December 24, 2014

CHRISTMAS IN THE SUN: Jonathan Huberdeau continues family holiday tradition in South Florida ... Panthers have depth at forward creating competition ... Roberto Luongo just wants those wins

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

If you ever wanted to meet a professional hockey player, Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood airport was the place to be on Tuesday.

With an extended Christmas break, a majority of the Florida Panthers took to the skies and headed north to see family and friends.

There were a few exceptions, of course, with some players deciding 85 degrees in South Florida works just fine for them.

"I may have to warm up my pool,'' Tomas Fleischmann joked. "Rough, eh?"

Jonathan Huberdeau is from Montreal but he had no reason to go back home.

Since he was a kid, the Huberdeau family packed up their RV and head to South Florida. The family sets up shop at a campground just west of Fort Lauderdale and celebrates the holidays in the sun.

"We would get out of school on Friday and my dad would pick us up and we would start driving,'' Huberdeau said. "We would get here on the 22nd or 23rd and set up at the campground with all my cousins and friends. We would rent a room so we could cook and eat Christmas dinner together. We would open gifts outside, have breakfast, go to the beach. A lot of fun.''

Now that Jonathan lives in South Florida and plays for the Panthers, the tradition not only continues but has grown.

Instead of going to the annual Panthers-Canadiens game to root on 'le bleu-blanc-rouge,' the Huberdeau clan heads to Sunrise to watch their new home team.

When Florida plays host to Montreal on Dec. 30, the Panthers will have quite a few French-speaking fans rooting for them.

"We used to make signs on those big boards trying to get onto French television,'' said Huberdeau, who only missed Christmas is South Florida because he was playing for Team Canada in the World Juniors.

"It was fun to come here and I, of course, was rooting for Montreal at the time. Now it's totally different. I had to get 80 tickets for that game. It should be a fun one.''

One tradition Huberdeau will miss with his family is their annual stop in Daytona Beach.

On the way south, Huberdeau's father would pull the rig off I-95 and head toward the Speedway.

Not far off the exit, they would see an orange sign and Christmas lights.

That meant chicken wings.

"We would always stop at Hooters, that was my dad's surprise,'' Huberdeau said smiling.

"We would have some chicken wings then get some sleep. Then we would get back on the road and head to Fort Lauderdale. That was always fun.''


With just about everyone on the Panthers healthy, Florida has a pair of extra forwards on the roster giving coach Gerard Gallant some options.

In Saturday's loss to the Penguins, Jimmy Hayes and Brandon Pirri were scratched. In Monday's rematch, those two were in; Fleischmann and Brad Boyes were out.

"There is definite in-house competition which makes everyone better,'' Pirri said before Saturday's game. "For me, I have to produce when I have the opportunity to be in the lineup. I haven't cashed in recently. I just have to do it.''

Hayes made sure Gallant has second thoughts about sitting him again as he scored twice on Monday to give him nine goals -- second on the team despite playing in 24 games.

The previous time Hayes was scratched in November, he followed that up with a goal in his next game.

"I don't know if sitting him gets him going,'' Gallant said, "or if it's my stupidity in not playing him every game. He was big [Monday]. It was a big game for him. I'm real happy for him.''

-- Goalie Roberto Luongo moved into 12th place on the NHL list for career victories Monday, his 386th win passing Mike Vernon (who preceded Luongo in Florida during the 1999-2000 season).

Luongo said these career milestones don't mean much in the heat of a season.

"The standings is what is important to me right now,'' Luongo said. "I just want to keep accumulating wins as a team, stay in the hunt and hopefully grab one of those [playoff] spots.''

-- The Panthers return from their break and will hold an open practice at the Coral Springs Iceden on Saturday at 11 a.m. The workout is free and open to the public.

Florida's next game is Sunday at 5 p.m. against the visiting Maple Leafs.


December 23, 2014

PROUD PAPA: Howard Schnellenberger thinks Boca Raton Bowl will continue to grow in his FAU Stadium

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

Moments before stepping onto the field bearing his name for pregame ceremonies, Howard Schnellenberger proclaimed bigger and better things were in store for the Boca Raton Bowl.
"This is larger than life,'' Schnellenberger said as he kicked back in a leather chair steps from his field.
"This is much grander than I thought it would be in the first year. Obviously this stadium, this program and this town are exceptional. We've put our best foot forward and we're three years ahead of where we should be.''
The first installment of this made-for-TV bowl game -- it's owned and operated by ESPN -- pitted the champions of two mid-major conferences in Marshall (Conference USA) and Northern Illinois (MAC) in a stadium Schnellenberger fought to have built on the FAU campus.
The FAU Stadium, which opened in 2011, has Schnellenberger's touch all over it.
"Football in Paradise" was his selling card when he started the FAU football program from scratch in 2000 with the Owls finally hitting the field in 2001.
The 30,000-seat stadium -- which was declared sold out Tuesday although may have only been 50 percent filled -- has neon palm trees on the south end zone scoreboard and a view of the Atlantic Ocean from the press box.
A statue of Schnellenberger greets visitors at the main gate. His bronze likeness is, of course, surrounded by palm trees.
"A bowl game was always part of the plan,'' said Schnellenberger, who stepped down as FAU's coach following the Owls' first season in the new digs.
"And how could you not be excited for the matchup? This wasn't the luck of the draw, it was the magnetism of this community and stadium in a sub-tropical climate 1.2 miles from the beach with an ocean view. This reminds me of the Orange Bowl games back in the 50s and 60s when it was a community event. That's the beauty of this. They have brought the fathers of our community together to make this great.''
If anyone can rally a community around an event, it's Schnellenberger.
The stadium he built stays busy throughout the year, not only hosting FAU football games but All-Star games and other events such as soccer and lacrosse.
Building the stadium in Boca Raton wasn't his first foray into the construction business.
While coach at Miami in the early 1980s, Schnellenberger pushed for the school to build a stadium closer to campus -- something that never happened. The Hurricanes eventually left the Orange Bowl and now play in north Miami-Dade County at Sun Life Stadium.
"Now they're driving 60 miles to get to Dolphins Stadium,'' Schnellenberger said.
And it was Schnellenberger's work at Louisville (he was head coach there from 1985-94) that helped get his hometown Cardinals their own stadium.
The growth of the Louisville program -- and expansion of Papa John's Stadium -- helped get the Cardinals into the ACC.
"It's the same thing I've said here at FAU, 'I told you so','' Schnellenberger said. "If you build a stadium, things start to happen.''
-- With three catches in the first quarter, Miami Central's Tommy Shuler set the Marshall record for career receptions with 307. Shuler passed Josh Davis (2001-04).


TIME FOR A BREAK: Panthers go into Christmas with momentum

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

The Panthers said their goodbyes Monday night as the team split up for the Christmas break.
They did so with smiles on their faces and momentum on their side.

With wins in four of their past six and eight in 13, the Panthers are in the thick of the playoff race closing in on the halfway point.

"I like where we're at,'' coach Gerard Gallant said, "but we have to keep going. But we have 50 games left. We have a long way to go.''

Victories haven't come easily, but they sure have been dramatic.

On Monday, Florida held a 3-1 lead on the battered Penguins yet watched Pittsburgh score two quick goals to force overtime.

In the shootout, Roberto Luongo and Marc-Andre Fleury battled through six scoreless rounds. Luongo made the seventh save, Fluery did not as Aleksander Barkov made a slick move by going forehand-to-backhand and fooling Pittsburgh's all-star goalie.

