEW JERSEY: Panthers 'Shirts Off Our Back' Starts Thursday

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

The Panthers annual 'Shirts Off Our Back' auction will start a game earlier this season.

Instead of starting during the season finale on Saturday against Columbus, the bidding will be begin on Thursday against the Maple Leafs.

The team will hold a silent auction at the arena in which fans will bid for their favorite player's jersey.

The auction starts at 6:30 p.m. and will go though the end of the second intermission. The auction will then resume Saturday night at 6:30 with the auction closing at the start of the third period.

Fans who win said jersey will be brought out onto the ice after Saturday's game and given their jersey from their favorite player. I think they even autograph it for ya.

Good luck and happy bidding!

 

LUONGO BETTER: Goalie Says He'll Try and Go Against Leafs ... Adds Mike Gillis 'Put in Tough Spot'

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

Roberto Luongo said he felt better on Wednesday after missing Tuesday's 5-2 loss to the Flyers after feeling sore following warm-ups.

"We'll take morning skate [Thursday] and see where it goes,'' Luongo told reporters. "Hopefully I'll be back in.''

Backup Dan Ellis said Luongo indicated during the day that he might not be able to go so Ellis had some warning that he may have to fill in.

Ellis is still searching for his first win since coming to the Panthers in the Tim Thomas deal on March 5. Ellis is 0-5 with Florida with a 4.81 goals-against average and has made just 84 percent of his saves.

-- Luongo said he and former Vancouver general manager Mike Gillis had a good relationship. Gillis was fired on Tuesday just over a month after trading Luongo to the Panthers on March 4. The Luongo trade came after Gillis sent Cory Schneider to New Jersey last June.

Gillis' failed trades -- some which came with the Panthers -- is said to have hastened his departure from the Canucks. Vancouver will miss the playoffs for the first time in six years.

"It's tough, Mike was put in a tough spot there,'' Luongo said. "When the team doesn't have success and misses the playoffs, someone usually tends to pay the price. Unfortunately it was Mike.''

 

TIME'S UP: Original Panthers Off Ice Official Ron Young Retiring After 20 Seasons

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

It all started in 1993. Then working as a referee doing men's league games at a skating rink in Lighthouse Point, Ron Young was approached to be an off ice official and work NHL games for the newly-created Florida Panthers at Miami Arena.

Young hopped at the chance to work in the NHL and today is one of three original hires still doing the games in Sunrise.

On Saturday, Young's 20-year run with the NHL and the Panthers comes to a close. Young has decided to move back to Toronto full-time.

Since retiring from his job in the transportation sector, Young shuttled between South Florida and Canada to see his three grandsons, but those long commutes are about to come to a close.

As is Young's up-close view of the NHL. He doesn't expect to find this kind of work in hockey-mad Toronto although he's hopeful. Before the NHL came calling in 1993, he never thought he would have been doing this either.

"These have been some great times and it has been fun to be part of it,'' said Young, who as crew supervisor and game timekeeper, works at center ice directly between the two penalty boxes at BB&T Center.

"For 41 nights a year, I've just loved coming to work. To be able to watch the game at this level has been terrific. But there's not much turnover for these jobs in Canada. They are gold. You are in it until they carry you out basically. But you never know. Someone may retire. It would be a dream come true if I could continue on.''

When the Panthers are in town, so is Young. He spends his game mornings at the arena in a spot down near the Zamboni tunnel drinking his home brewed Tim Hortons' coffee and catching up on the latest hockey news on his iPad.

Players and coaches from the Panthers as well as the visiting teams always skate by to say hello, Young's faded Toronto Blue Jays cap as recognizable as his goatee.

When Young started this part of his career, he was working in the transportation business and was living in Cooper City. His job offered the perks of many frequent flier miles, although Young says they went fast.

In his time with the Panthers, Young has seen some bad hockey but also worked every playoff game in franchise history. He also had the honor of working Game 7 of the 2004 Stanley Cup Finals when the Lightning brought the Cup to the Sunshine State to stay for the first time.

Now he has two games left. With his three grandsons all playing youth hockey, however, he'll remain close to the game he loves.

"It's a little bittersweet because I've been here 20 years,'' he said while watching the Flyers skate on Tuesday morning. "Hockey, to me, is a passion. I'm going to miss it, miss the people I interact with on a nightly basis. But I'm looking forward to revisiting a time when my son played, the 6 a.m. practices sitting in the stands with a cup of Tim Hortons watching them play.