Barkov's goal gave Florida its fourth straight shootout victory. The Panthers have played in more overtime games (14) and more shootouts (nine) than any team in the league.

"I haven't seen anything like this. It's like a little miracle down here,'' Scottie Upshall said.

"This is really something to build off of and we've got some good vibes going. But it is a little exhausting doing this every night.''

The Panthers hope to enjoy this extended holiday break with Gallant saying it's a much needed one.

Florida has played three extended shootout games in its past four -- including an NHL-record 20-round marathon with Washington last week -- and has gone to overtime in five of its past six and six of nine.

"We've had a long stretch here,'' Gallant said. "To be honest, I'm a little tired myself. I could use the break. The guys are competing and playing hard. I think this is a good time for a break.''

Things probably won't get any easier.

The Panthers' next game back in Sunday against the visiting Maple Leafs with three games (Toronto, Montreal and the New York Rangers) coming to town in a four-day span.

All three of those teams currently hold a playoff spot.

"The confidence in the room is growing, we've shown we're a good team,'' said Jimmy Hayes, who scored twice Monday. "We're in the playoff pile and just need to get getting points, keep winning.''

SANTA THORNTON: Panthers forward on the mend, brings charitable works to South Florida

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

Forward Shawn Thornton has missed the past seven games with a troublesome groin injury he said has been affecting him since the start of the season.
"It's been there basically since the first game of the year and it's gotten progressively worse,'' Thornton said. "I was going to take some time off there but we were short bodies and I played through it. Once guys got healthy, it would have been selfish for me to try and play through it. It's time to get it healed for the playoff push.''
Thornton didn't travel with the Panthers on recent road trip and watched with envy as Saturday's game in Pittsburgh turned into a slugfest.
"I was on the couch with a beer and was not a happy camper,'' Thornton said. "My wife was like 'are you going to be OK?' And I wasn't. I wanted to be out there. But the last seven or so games I was out there, I felt useless.''
Thornton's foundation will host 18 families whose children are being treated at the Joe DiMaggio Children's Hospital to a movie and Christmas party at a Hollywood multiplex on Wednesday morning.
Earlier this season, Thornton said this is an event he often looked forward to in Boston and hoped to bring it to South Florida.
"It was my wife's idea a few years ago to host kids from local hospitals to a movie on Christmas Eve,'' Thornton said last month.
"It's pretty cool. We buy presents for the kids and see a show. For the kids who are able to leave the hospital, it's a real break to their everyday grind. I feel what they're going through and it's nice to see them smiling and enjoying themselves.''


December 22, 2014

TAKING THE LONG WAY: Panthers lose late lead, top Penguins in seven rounds 4-3 ... Cats get largest home crowd of season, another long shootout ... Marcel Goc back in Sunrise

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

The Penguins' injury list expanded Monday with three more players sent home to be tested for the mumps.

Pittsburgh was so short-handed coming into Monday's rematch with the Panthers they didn't even have a backup goalie for pregame warmups.

And yet the Panthers almost had more than they could handle.

Pittsburgh rallied from a two-goal deficit late in the third but Florida pulled out a 4-3 win in a seven-round shootout in front of the largest home crowd of the season.

Florida's announced crowd of 15,947 easily surpassed the previous high of 11,419 at the home opener in October.

The Panthers' lone shootout goal came on their final shot as Aleksander Barkov beat Marc-Andre Fleury to give Florida a third win in four games. Roberto Luongo stopped all seven shots Pittsburgh offered.

Florida has gone a total of 33 rounds in its past three shootout wins including last week's NHL-round 20 against Washington.

"This was a big win for us,'' Barkov said. "The past two games have been like playoff hockey.''

Said Luongo: "I thought we played well in Pittsburgh and didn't get the win. I like the way we're playing, we can get better, but we're taking steps in the right direction. We're in the hunt which is exciting this time of year.''

Florida led 3-1 early in the third after Jimmy Hayes scored off assists from Sean Bergenheim. The lead, however, wouldn't last.

"Whenever you get scratched, you want to bounce back and have a solid game,'' said Hayes, who sat out Saturday's 3-1 loss in Pittsburgh.

"I need to play a big man's game every night. We're a good team. We just need to play a simple north-south game and put pucks at the net.''

The Penguins got goals from Nick Spaling and Evgeni Malkin in the final five minutes of the third to force yet another overtime for the Panthers.

Florida ended up winning its fifth shootout of the season and fourth in the past few weeks as Luongo stopped the Penguins' stars in their seven rounds.

Pittsburgh, down 10 regulars and playing eight guys who started the season in the minors, picked up where it left off last weekend by taking a 1-0 lead less than five minutes in.

Jussi Jokinen put the Panthers on the board after a dominant second period by scoring with 36.4 seconds left.

Hayes didn't waste much time getting Florida its first lead in three days of play against the Penguins, scoring off a wrister that hit Fleury 22 seconds in.

Just before the five minute mark of the third, Hayes jammed in a loose puck off a Bergenheim shot to make it 3-1.

"Jimmy was big tonight,'' coach Gerard Gallant said. "He took the puck to the net and that's exactly what we want him to do. When the big guy goes hard to the net, good things happen.''


Center Marcel Goc only spent parts of three seasons with the Panthers, but he says he enjoyed his time in Florida and was looking forward to seeing friends on his trip south.

Goc, traded to Pittsburgh at last season's trade deadline, went from a team playing out the string to one fighting for playoff position.

"It was a big jump in the standings,'' Goc said. "I went from one of the bottom teams toward the top. There's a different pressure here, more expectations. But Florida is feeling that now. They're playing well.''

-- The Panthers scratched veterans Tomas Fleischmann and Brad Boyes on Monday and replaced them with Hayes (nine goals) and Brandon Pirri (three).

-- The Panthers broke for the Christmas break following Monday's game.

The team returns to practice Saturday morning in Coral Springs with its next game coming Sunday against the visiting Maple Leafs.

-- The Penguins flew to South Florida with Brandon Sutter, Steve Downie and backup goalie Thomas Greiss but quickly sent them right back to Pittsburgh when they showed signs of illness.

Although not able to recall any forwards, the Penguins were able to get minor-league goalie Jeff Zatkoff to Sunrise just in time for the start of the game.


December 21, 2014

BAD BLOOD II: Panthers ready for Penguin invasion on Monday ... Fans hoping chippy play carries over to Sunrise

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

PITTSBURGH -- It's not all that rare to have consecutive games against the same opponent in the NHL but the so-called home-and-home series sure aren't the norm.

What rarely happens, however, is the first game being so good, fans are already anticipating the sequel before the first one is even done.

Yet that's what was going on Saturday as the Panthers battled the Penguins.

The host Penguins won a penalty-filled game 3-1 that was a one-goal game before Sidney Crosby scored seven minutes into the third.

Afterward, a number of players didn't have much good to say about the home team, with more than one insinuating Monday night couldn't come soon enough.

"We're lucky we get to play them again on Monday,'' said defenseman Erik Gudbranson, who fought Steve Downie in the second period.

"We have to find a way to win. If we want to be among the upper echelon in this league, conference and division, we have to find ways to grind out wins. All in all, we're leaving here with a pretty good mindset.''

The Panthers apparently don't like the Penguins, and by the looks of things on Saturday, the feeling is mutual.

Although Florida doesn't get into many fights nor play an overly physical game, it did on Saturday.

A number of fights broke out during the game with some odd names headed to the penalty box.

Jussi Jokinen, who has no registered NHL fights according to, got involved in a fracas with former teammate Evgeni Malkin and went off for roughing.

So too did Dave Bolland and Dylan Olsen.

Where did all of this come from? The two don't have much of a history although they have had their moments over the years.

"They started off pretty hard and were firing pucks and finishing every hit,'' said Crosby, who famously jumped Florida's Brett McLean in the face-off circle when the two teams played back in 2009.

"Both teams got into it pretty early but after that, everyone got back to hockey. It was funny because nothing really lead into it, but that's hockey some times.''

Captain Willie Mitchell took a five minute major for fighting with Kris Letang in a bout in which he swung Letang's own helmet at him.

Gudbranson also took five minutes while Downie spent an extra 10 in the locker room as some of the only punches he seemed to land came when officials had Gudbranson down on his back.

"It was kind of funny there in the first, it got wild with a little chippiness,'' said coach Gerard Gallant, himself a bit of a bruiser in his playing days. "It showed the two teams were ready to play. There wasn't a whole lot of dirt. For whatever reason, incidents happened.''

All of this bad blood is only good for the box office. Monday's game, without a doubt, will be Florida's biggest attended home game of the season eclipsing the 11,419 the Panthers announced on opening night.

The Penguins are already hockey's top draw around the league and throwing in a bit of vitriol only adds a little excitement to the matchup.

The Panthers have waited all season for a big crowd at home and it looks like they'll get it Monday. Of course, with all the Pittsburgh transplants in the area not everyone will be rooting for the home team.

"They're a great team, they lead our division and we want another crack at them,'' Gallant said. "Hopefully the results will be better. It's exciting, it's our last game before Christmas break. The guys are disappointed with the result, but happy with how we played.''

-- After going 0-for-5 on the power play Saturday, Pittsburgh now has goals in just two of its past 34 chances.

-- Despite being right in the playoff mix, the Panthers have yet to win three straight games this season and have only won two consecutive games three times.

On Saturday, the Panthers were looking for third straight win but were turned back by Pittsburgh.

Florida is 0-2-1 in such games this season.

-- Coming into Saturday, the Panthers had gone to overtime in their previous four games. Florida was 3-1 in those games with all three wins coming in shootouts.

Monday: Penguins at Panthers

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

TV/Radio: FSFL; 560 AM

Series: Pittsburgh leads 42-34-4

Noteworthy: Despite having eight players on the injured list including a number with the mumps, the Penguins keep rolling along and have won seven of their past 10 games.


December 20, 2014

CROSBY DOES IT: Panthers battle but Sidney Crosby's third period goal lifts Pens to 3-1 win ... Vincent Trocheck returns to lineup, scores lone goal

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

PITTSBURGH -- So far this season, the Panthers have been good at shutting down the best players the league has to offer.

On Saturday night, Florida's defense was asked to keep not only Sidney Crosby but Evgeni Malkin in check.

The Panthers did so -- for a while, anyway.

Crosby's deflection of a slick pass from Kris Letang in the third period proved to be the difference in Pittsburgh's 3-1 victory over Florida.

With lots of fighting and physical play, Part II of this meeting should be nothing short of entertaining as they renew their new-found rivalry Monday night in Sunrise.

"They're a good team but if we play like that every night, we're going to win more than we lose,'' coach Gerard Gallant said. "I'm really happy with our group. We did a lot of real good things.''

Despite having eight players on the injury list for a variety of ailments including an outbreak of the mumps, the Penguins proved again they're a team to be reckoned with this season.

Pittsburgh, atop the Eastern Conference, jumped to a 2-0 lead.

Nick Spaling opened things with a knuckleball shot from 55 feet out that clipped Roberto Luongo's glove before trickling in before the two minute mark.

A few minutes later, rookie Derrick Pouliot scored on his first NHL shot as he fired high from the right circle.

Luongo was right on after that, stopping 27 straight shots on goal before Crosby's deflection and stopped Crosby and Malkin numerous times throughout the game.

"We battled hard,'' said Luongo, who got physical himself when Patric Hornqvist appeared pull off his mask.

"It felt like a playoff game out there. The first period did us in. I have to be better than that on the first goal. Even though it knuckled in, I have to stop it. I can't give that up right off the hop.''

During the first 30 minutes, Florida and Pittsburgh got up close and personal -- something the Panthers may not have wanted to do because of this mumps business.

Florida was hit with a season-high 12 penalties for 32 minutes; the Pens were flagged 15 times for 44.

Steve Downie took a game misconduct for getting his punches in during his fight with Erik Gudbranson while officials were on top of him trying to break things up.

The Panthers weren't very happy with some of the actions of the Penguins afterward.

"They were throwing punches after whistles and went hard to the net forcing us to protect our goalie,'' said Willie Mitchell, who got into one of Florida's five fights in the first half of the game.

"The linesmen would come in and their guys threw punches over the pile. We're not going to take them in the face so we pushed back. Some guys over there get a long leash from the league.''

As far as hockey went, Florida trailed 2-0 before getting a nice goal from Pittsburgh native Vincent Trocheck who returned to the lineup for the first time this week.

Trocheck broke Florida's six-game slide without a power play goal as he knocked in a shot from Jonathan Huberdeau with 12:29 left in the first.

Florida had numerous chances after that but couldn't solve the exceptional Marc-Andre Fleury as he made one great save after another.

"We threw a lot of pucks at the net,'' Luongo said after his team outshot the Pens 46-34.

"Their goalie made a lot of saves. It pretty much comes down to he made more saves than me tonight. That's about it.''


Even though Trocheck was back in the lineup Saturday against his hometown Penguins, Gallant said it was not because of where Trocheck grew up.

Trocheck had been a healthy scratch in the previous two games after Scottie Upshall and Aleksander Barkov came off the injured list and gave Florida two extra forwards.

"I'm trying to be a good guy and let him in but he deserves it, deserves to play,'' Gallant said. "If he wasn't a good player, he wouldn't be in there just because this is his hometown.''

Trocheck had a large group of family and friends watching his first game at Consol Center.

During the morning skate, members of the Penguins ice crew opened up the Zamboni doors when he skated by to make sure they said hello.

"I had like 80 family members in the stands and was very excited to score a goal at home,'' Trocheck said afterward. "It took the nerves out a little bit and set the tone for the rest of the game.''

-- Aaron Ekblad set the franchise record for rookie defenseman as he earned his 14th assist on Trocheck's goal.

-- Pittsburgh is 10-0-1 against the Atlantic Division.