"And I'll have the Center Ice package so I'll be watching the Panthers every night anyway.''

 

Thursday: Maple Leafs at Panthers

When, Where: 7:30 p.m.; BB&T Center, Sunrise

TV/Radio: FSNF; WQAM 560

The series: Toronto leads 33-26-7

Scouting report: The Leafs were officially eliminated from the playoffs with Tuesday's listless 3-0 loss at Tampa Bay. The Leafs have lost 10 of 12 and haven't made the postseason since 2004. Florida has won two of the three meetings this year.

 

April 08, 2014

PLAYOFFS IN PHILLY: Flyers Clinch Spot in Postseason as Ellis Takes Blame for Panthers' 5-2 Loss ... Roberto Luongo 'Sore'

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

The Panthers hoped to put Philadelphia's playoff party on hold just another day bolstered by the addition of three forwards to the lineup.

Alas, Roberto Luongo came out of warmups complaining of what coach Peter Horachek described as being sore and the Flyers took full advantage. Philadelphia scored three goals off its first four shots in the second and clinched a spot in the Stanley Cup playoffs with a 5-2 win at BB&T Center.

The Panthers, meanwhile, will miss the postseason for the 12th time in 13 seasons. In the franchise's 19 seasons, it has missed the playoffs 15 times.

"It was a terrible second period and you can't expect to win when you play like that,'' said Erik Gudbranson, whose long shot put the Panthers on the board early in the third to make it 4-1.

If the Flyers thought they had an easy one on their hands, the Panthers looked like they wanted to prove them wrong.

Florida played one of its best periods of the month in the first, dictating play and surviving what could have been a disastrous penalty kill late.

First, Drew Shore -- brought up from the minors on Monday -- drew four minutes in the penalty box for drawing blood with a high stick on Wayne Simmonds.

With 1:40 left in that penalty, Scottie Upshall was called for slashing, giving the Flyers a two-man advantage for 100 seconds.

Although the Flyers challenged backup goalie Dan Ellis, they didn't get anything through and the two went into the first break still scoreless.

Florida's tough play didn't last, however, as the Flyers scored two quick goals to kick off the second and all but stamp their ticket to the playoffs.

"It was a good start and then in the second I gave up four crap goals,'' said Ellis, who faced 12 shots in the second. "It's unacceptable. It's frustrating as hell when you're the primary reason for the loss. I take responsibility for the loss.''

The Flyers got its first when Vincent Lecavalier -- who long owned the Panthers from his days in Tampa -- jammed one through Ellis' skates 2:02 in.

Lecavalier became the seventh player in the Flyers' lineup to hit the 20 goal plateau; Florida has one.

Four minutes later and Claude Giroux made it 2-0 by scoring his first of two, this one off a nice slap shot from 20 feet out. The Flyers scored their third at 8:50 of the second from Giroux and led 4-0 with five minutes remaining in the period.

Jonathan Huberdeau, who missed 11 games with a concussion, made it 4-2 with 14:22 left to play. It was Huberdeau's first goal since Jan. 20 and second in a span of 37 games.

-- Aleksander Barkov practiced Tuesday but it's doubtful the rookie center will play again this season.

Barkov has been out since re-injuring a knee representing Finland at the Olympics in February.

"I could've played better but then I had the injury,'' Barkov said. "I will go back to Finland, practice a lot and I'll be a better player next year. Now I know I can play on this level and I want to be better.''

-- Former UM track standout Lauryn Williams (won Silver in bobsled) dropped the first puck.

 

NEW ENVIRONMENT: Panthers to Close Off End Zone, New Capacity Like Miami Arena

 
TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

The Panthers plan to drop capacity at the county-owned BB&T Center even more next season by blocking off entire sections in the upper deck.

Former team president Michael Yormark put tarps on some upper rows of the arena in 2010.

At Tuesday's morning skate, a large theatre curtain hung from the rafters blocking off six end zone sections. New team president Rory Babich said Tuesday the team will either tarp those seats off or keep the curtain.

Florida isn't offering season ticket packages in those sections. The arena holds almost 19,000 now for hockey and is among the largest in the league.

Babich says the new capacity -- if all upper deck tarps are utilized -- will be around 15,700.