December 19, 2014

MUMPS THE WORD: Panthers try to leave Penguins behind with wins and nothing else ... Dave Bolland nets winner in shootout ... Brad Boyes back at practice

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards
PITTSBURGH -- After it became public that a number of players in Anaheim were afflicted with the mumps, the Panthers' medical team went on the offensive.
Players and staff members were tested and those who needed booster shots got them not long after Florida visited the Ducks on November 16.
So far, there are 16 NHL players who have been confirmed with having the mumps from a variety of teams -- many of whom the Panthers have played including New Jersey, Minnesota and Anaheim.
This week, a few players and coaches in the AHL (including former Florida center Joey Crabb) were diagnosed as well.
Florida plays the first of two games against Pittsburgh on Saturday night with a number of Penguins, including superstar Sidney Crosby, having been affected by the illness.
Because the Panthers were diligent in making sure they were taken care of medically, many players say they feel a little better about playing Pittsburgh.
Still, they don't want this outbreak to affect them.
"I just used extra precaution in Anaheim like using my own water bottle, having my own towels,'' captain Willie Mitchell said.
"I read up on it and obviously no one wants to go through with it. It's not something you want to roll the dice with. I would have liked to see the league do something earlier but I guess it took one of our star players getting it to raise the awareness. I guess that's how the world works.''
There is some worry in the unknown.
Crosby, who returned to the Pens' lineup Thursday, contracted mumps despite reportedly being immunized before going to the Olympics earlier this year.
The NHL says it has precautions in place which include sterilizing equipment and locker rooms.
The Panthers equipment and medical staff have made sure there is plenty of sanitizer around and will be extra cautious in Pittsburgh.
"Our team has taken the necessary precautions but guys are worried about it because you don't want to take it home with you,'' defenseman Erik Gudbranson said. "You can't control who you play against, don't know who has it. [Pittsburgh] is having a tough go of it and it can be worrisome. Everyone is paying attention to it now.''
Said coach Gerard Gallant: "Three weeks ago, we were ahead of the curve. We had our blood tested and those who needed the extra shots got it. We haven't paid much attention to it since. You cross your fingers nothing happens.''
Dave Bolland technically still hasn't scored his first goal since signing with the Panthers in July but his shootout winner Thursday in Philadelphia was still special.
Bolland, in his fifth game back since missing almost two months with a groin injury, has been a huge asset for the Panthers on both sides of the ice. In five games, he has two assists and Thursday, he helped Florida beat the Flyers in the sixth round of the shootout.
"I think once they come they're going to come,'' Bolland said. "But, I know that first one is always the tough one yet.”
-- Gallant said that Brad Boyes practiced Friday at Consol Center after missing Thursday's game. Whether Boyes returns to the lineup -- he was replaced by Brandon Pirri -- will be determined Saturday.

Saturday: Panthers at Penguins
When/Where: 7 p.m.; Consol Center, Pittsburgh
TV/Radio: FSFL; 560 AM
Series: Pittsburgh leads 41-34-4
Noteworthy: Despite finishing 29th in the league last year, Florida won two of three from the Penguins by a combined 12-9. This is the first of consecutive games between the two with the Pens visiting Sunrise on Monday.

December 17, 2014

SPOTLIGHT ON THE PANTHERS: Record-breaking shootout win gives Panthers some much-needed positive attention

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards
A historic and extremely dramatic shootout victory over the Washington Capitals Tuesday night brought plenty of attention to a franchise not used to a whole lot of positive publicity.

The Florida Panthers' rousing 2-1 victory over the Capitals -- which came following an NHL record 20-round shootout -- brought the Panthers national recognition and league-wide praise for their unusual victory.

The longest shootout before Tuesday came months after the 2004-05 lockout ended with the Rangers topping Washington in 15 rounds.

"It was fun when it ended,'' coach Gerard Gallant told XM/Sirius Radio on Wednesday afternoon.

"It was pretty exciting to go 20 shooters in. It was a good game at 1-1 and I thought both teams played real well. There was a little bit of everything.''

The Capitals had five different chances to win the shootout but the Panthers -- who choose to shoot second -- held serve each time.

Tied at 5 going into Round 20, Roberto Luongo made a diving stop of an Alex Ovechkin shot.

That allowed Nick Bjugstad to become the hero. Bjugstad drove in on Braden Holtby, slammed on the brakes and got him to commit.

With Holtby heading toward the ice, Bjugstad roofed a shot that sent his teammates streaming onto the ice as rubber rats rained down from the crowd.

Florida's wild victory was featured prominently on ESPN's SportsCenter, Fox Sports 1 and the NHL Network in the U.S. as well as their Canadian counterparts.

"The pressure wasn’t really on me, which was nice, because I didn’t have to score,'' Bjugstad said. "I  don’t know, I  kind of relaxed, took a deep breath and tried going in there with confidence and it worked out.''

There were plenty of accolades to go around Tuesday.

After no one scored after the first three rounds, Washington took its first lead in Round 4 when Ovechkin scored on his first try.

Jussi Jokinen, historically one of the top shootout artists in the league, came up and made a terrific move on Holtby to get him to go to his left. Jokinen then poked the puck around to Holtby's right for the tying goal to earn ESPN's No. 3 top play of the night.

The score stayed tied at 1 until Round 7 when Brooks Laich scored only to be matched by Dave Bolland.

Florida also returned the honors in Round 11 (Derek MacKenzie), 12 (Sean Bergenheim) and 17 (Dylan Olsen).

"First-ever shootout,'' Olsen said, "little nervous, to be honest, especially when it came down to that and we needed a goal. I  really have only one or two moves, so I  had to stick with that one. And sure enough it worked.

Said Gallant: "Some clutch guys made some clutch goals.''

With 18 active skaters, each team hit the end of their rotation in Round 18. Florida had defenseman Willie Mitchell go and try and end it.

"We saved the captain for the end,'' Gallant said. "We thought he was going to win it for us.''

Only he was stopped and the shootout continued.

In Round 19, players were allowed to go a second time. Washington went with Nicklas Backstrom, Florida with Jokinen.

Neither scored, setting the stage for another showdown between Ovechkin and Luongo.

Luongo, although looking tired, made the big save to give Bjugstad his chance at another shootout winner.

"I  was OK,'' Luongo said. "We do it at morning skate every day. I was just trying to make the next save. Once you get into the later rounds, their guys are little bit less skilled and you want to make those saves. A couple went by, but the boys bailed me out.''

Even before going to the shootout, Tuesday's game had plenty of excitement to it.

Florida led 1-0 on a goal by Derek MacKenzie in the first period before Washington tied it up with a second period power play goal.

Tied at 1 late in the third, Washington looked to win it when Laich knocked in a puck. Laich kicked it in, however, and the goal was disallowed via video review in Toronto.

The game pressed on.

Bjugstad could have been the game's hero much earlier Tuesday.

In overtime, one of his shots hit the goal post. He also drilled a post in his first shootout attempt which would have given the Panthers a 1-0 lead in Round 2 and perhaps sent everyone home early.

Instead, South Florida became home to two of the longest games in professional sports history.

The Dolphins-Chiefs AFC title game in 1971 stands as the longest NFL game of all time.

Florida's win over the Capitals earns the NHL's honor for a regular season game as the shootout itself took over 20 minutes to complete. That was after 65 minutes of game time in regulation and overtime.

"Now I can go to bed!,'' radio voice Randy Moller yelled after Bjugstad scored in the 20th round.

Wrote Luongo on Twitter: "I blacked out what just happened?"

-- The Panthers sent defenseman Shane O'Brien back to their AHL affiliate in San Antonio. O'Brien was recalled last week but was a healthy scratch in the three games he was with Florida.


Thursday: Panthers at Flyers

When/Where: 7 p.m.; Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia

TV/Radio: FSFL; WQAM 560

Series: Philadelphia leads 46-31-7

Noteworthy: The two teams have split the two-game series with the Flyers winning the previous meeting 4-1 in Philadelphia last month.




BREAKING IT DOWN: Florida Panthers' shootout win over Capitals is NHL's longest

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards


Florida outlasts Washington in longest shootout in NHL history, winning 6-5 in Round 20.

Round 1: Eric Fehr (Wsh) slapshot X; Jonathan Huberdeau (FL) snapshot wide X -- 0-0

Round 2: Nicklas Backstrom (Wsh) backhand X; Nick Bjugstad (FL) slapshot off goalpost X -- 0-0

Round 3: Evgeny Kuznetsov (Wsh) snapshot X; Brad Boyes (FL) backhand X -- 0-0

Round 4: Alex Ovechkin (Wsh) snapshot Y; Jussi Jokinen (FL) backhand Y -- 1-1.

Round 5: Troy Brouwer (Wsh) slapshot crossbar X; Tomas Kopecky (FL) backhand X -- 1-1.

Round 6: Michael Latta (Wsh) slapshot X; Aleksander Barkov (FL) puck off skate X -- 1-1.

Round 7: Brooks Laich (Wsh) backhand Y; Dave Bolland (FL) snapshot Y -- 2-2.

Round 8: Marcus Johansson (Wsh) slapshot X; Tomas Fleischmann (FL) backhand X -- 2-2

Round 9: Nate Schmidt (Wsh) snapshot wide of net X; Scottie Upshall (FL) slapshot X -- 2-2

Round 10: Joel Ward (Wsh) snapshot Y; Derek MacKenzie (FL) backhand Y -- 3-3

Round 11: John Carlson (Wsh) snapshot Y; Sean Bergenheim (FL) backhand Y -- 4-4

Round 12: Jay Beagle (Wsh) backhand X; Jimmy Hayes (FL) snapshot X -- 4-4

Round 13: Mike Green (Wsh) slapshot over net X; Brian Campbell (FL) snapshot X -- 4-4

Round 14: Jason Chimera (Wsh) slapshot wide of net X; Erik Gudbranson (FL) slapshot X -- 4-4

Round 15: Tom Wilson (Wsh) slapshot X; Aaron Ekblad (FL) slapshot X -- 4-4

Round 16: Matt Niskanen (Wsh) slapshot crossbar X; Dmitry Kulikov (FL) slapshot X -- 4-4

Round 17: Brooks Orpik (Wsh) slapshot Y; Dylan Olsen (FL) slapshot Y -- 5-5

Round 18: Karl Alzner (Wsh) slapshot X; Willie Mitchell (FL) backhand X -- 5-5

Round 19: Backstrom (Wsh) snapshot X; Jokinen (FL) slapshot X -- 5-5

Round 20: Ovechkin (Wsh) slapshot X; Bjugstad (FL) slapshot Y -- Florida wins 6-5


NHL -- Regular season: Florida Panthers 2, Washington Capitals 1 (20 rounds shootout) Dec. 16, 2014; Playoffs: Detroit Red Wings 1, Montreal Canadiens 0 (6 OT - 116:30) March 24, 1936.

NBA -- Indianapolis Olympians 75, Rochester Royals 73 (6 OT - 78:00) Jan. 6, 1951.

NFL -- Miami Dolphins 27, Kansas City Chiefs 24 (2 OT - 82:40 in 1971 AFC championship game) Dec. 25, 1971.

MLB -- Chicago White Sox 7, Milwaukee Brewers 6 (33 innings, 8:06) May 8, 1984.


December 16, 2014

SHOOTOUT AT THE BB&T CORRAL: Panthers and Capitals set NHL record w/ Cats winning in 20th round ... Florida nets six in shootout, earns 2-1 victory ... Upshall and Barkov return

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

The Panthers made history on Tuesday night, and for once, the results were positive.

Florida and Washington went 20 rounds into a shootout -- longest in NHL history -- with the Panthers getting a goal from Nick Bjugstad to pull out a 2-1 victory at BB&T Center.

"There are some nights you just feel you deserve to win,'' said Derek MacKenzie, who scored Florida's only 'real' goal in the opening period.

"I was getting nervous.''

Before Tuesday night, the longest shootout in league history was a 15-round affair between the Rangers and Washington soon after the league implemented the shootout format to break ties in 2005.

"I've never seen anything like that,'' said goalie Roberto Luongo, who stopped 15 shots in the shootout after making 23 in 65 minutes of play.

"I don't know how many times our guys had to bail me out and score after they scored. But they did every time. It's amazing. .-.-. It's a huge win for our club. It's not the way you draw it up.''

Said coach Gerard Gallant: "That was exciting and everyone loved that one especially with Bjugstad winning it. Everyone got a chance to shoot and we got a huge two points. Everyone is happy.''

Florida doubled its previous franchise-long shootout run after going 10 rounds with these Capitals last season.

On Tuesday, for the first time since the NHL instituted the shootout, two teams ran through their 18 shooters and were able to give guys a second crack at it.

Tied 5-5 after 18 rounds, Florida went back to Jussi Jokinen -- who started this whole thing by matching Alex Ovechkin's goal in Round 4.

Jokinen didn't score in Round 19 but Ovechkin didn't in Round 20 either as Luongo made his 15th shootout save.

Bjugstad ended up setting off the victory celebration by roofing a shot past Braden Holtby.

It was just another one-goal victory for the Panthers, eh? Well, not quite.

"We've been in quite a few of them,'' Bjugstad said. "We just have to keep them close like that.''

Florida has now been in 21 one-goal games (of 30) and has secured a point in all but two of them.

The Panthers, now 11-2-8 in one-goal games, took a 1-0 lead when MacKenzie jumped all over a soft clearing pass from Washington's Mike Green and buried it.

Washington wouldn't answer until its top-ranked power play connected with Dylan Olsen sitting in the box off a questionable holding call.

Troy Brouwer made it 1-1 after he took a slick pass from Ovechkin and shot.

Willie Mitchell -- Florida's captain who was the final forward to shoot in the initial shootout lineup -- blocked the shot but Brouwer was able to corral it and put it past Luongo.

The two teams played scoreless hockey the rest of the way although it appeared Washington took a late lead -- and probably the victory -- when Brooks Laich scored with 3:08 left.

Only Laich kicked the goal in soccer-style which is a no-no in the NHL. The league reviewed it in Toronto and declared it a no goal.

The Panthers had new life and didn't squander it.

Florida has now won its past two shootout games and improve to 3-4 this season and 4-8 in overtime contests.

And Tuesday's showdown was pretty memorable.

"How exciting was that?,'' television analyst Denis Potvin yelled as he left the broadcast booth.


The Panthers activated forwards Scottie Upshall and Aleksander Barkov off the injury list prior to Tuesday's game.

Upshall missed nine games with a knee and ankle injury; Barkov missed six after blocking a shot with his hand in Columbus.

To make room on the roster, Florida placed Shawn Thornton (groin) on IR.

The Panthers also benched Brandon Pirri and Vincent Trocheck so Upshall and Barkov could get back into the lineup.

"I feel very good right now, I'm ready to go,'' Barkov said. "I'm very happy. I have a new stick too.''

-- In Florida's previous shootout win last week in Detroit, the Panthers only needed two rounds to win with Pirri and Trocheck both scoring. Tuesday, neither were available as they were scratched.

Barkov (Round 6) and Upshall (Round 9) both were stopped on their attempts with Barkov kicking his attempt off his skate.



December 15, 2014

CALLING IT QUITS: Tomas Vokoun retires, had four strong years with the Panthers

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

Former Panthers goalie Tomas Vokoun announced his retirement on Sunday after 14 seasons in the league.

Vokoun came to Florida when then-general manager Jacques Martin traded for him at the 2007 draft in Columbus.

Vokoun spent four seasons with the Panthers going 101-108-30 and making 92 percent of his saves after facing a whopping 7,902 shots. Vokoun never made it to the playoffs with Florida although he did come close in 2009.