The Panthers left Miami Arena (cap. 14,703) in 1998 for the larger arena in Sunrise. The team had a 5,000-person waiting list for tickets when they went north.

Florida had an announced attendance of 12,487 for Tuesday's game.

"This is one of the biggest arenas in the NHL so we're trying to make it a little smaller for most games,'' Babich said. "We'll have people in a smaller area, make it a more intimate experience.

"I think people recognize what we're doing. It's not minor league at all. There are other arenas and stadiums who have done it. We're not selling out at 19,000-plus, so instead of having empty seats in the less desirable sections, we've decided to block them off.''

 

CURTAINS!: Panthers to Seriously Cut Back on Sunrise Capacity in 2014-15?

 

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

The Panthers had a huge curtain cutting off part of the end zone at Tuesday's morning skate and it looks like that may be a sign of things to come.

According to the team website, seats in those sections aren't being offered as part of any season ticket plan. As you can see from the chart below, season ticket sales end at Section 306 and resume in 313*. It also appears the tarps are staying as 'Goal Zone' seats will only be sold up to row 10.

(*) The team is renaming the 400 level the 300 level as well.

The Panthers have already cut chunks out of the upper deck with tarps the past few seasons, opening up seats as the need arises. I would think the curtain would be gone for single game tickets if needed (when Montreal comes to town, the Holiday Series) but will ask about this when I'm at the game tonight.

Your thoughts on the matter? Leave 'em below in the comment section.

 

FLYERS NOTEBOOK: Boyes, Huberdeau, Shore Back in Lineup ... End of the Line for Gomez? ... Barkov Works Out with Team

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

Busy day for the Panthers at Tuesday's morning skate as three players jump back into the lineup.

Brad Boyes is back after missing the past few games on a revamped 'B-Line' as Nick Bjugstad rejoins Sean Bergenheim after playing down on the third line.

Jonathan Huberdeau is also back in the lineup after being out since last month with a concussion.

Drew Shore, recalled yesterday, is also in the lineup.

That means two players need to be scratched tonight and it's going to be Scott Gomez and Quinton Howden. That last decision led to a lot of head scratching among the gathered media as many wouldn't mind seeing Tomas Fleischmann take a day off. Personally, I'm looking for a big bounce-back year from Fleischmann in 2014-15.

"I'm really excited. It's been a while,'' Huberdeau said. "When you've been out for a while, you want to get back out there and do everything you can to help the team. I'm going to keep it simple out there and try and finish the last three games the right way.''

-- With the influx of forwards, Gomez goes from playing on Florida's top line to being scratched. It's possible Gomez has not only played in his final game with the Panthers but perhaps his final NHL game.

Coach Peter Horachek admitted that scratching Gomez -- he's been a pretty good citizen with the Panthers -- was a difficult decision.

"That's the hardest thing that's happened because he's part of the driving force,'' Horachek said "He's saying the things he needs to say, been a total pro and works hard.

"When things are happening in the game, he's trying to make a difference. He's speaking on the bench, in the locker room. He's doing all the things a good pro does. At this time, sometimes you're looking at next year more than the final three games. You want to see what chemistry the younger players have. I can't say enough good things about Scottie.''

-- Aleksander Barkov was out practicing on Florida's fifth line with Gomez and Howden but it's still very doubtful we'll see the rookie center again this season.

Barkov has been out with a knee injury since the Olympics.

"I'm a hockey player and I want to be on the ice with the team,'' Barkov said.

 

April 07, 2014

GOALS NEEDED: Florida Panthers Near Bottom of League in Scoring Again; Scottie Upshall Having Good Year, Leads Team in Scoring

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

When the Dallas Stars took a 2-0 lead on the Panthers early in Sunday's game, they did so with a pair of players -- Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin -- who have combined for 69 goals this season.

The Panthers don't have anything close to that kind of firepower.

Florida turned things around and scored three unanswered goals to put a dent in Dallas' playoff hopes with a surprising 3-2 win.

The Panthers' first goal came from Scottie Upshall, who took the dubious honor of being the the team's leading scorer.

Upshall leads the Panthers with 15 goals and 36 points -- which has him tied for 171st in individual scoring as of Monday morning.

With three games to go, the Panthers are flirting with history.

In 2001, Minnesota's Scott Pellerin became the player with the fewest points to lead an NHL team in scoring over the course of an 82 game season.

Pellerin did so on an expansion team (one he didn't even end the season with) by scoring 39 points -- currently three more than Upshall currently has.

Florida's previous low for leading scorer in a full season was 49 by Stephen Weiss in 2010-11. Pavel Bure also led the team with 49 points in 2001-02 despite being traded to New York that March.

Tomas Fleischmann had 35 to lead the team in last year's 48-game season but has 27 points in 77 games this year.

"It's kind of embarrassing that we don't even have a guy with 40 points,'' Upshall said Sunday night. "There's no leading scorers on this team. We all have to realize we need to be better. You chip away, learn to bury your chances.''

Upshall's 36 points are most in his NHL career eclipsing his previous high of 34.

"Scottie shouldn't be our leading scorer. But he is,'' coach Peter Horachek said. "It's a tribute to him for working hard and doing what he's had to do, but we know where we need to improve. When your first-year players are creating a lot of your offense, there's a problem there too.''

Florida's scoring problems aren't something new as the team has struggled to put pucks in the net for years.

This year, the Panthers are second only to Buffalo for fewest goals scored with 180 (2.3 per game).

The Panthers have ranked in the bottom five of the league in goals scored for five straight seasons. Florida ranked 17th with 231 goals scored in 2008-09.

Horachek knows scoring is a constant challenge.

"I've told our guys we can't give up more than two goals,'' he said Sunday. "That's the max.''

Getting some scoring help over the summer is definitely Florida's biggest priority.

This offseason, general manager Dale Tallon says he has the money to try and help rectify Florida's scoring deficiencies. But will he completely be able to?

There aren't that many top-end scorers expected to be on the free agency market, although one could be procured in a trade as how Dallas scored Seguin last summer.

Florida seemingly has a pretty good core of young players who can help create offense with big physical centers like Aleksander Barkov (who was among team leaders in scoring before being hurt in the Olympics) and Nick Bjugstad (second on the team with 35 points).

The Panthers also have a few players who have shown they can score at lower levels such as Jonathan Huberdeau, Brandon Pirri and Vincent Trocheck.

Adding a few veteran scorers around the young players they have -- and hope for bounce-back years from the likes of Fleischmann and Tomas Kopecky -- could get the Panthers at least closer to the middle of the pack in league scoring.

With the goaltending Florida has, that could be enough to have this team in playoff contention come this time next year.

"If we get a guy who can score 60, 70 points, we'e going to be a much better team,'' Upshall said. "It could be a guy in this room or it could be a guy we go out and get. We need someone to really step up and score the big goals and carry the team offensively. It's an area we need. Some of the young guys have been doing it.''

SHORE RETURNS

The Panthers brought back center Drew Shore, sending Bobby Butler to AHL San Antonio after two games played.

Shore has played in 64 games for the Panthers over the past two seasons.

Since his 43 games played over last year's shortened season were prorated, Shore only has four games left before he becomes waiver-eligible. That means if the Panthers want to send him back to the minors after he crosses that threshold, they could lose him to another team for nothing.

With three games left in this season, Shore would not have to clear waivers if Florida wanted to send him back to San Antonio after training camp next October.

 

Tuesday: Flyers at Panthers

When, Where: 7:30 p.m.; BB&T Center, Sunrise

TV/Radio: No local TV (NHL Game Center); WQAM 560

The series: Philadelphia leads 45-30-7

Scouting report: The two have split the season series with Florida winning the past meeting back in November. The Flyers, who hold down the third spot in the Metropolitan Division, had lost four straight before dropping the Sabres on Sunday night.

 

April 06, 2014

SPOILER ALERT: Panthers Help Coyotes by Stunning Stars 3-2

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

For weeks, the Panthers talked about wanting to spoil another team's run to the playoffs.

Sunday they may have just done so.

The Dallas Stars still hold the final wild card spot in the Western Conference although Sunday's 3-2 loss to the Panthers at BB&T Center is one they may really regret -- especially if they are sitting outside the Stanley Cup playoffs this time next week.

"We knew it wasn't going to be easy,'' said Dallas' Jamie Benn, who made it 1-0 just 45 seconds into the game.

"We have to put this one behind us. It was a terrible outcome. We don't want to remember this one.''

On Sunday, Florida's biggest fans were the Phoenix Coyotes who remain a point back of the Stars.