After helping the Penguins to the Eastern Conference finals in 2013, another blood clot was discovered and he missed all of last season.

A free agent this summer, Vokoun didn't find the right fit and has remained in South Florida.

"He was a goalie who was very hard to score on even if we were just skating here during the summer or during the lockout,'' said Tomas Kopecky, who is Vokoun's neighbor in northwestern Broward County.

"There wasn't much room to score against him. He was very competitive.''

Kopecky said he's seen more of Vokoun lately as he's been helping coach goalies at North Broward Prep as well as working with the Junior Panther program in Coral Springs.





MAKING A POINT: Panthers lead league in overtime losses again this season ... Upshall, Barkov close to return

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

Three seasons ago, no other team had as many overtime or shootout losses in the NHL as the Panthers.

Florida made the playoffs that year in partially because of the 18 points that came with those losses.

The Panthers' eight overtime losses lead the league again this season and has helped them stay in the postseason mix despite having just 12 victories.

"Points are big especially when you haven't played well and don't deserve a win,'' said Brad Boyes, who gave Florida its only non-shootout overtime victory with a goal in Colorado back on Oct. 21.

"They add up pretty quick. At the end of the season, you don't want to be looking back needing one or two points to make the playoffs.''

Although the Panthers have been stockpiling the so-called 'loser point,' they definitely need to start winning some more games as they cannot rely on simply making it to overtime.

When it comes to wins in regulation and overtime -- which is the first tie-breaker when it comes to the playoffs -- Florida doesn't stack up, at least right now, with the other contenders.

Even though the Panthers and Rangers have the same amount of points in the same amount of games, New York currently holds the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference because it has three more wins in regulation and overtime than the Panthers.

Florida is 3-8 in overtime this season, winning once in the five-minute overtime session and twice in the shootout.

The Panthers have lost four in overtime and four shootouts.

"We would obviously like to have a better record overtime but I like to look at the positives,'' coach Gerard Gallant said. "I don't think we've played bad in overtime but we have had some bad luck. Those are big important points and we need to be focused on them.''

-- Scottie Upshall and Aleksander Barkov remain close to returning to the lineup.

Upshall said he still needs medical clearance to play but doesn't expect that to be a problem.

"I'll probably see the doctor before the game,'' Upshall said. "I feel good and have been skating hard this past week. I'm feeling pretty solid.''

Tuesday: Capitals at Panthers

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

TV/Radio: FSFL; WQAM 560

Series: Washington leads 59-44-9

Noteworthy: Washington kicks off a three-game road trip after winning four of the past five -- including two over Tampa Bay. The Capitals have the league's most productive power play at 26.5 percent.


December 13, 2014

PANTHERS CAN'T HANG ON: Sabres tie score, win in OT to snap losing streak to Panthers 4-3 ... Shane O'Brien enjoying time with Florida

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

BUFFALO -- The Panthers will most definitely take any point in the standings they can get.

That doesn't mean they have to like it.

Players and coaches were disappointed in Saturday's 4-3 overtime loss to the host Sabres after Buffalo tied the score midway through the third period.

Buffalo won the game and took the second point when Nikita Zadorov scored 29 seconds into overtime.

"It wasn't good enough,'' said coach Gerard Gallant, whose team topped host Detroit in a shootout the night before. Florida took three of four available points in this Atlantic Division back-to-back set.

"We're happy with the point but we didn't deserve more than that. Buffalo was the better team.''

Florida fell behind 2-0 in the opening period after a lifeless start, but two goals on the first two shots of the second period from Sean Bergenheim and Jimmy Hayes tied it up.

The Panthers then scored on their first shot of the third period (Jussi Jokinen) to grab their first and only lead of the night.

Buffalo, which had lost five straight to Florida, controlled the rest of the game.

"We got off to another bad start -- we were down 2-0 in St. Louis -- and we can't let that happen,'' said Bergenheim, who put the Panthers on the board with a shot that hit the skates of Zadorov and bounced past Jhonas Enroth 1:08 into the second.

"We did a good job coming back again. You have to look at the positives. But we weren't good enough to get the two points.''

Goalie Al Montoya didn't get much help early on as the Panthers looked slow and uninterested. Buffalo's second goal which came from Marcus Foligno came on the Sabres' ninth shot on goal of the period. Florida had mustered only three at that point.

Montoya and the Panthers steadied things, although Buffalo -- which has won seven of its past eight games at First Niagara Center -- tied the score on a breakaway goal from Brian Gionta.

In overtime, the Panthers turned the puck over and Zadorov cashed in for his first NHL goal.

The Panthers dropped to 3-8 in overtime.

"It seems like the common ground lately is we wait and see and dig ourselves a hole in the first period,'' said Montoya, who made 28 saves.

"Once we figure that out and stop doing that to ourselves will put us in a better place. The ones that figure it out are in the playoffs at the end of the year.''


Shane O'Brien knows his latest NHL stint may not last long so he says he's savoring every moment.

O'Brien has played in 528 NHL games but his previous one came last January with Calgary. O'Brien had a falling out with Flames' coach Bob Hartley and ended up in the minors.

After a good training camp with Florida, the Panthers offered him a two-way contract and sent him to their minor league team in San Antonio. On Thursday, the Panthers called him up for their back-to-back set against Detroit and Buffalo.

Although O'Brien may be back in San Antonio as early as this week, he says he won't take playing in the NHL for granted again.

"Any time you can be in the NHL is great,'' said O'Brien, who didn't play on Friday or Saturday.

"Just going out for morning skate [Friday] brought back a lot of memories. You know special this is. I may have taken it for granted earlier in my career but going back to the minors gives you a taste of reality of how lucky you are to play in the NHL.''

-- Former Panthers center Stephen Weiss' shoulder injury doesn't appear to be serious although he missed Detroit's game in Toronto on Saturday.

Weiss was hurt in the second period of Florida's 3-2 shootout win on Friday after going into the boards off a hit from Bergenheim.


December 12, 2014

WEISS HOLDS NO GRUDGE: Former Florida center was playing well before leaving Friday's game ... Says 'no hard feelings' toward Panthers nor Tallon

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards
DETROIT -- Stephen Weiss missed most of the previous two seasons first because of surgery on his wrist while with the Panthers and then sports hernia surgery in his first year with the Red Wings.
Weiss, Florida's all-time leader in games played and assists, missed this year's start with some fans wondering if Weiss would ever be healthy and put up numbers commiserate with the five-year, $24.5-million contract signed in 2013.
Well, now Weiss is healthy -- and productive. In his first 10 games he's played this year, Weiss was averaging a point a game with four goals.
"The league is hard enough when you're healthy,'' Weiss said before leaving Friday's game with an undisclosed upper body injury after being run into the boards by Sean Bergenheim in the second.
"When you're not, it's tough to compete, so I feel good again. Any time you can contribute offensively it's a bonus.''
Weiss, who played his former team for the fourth time Friday, said he had no ill-will to the Panthers or general manager Dale Tallon for how his free agency was handled in 2013.
The Panthers, who were quietly for sale that summer, didn't offer Weiss a contract and let him walk away to the Red Wings. Tallon wasn't able to match Detroit's offer even if he wanted to as the team wasn't about to spend any money.
The team was sold to Vinny Viola in September, months after Weiss left for Detroit.
"Dale Tallon is one of my favorite guys in hockey but his hands were tied,'' Weiss said. "It would've been nice to get a call from ownership to talk about things, but I understand the business side of it. I have no hard feelings whatever.''


DIGGING DETROIT: Panthers take over playoff spot with second win at Detroit in over a week ... Pirri and Trocheck score in SO, Luongo goes 2-for-2

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards
DETROIT -- Holding a playoff spot in December may not mean much to most NHL teams but it's kind of a big deal when you're the Panthers.

Friday's 3-2 victory over the Red Wings on the 35th birthday of Joe Louis Arena was significant in a number of ways.

First, Florida won in Detroit for the second time in just over a week.

Second, by virtue of playing two fewer games, the Panthers jumped Boston and took the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference with their 31st point of the year.

"It means we're relevant as a hockey club and that's we're trying to be,'' captain Willie Mitchell said. "We're trying and we have a lot of room to grow, that's for sure. But we're confident in games against good teams and we're doing it in their building. The needle is pointing in the right direction.''

Said goalie Roberto Luongo: "The goal isn't to be in the playoffs right now but at the end of the season. But we've been battling, working hard. It's nice to see us in that spot.''

Detroit, which lost to the Panthers here 4-3 on Dec. 2, came out flying and took a 1-0 lead just five minutes in.

The Panthers didn't sit back, however, and scored twice within a span of seven minutes as Tomas Fleischmann and Jonathan Huberdeau continued their strong play of late with goals.

"We're playing well and we need these points because they're important,'' Huberdeau said. "Getting out of here with two points allows us to focus on Buffalo. We're a good team and when we want to play, we can be great. We want to play hard and never quit.''

Detroit tied the score in the closing seconds of the first as both Red Wings goals came on the power play. The two teams played scoreless hockey the rest of the way before going into a shootout.

Coach Gerard Gallant changed up his shootout rotation after Florida won just one of five shootouts coming in.

Vincent Trocheck and Brandon Pirri cashed in on their chances and Luongo stopped both shots he faced to give Florida that all-important extra point.

"We wanted to change things up because we haven't had much success,'' said Gallant, whose team is 3-7 in overtime games this season.

"It was good to see things changed up and us getting the win. It's tough to win in this building.''

-- Defenseman Shane O'Brien was brought up from AHL San Antonio on Thursday night as an extra defenseman with the Panthers playing on back-to-back nights.

O'Brien, who didn't play Friday, was suspended two games by the AHL. O'Brien's suspension doesn't affect his NHL eligibility and will go into effect when he returns to San Antonio. Florida went with the same lineup Friday as it did in Monday's tough 4-2 loss in St. Louis.

-- Radio voice Randy Moller called Friday's game after missing the past three due to illness.

Saturday: Panthers at Sabres

When/where: 7 p.m.; First Niagara Center, Buffalo

TV/Radio: FSFL; WQAM 560

Series: Buffalo leads 44-33-4

Noteworthy: Roberto Luongo's shutout streak against the Sabres ended last Saturday although the Panthers pulled out a 3-2 win for their fifth straight win against the Sabres. Florida is 2-0 against Buffalo this year with both games being decided by one goal.





December 11, 2014

FLASH HAS A PLAN: Tomas Fleischmann making case to stay on Florida's revamped top line with Bjugstad and Huberdeau ... Upshall and Barkov return to practice in Detroit ... Ekblad, Thornton miss workout ... O'Brien recalled

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards
DETROIT -- In the aftermath of a disappointing loss at Columbus, the Panthers tweaked their top line putting struggling veteran Tomas Fleischmann with center Nick Bjugstad and Jonathan Huberdeau.

In the four games since, that trio has been Florida's most productive unit with five goals and eight assists between them.

For Fleischmann, being bumped up to the top line has done wonders for his confidence.

In his first 21 games this season, Fleischmann had a goal and two assists. In four games with his new linemates, Fleischmann has a goal and three helpers.

"It felt real good to be promoted to a line that's getting that much ice time,'' said Fleischmann, who had been benched twice this season including Nov. 24 against Minnesota.

"I want to prove that I should be there on this line. That's what I'm trying to do right now. We have a lot of players coming back [from injury] and I want to stay where I'm at. I have to play my best right now.''

Although Bjugstad and Huberdeau have spent a lot of time together this season, the addition of Fleischmann has given them a new dynamic.

A veteran winger who led the Panthers in scoring in each of his first two years in Florida, Fleischmann had a rough season offensively last year. This year, his confidence seemed at an all-time low.

The new line worked from the start with the three playing very well together in Florida's 4-3 win in Detroit on Dec. 2. In a 4-3 shootout loss to Columbus the following game, all three registered two points a piece with Bjugstad scoring the final two goals of the night.

"Huberdeau and I really know each other well, know each other's game,'' said Bjugstad, who leads the Panthers with 12 goals and 18 points.

"And I've always liked playing with Fleischmann. I got to play with him last year and he's a big-time playmaker. There's nothing not to like about playing with him. Both guys are looking to pass, be creative. I just try to get open and shoot the puck.''

Said Huberdeau, who has a goal and eight assists in his past 12 games: "We could be better defensively but offensively, we've found something that has clicked. We're supporting each other off the breakouts. It's been awesome.''

Even though Fleischmann scored eight goals with 27 assists on Florida's power play in his first two seasons, he found his time there decreasing last year.

This season, Fleischmann found power play time even harder to get. That's changed of late as he has been on with Bjugstad and Huberdeau.

Although he's just averaging 1:05 of power play time this season, he logged almost four minutes against Columbus and 2:25 in St. Louis on Monday night.

"I get a lot of confidence playing on the power play because you get to see the puck so much, get a chance to make plays,'' said Fleischmann, who averaged 3:25 of power play time in 2011-12.

"When you get confidence, everything seems to come easier. Life is better.''


Scottie Upshall and Aleksander Barkov participated in Thursday's full practice at Joe Louis Arena.

Upshall, who injured an ankle on Nov. 24, appears to be closest to game ready and could be in the lineup Friday although coach Gerard Gallant said it wasn't likely.

"After being out a couple weeks it's nice to be back in the mix. I'm feeling good,'' Upshall said. "I think everyone is happy with my progression. I just need a couple of skates to get the wind under me again and get the legs going.''

Barkov hurt his hand blocking a shot in Columbus on Dec. 1 and won't play this weekend.

Although most of the swelling has gone down, Barkov said it's still bothersome and he probably won't play until next week.

-- Shawn Thornton (groin) and Aaron Ekblad (soreness) missed Thursday's practice. Although Ekblad is expected to play against his hometown Red Wings, veteran Shane O'Brien was recalled from San Antonio on Thursday night.

Ekblad, a native of nearby Windsor, Ontario, netted the game-winner in Florida's 4-3 win here last week. Ekblad said he'll be ready to play Friday.

"He has a little lower-body soreness,'' Gallant said. "We just left him off the ice. We don't think it's anything.''


Friday: Panthers at Red Wings
7:30 p.m.; Joe Louis Arena, Detroit
TV/radio: FSFL; WQAM 560
Series: Detroit leads 16-8-3
Noteworthy: The Red Wings had won three straight since losing to the Panthers here last week before losing in a shootout to the visiting Maple Leafs on Wednesday. Detroit came into Thursday atop the Eastern Conference standings with 40 points.