Florida definitely helped that cause as the Panthers won both meetings with the Stars this season. Of four points Dallas could have against Florida, it took home none. Phoenix, meanwhile, got all four of its points against the Panthers.

"This time of year is fun if you're in the race,'' said Scottie Upshall, who scored Florida's first goal and became the team's leading scorer in the process.

"The games are hyped up, everyone is watching because there is a lot on the line. There's nothing better than playoff hockey. Right now is as good of a taste of it that will get. This is a learning curve for our younger players. Dallas was fighting for their lives.''

Everything was going Dallas' way after winning in Tampa on Saturday night.

The Stars had a 2-0 lead early in the second period and the Panthers -- who had lost five straight -- didn't seem all that interested in playing.

Coach Peter Horachek wasn't very happy as Dallas scored in the opening minute of the first and second periods and let his team know it during a timeout after an Upshall penalty 3:48 into the second.

"They were playing with a purpose and a resolve,'' Horachek said, "and I don't think we were. We were just playing and there wasn't enough emotion. I wanted them to care more about the end result.''

The Panthers most definitely responded as the plane shifted.

Florida began dictating play and finally gave its fans something to cheer about.

Upshall cut Dallas' lead in half by getting a piece of a big shot from Erik Gudbranson at the 8:20 mark of the second. In the final minute of the period, Brandon Pirri slid into the slot and one-timed a slick feed from Jimmy Hayes and put it past Kari Lehtonen to tie the score.

"We showed a lot of resiliency, battled back and dominated the second half of the game,'' said Pirri, who has six goals since joining the Panthers just before the March 5 trade deadline.

"We're trying to build off that the last three games.''

The two teams played even hockey in the third with the Stars understandably not wanting to make a mistake and give up the go-ahead goal.

Florida, with nothing to lose, seemed to play the same way.

"I wanted us to be smart and keep doing the right things,'' Horachek said. "This was a huge win for us emotionally. We responded after a lethargic first period.''

The Panthers did get that go-ahead goal, however, with 4:31 remaining as Sean Bergenheim scored off a pass from Colby Robak.

Bergenheim admitted he didn't know who the Panthers were helping in the playoff race initially, but asked and found out the answer.

"This is probably a big blow for Dallas,'' Bergenheim said. "For me personally, I don't care who is fighting for what. You have to play the best you can every game. Whetever happens to the other teams in the standings, I don't really care.''

THOMAS SITS

The Stars, as has been the case for the past nine games, went with Lehtonen in goal over Tim Thomas.

Thomas was Florida's goalie when the Panthers won their season-opener at Dallas in October, although much more than that has changed since.

The Panthers were missing 13 of the 20 players who were part of Florida's 4-2 win in Dallas. Florida also replaced most of its coaching staff since then.

Of Florida's four goals scored in Dallas, only one -- the initial goal by Scott Gomez -- came from a player still on the roster.

Roberto Luongo, who replaced Thomas as Florida's starting goalie, made 35 saves in the win.

 

April 04, 2014

FIGHTING BACK: Ed Jovanovski named Masterton Nominee; Plans to Continue Playing After Long Road to Recovery

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

When it came time to nominate a player from the Florida Panthers for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, there was only one player who it could have been.

On Friday morning, Ed Jovanovski was officially announced as the Panthers' candidate for the annual award by the Florida chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association.

Jovanovski, 37, spent countless hours rehabilitating his surgically-repaired hip to return to the ice. The Panthers' captain, Jovanovski had radical hip resurfacing surgery -- one step away from hip replacement -- last spring. He worked his way back by training camp, although he didn't play in his first game until Jan. 3.

Jovanovski is believed to be the first professional athlete to return from the procedure.

"I take every day as a win,'' Jovanovski said after he scored his lone goal of the season in Buffalo on Jan. 9. "I'm very fortunate.''

On Friday, Jovanovski spoke about his comeback and what it means to continue playing a game he truly loves -- and "this game has been really good to me and has given me everything I've ever needed in my life and my family's life.''

Jovanovski, who has played in 32 games this season, has one year left on the contract he signed when he returned to the Panthers in 2011 and says he plans on honoring it. When asked if it was up to him, he said he would he be at training camp come September.

Here's what he had to say this morning after Florida's morning skate:

On the nomination:

"I appreciate that, it's definitely an honor. For me, anytime you are nominated for something, it's a great honor. This has been a tough road, no question. When I came back and went through the rehab, there was that doubt of the chances of never playing again. Having the passion to come back and get in there and do my work, 35 games or so into it and not missing many practices, it's definitely a treat to be here.''

Were there times during rehab in which you doubted the process?:

"For the most part I tried to remain as upbeat as I could. There were days in which I said 'what am I doing. It's an uphill battle.' There was no data on this, no one had done this before. When you look at the whole procedure, it's pretty wild what I have in my body to be doing what I'm doing. It's great being able to play the game I love.''

Were there family members who said 'what are you doing?'

"Not so much by my wife. A lot of that came from my mom and dad. There were 18. 19 years of grinding. When I got back from my surgery and they saw what I went through that first week ... It wasn't fun. It was miserable. As the days move on, your attitude is, well the sun comes up kind of thing. Everything is moving forward. With the rehab regimen these days, you're right back at it and you start feeling better. That's kind of what happened to me. You have to start somewhere.''

Where do you rank coming back on your list of accomplishments?

"It's got to be up there. We all enjoy the great seasons, the teams. But this one really hits home.''

You're not done yet, right?

"I think working out off the ice, then on the ice and getting into game action for me, it's going to be a really important summer to concentrate on an 82 game schedule. Really work at playing and having success. There is no other way to put it. I have to work hard. When you put your mind to it, anything is a possibility.''

Have you talked to Dale about your future?

"No. I have a year on my contract and I plan on fulfilling it.''

So if it's up to you, you'll be here for training camp?

"Yeah.''

Feel how you've shown the kids how it's done?

"It's not so much showing it. You don't wish anyone to go through what I went to. There are a lot of prevention things today like what [Huberdeau] went through like scoping. This was kind of a last resort kind of thing to first and foremost improve my quality of life, be able to play with my kids, bend over and put my socks on and tie my shoes. I was lost at one point. It was a daily struggle to do a lot of things. But if they can see anything, it's anything is possible. This game has been really good to me and has given me everything I've ever needed in my life and my family's life. The opportunity is through the roof for these guys financially and being able to do what they want to do.''

How much did you miss the game, being around the team?

"It killed me. And it's one of those things I worry about when I am done. The dressing room is a great spot, having the opportunity to come in and shoot the breeze with the guys, hearing the young guys stories, going on the road and having the opportunity to be as a team. At the end of the day, do what you love to do. We play a game. It's hard, a lot of the things that go unnoticed. The travel; yes we do fly on charters, but it's a grind getting in at 2, 3 in the morning and have to get ready in the morning. It tests you that much more. But it killed me not being around the guys and that's something that bothers me when it's all going to be over.''

What to stick around the game?

"Yeah, that's something that is definitely a possibility. I love the game that much. I will do whatever takes off the ice to help a team win. It's something I love to do. I've been in this community so long, I'd love to see this franchise do well. I think the chips are falling in with the new owners. It's going to be an interesting summer. We'll see where that unfolds.''

ERIK GUDBRANSON

"It was a serious injury to come back from as a hockey player and at his age as well, the passion he's shown and character he's shown to come back, it was for the love of the game. That's really impressive.

"Having him in the dressing room is a huge piece. It's noticeable when he's not here. That battle he's shown, the determination, is something we all need to learn from. Hockey isn't forever and to show that passion is an amazing thing to see. His return has been seamless. He basically took a year off and it's a tough thing to do and come back and play. It's quite the invasive surgery. It's a big deal. For him to come back is amazing to see. I don't think a lot of guys could have done what he's overcome. That's a true testament to what he's all about.

"He's here for the love of the game. That's a passionate man right there. That's something we should all learn from and everyone in this locker room should take note of it.''

PETER HORACHEK

"The perseverance of that is incredible. Where you are in your career and going through a surgery, as we've talked before, no one has ever returned from. I think it's the same surgery Bo Jackson had.

"Playing later in your career is tough, the day-to-day and the travel and the recovery. To come back and work hard enough and have the doctors clear him, give him credit for that.

"They are big kids at heart. He may be late 30s, but they love the game. That's what they love, they are their happiest on the ice. The young guys see that, see that fight through and injury and spend months and months of recovery time. He went through training camp and had the disappointment of the doctor saying it's not healed. He continued to push until he got back in. It's a great story.