PHOTO: JOE RIMKUS JR./Miami Herald staff





December 10, 2014

YOUTH SHALL LEAD THEM: Nick Bjugstad and Aaron Ekblad continue to pace Florida Panthers offense ... Scottie Upshall, Aleksander Barkov headed to Motown

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

ST. LOUIS -- Florida's two goals Monday came from two of its youngest and brightest stars as second-year center Nick Bjugstad and rookie defenseman Aaron Ekblad helped tie the score.

Bjugstad now has a team-high 12 goals after scoring 16 and leading the team in scoring last year.

Ekblad, one of the NHL's three stars for last week, has hit the scoresheet in five straight games and has seven points during that span.

"He looks like he's 25-years-old,'' Hitchcock said of the 18-year-old Ekblad.

"The maturity he's shown in his play, his composure, is really impressive. We saw flashes of it last year at World Juniors. The stage doesn't seem to scare him.''

-- Forwards Scottie Upshall (ankle) and Aleksander Barkov (hand) are expected to join the team for Thursday's practice in Detroit. Both are doubtful to play Friday against the Red Wings, however.


WHICH WAY WILL THEY GO? Panthers' schedule ramping up heading into the New Year

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards
ST. LOUIS -- The Panthers played a very solid game in Monday's 4-2 loss to the host Blues.

Three of the goals St. Louis scored were deflected either by Florida players (twice) or a well-placed stick by a Blues' forward in the slot.

The Panthers trailed 2-0 in the opening period on the two shots that hit their own before finding the back of the net, yet, with less than five minutes left, the score was tied.

There's no such thing as a moral victory in the NHL, not if it doesn't come along with a point in the standings.

With the schedule the Panthers are in the midst of, points are going to come at a premium.

Starting with Monday's game against the Blues -- who hold second place in the Central Division -- nine of Florida's next 13 games come against teams currently holding a playoff position.

The Panthers went into Wednesday two points back of Boston for the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference.

Things are about to get interesting.

"Sometimes it's easier going into games when you're perceived as the underdog,'' winger Jussi Jokinen said. "As the same time, we're right there in the playoff picture. We need to start climbing and find a way to get as many points as we can.''

Coach Gerard Gallant likes how the Panthers have played against the NHL's top teams so far.

Florida has gone 2-3-5 against teams currently holding playoff position.

Unlike the Blues, who play in the Western Conference, Florida's next 11 opponents are all from the east. Four (Buffalo twice, Philadelphia and the Rangers) come against teams below the Panthers in the standings.

Up next is a date with the Red Wings on Friday in Detroit. Florida escaped Joe Louis Arena with a 4-3 win last week.

"I like the way we're playing against good teams,'' Gallant said. "We have to keep doing that and we'll win some games. There are no bad teams in our league anymore. I think we rise to the challenge.''

Although the Panthers didn't get a point out of St. Louis, it was their best showing against the Blues in some time.

Last year, Florida was ripped by the Blues 7-0 in just the second game of the 2013-14 season. Later, St. Louis came to Sunrise and left with a 4-0 victory that wasn't very competitive.

St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock noticed the difference from last year's 29th-ranked Panthers and this year's much improved version.

"Florida's a lot like we are,'' Hitchcock said. "They're hard working. They're determined. When we dialed it up in the first period, they didn't have an answer and when they dialed it up in second, we had a real difficult time. Their checking and their one-on-one determination on the boards in the second was very significant."

Said goalie Martin Brodeur: "I think we survived. It wasn’t pretty but we got it done. .-.-. Florida’s a team that I’ve been watching a little bit. They are really good on the road and they showed why. They are just resilient. They didn’t quit after getting down 2-0. They have a good goalie that will make these big saves like he did in the second and early in the third for them to stay in the game."




December 08, 2014

PANTHERS RALLY FALLS SHORT: Blues, Brodeur continue winning ways against Panthers despite comeback

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

ST. LOUIS -- Over the years, the Panthers have struggled against Martin Brodeur and the St. Louis Blues.
Until Monday, Florida never had to face both at the same time.
The Panthers' blues against both continue.
Despite rallying from a two-goal deficit, the Panthers gave up a late goal and watched St. Louis score into an empty net for a 4-2 victory to celebrate Brodeur's home debut in St. Louis.
"It's disappointing to lose the way we did but we battled hard against a real good club,'' coach Gerard Gallant said.
"We didn't play well enough in the first, but the second in the third I thought we battled real well. We'll take some positives out of this game. It is disappointing with no points.''
Brodeur, the NHL's all-time leader in wins and shutouts, came into the night with 48 victories over the Panthers including a pair of postseason series wins during his 21 seasons with the Devils.
On Monday, his new team -- Brodeur signed an incentive-laden contract which pays him $20,000 a win last week -- gave him a 2-0 lead off a pair of odd goals.
Yet the Panthers -- outscored 11-0 in a pair of losses to the Blues last year -- battled back and got a pair of goals in the final six minutes of the second and third by two of their top young players to tie the score.
Florida had been shutout at the hands of St. Louis goalies for 202 minutes 14 seconds before Nick Bjugstad's wrister beat Brodeur with 4:39 left in the second period.
In the third, Aaron Ekblad continued his offensive tear by taking a nice pass from Jussi Jokinen and burying it with 5:06 remaining in the game.
As it appeared this one was headed to to overtime, Chris Porter deflected a long shot from Barret Jackman and the puck skipped past Roberto Luongo with just under two minutes left.
All three goals Luongo gave up were deflected -- St. Louis' fourth goal came with the goalie on the bench -- including the first two by his own teammates.
The Blues gave Brodeur a 2-0 lead off a pair of strange goals.
Max Lapierre's odd-angled shot hit the skate of Florida's Vincent Trocheck in front of the net and went in for a 1-0 lead.
With 2:26 left in the first, Ian Cole rifled off a 45-foot slap shot that clipped the stick of Jonathan Huberdeau and past Luongo.
"That's a tough way to lose after we battled back over the last two periods,'' Luongo said. "We carried most of the play and tied it. It's a heartbreaker to lose like that.''
In the second, Bjugstad' team-high 12th goal of the season made it 2-1 with a wrist shot over Brodeur's shoulder.
Late in the third, Jokinen got Brodeur's attention as his long pass to a pinching Ekblad caught the future Hall of Famer out of position.
As Ekblad rared up to shoot, Brodeur went down and Ekblad picked up his third goal and seventh point in his past five games.
Ekblad received the postgame West Point dress gray jacket after recording his first three point night in Saturday's 3-2 win over Buffalo.
On Monday, the 18-year-old was honored as one of the NHL's 'Three Stars of the Week' after he scored six points (two goals) in four games.
The other honorees were Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk (who scored against the Panthers last Tuesday) and Columbus goalie Sergei Bobrovsky (who beat the Panthers twice last week).
"I just wished we would have won more games,'' Ekblad said. "It is nice, I can't say I'm not happy about it.''
-- Dave Bolland was in the Panthers' lineup for the first time since Oct. 17 on Monday. Bolland pulled a groin muscle in Buffalo and missed the following 21 games.
"It has been a while so it's great to be able to get back out there, get in the lineup,'' said Bolland, who signed a five-year, $27.5-million deal with Florida on July 1.
The Panthers sat Shawn Thornton to make room for Bolland. Florida also placed Aleksander Barkov (hand) on the injured list retroactive to Dec. 1.
-- Radio voice Randy Moller missed his third straight game due to an illness. After being replaced by Craig Minervini and Jiggs McDonald in the first two games, Fox Florida's Frank Forte filled in Monday.