 

 

 

April 03, 2014

ON THE MEND: Luongo, Huberdeau Practice; Both Could Play by end of the Weekend

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

The Panthers currently have three players on the shelf due to concussion issues. Two of them could be back in the lineup by the end of the weekend.

Goalie Roberto Luongo and winger Jonathan Huberdeau joined their teammates for practice Thursday with Luongo potentially starting Friday's game against the visiting Flames. Huberdeau could return Sunday against Dallas.

Tomas Kopecky, who suffered his concussion playing in the Olympics, was expected to practice Thursday but did not. His status for the rest of the season is unclear. Florida has five games before the 2013-14 campaign concludes.

"I feel good,'' said Luongo, who was diagnosed with a mild concussion after being run into by former Panthers forward Radek Dvorak last week.

"I've been skating on my own the past three days, ramping things up each day. This was a good progression.''

Luongo went down when Dvorak came racing toward the net with his head down, apparently not realizing how quickly he had come up on Luongo. The two collided with Luongo getting hit in the head by Dvorak as well as banging his head against the goal cage.

"I wasn't sure what was going on, just felt a little weird,'' Luongo said. "They didn't want to take any chances. I could have kept playing if I really wanted to and the stakes were a little bit higher. In a situation like this we thought it would be better to err on the side of caution.''

Dvorak was ejected from the game, one in which Luongo finished the first period but didn't return for the second. Luongo said Dvorak came by the Panthers locker room to apologize for the hit. Dvorak still has a home in South Florida and trains with Luongo in Coral Springs occasionally during the offseason.

"Obviously he didn't slow down but it was an accident,'' said Luongo, who has missed the past three games -- all losses. "He's not the type of player to do that. He was going to the net and once he put his head up, he was in the crease already. There was no intention.''

Huberdeau was hurt March 16 against Vancouver when he was ran up into the boards. He began skating for the first time last week and had been working out with the Panthers away on a two-game road trip.

Thursday's practice was Huberdeau's first with the team since the Vancouver game and he says all his concussion-like symptoms are gone and he hopes to play Friday. Coach Peter Horachek isn't ruling that out completely, but said Sunday is probably a more realistic option.

"It was good to see him out there,'' Horachek said. "There was no contact today, so I'll discuss it with the trainers and go from there. My best guess is Sunday, but I won't know that until talking to the trainers. I would like to see him out there, but you don't want to put him in before he's ready.''

Huberdeau has had a rough season, one in which the reigning rookie of the year has just eight goals -- and only one in his past 36 games.

"It's been a while, but it was nice. It was a good skate and I feel great,'' Huberdeau said. "This hasn't been a good season for me so to finish positively going into the summer is important. It would be good to get some wins, feel like a winner going into the summer.''

As far as Kopecky goes, not practicing Thursday could be viewed as a setback and may indicate that he may not play this season.

Kopecky hasn't practiced with the team since before the Olympic break and hasn't been in a game situation since Slovenia forward Sabahudin Kovacevic hit him in the head with an elbow.

Kovacevic was suspended one game for his hit on Kopecky.

"There are little setbacks with what he's been through,'' Horachek said. "There are steps forward and steps back. We don't need to rush him.''

BOYES OUT

Brad Boyes, Florida's leading goal scorer, missed Thursday's practice with a sore back and isn't expected to play Friday. Boyes has been getting treatment for some time and was a game-time decision Tuesday.

Boyes played, but only lasted five shifts before leaving the game in the first period. Bobby Butler, called up from the minors on Tuesday, replaced Boyes on a line with Scott Gomez and Sean Bergenheim.

-- Three of Florida's final five home games will not be broadcast on local television starting with Friday's game against Calgary.

For those local viewers who have the NHL's Center Ice package, the three games will not be blacked out and will use the visiting team's feed.

 

Friday: Flames at Panthers

When, Where: 7:30 p.m.; BB&T Center, Sunrise

TV/Radio: No local TV (NHL Center Ice); WQAM 560

The series: Calgary leads 12-9-3

Scouting report: This is the first game between the two since host Calgary won 4-3 in a shootout in November. The first 7,500 fans get a Brian Skrudland bobblehead. Skrudland, Florida's first captain, is currently an assistant coach for the Panthers.