« Florida Panthers Solid Defense Helps Lift Team into Playoffs ... Additions of Jovanovski and Campbell Beneficial to Cats Defense ... News, Notes | Main | Florida Panthers Notebook: Jason Garrison Bloodied, OK ... Marco Sturm Returns, Matt Bradley Skates ... Can Cats Contain Devils Kovalchuk? »

Florida Panthers Top Line Gets off to Hot Start, Good Finish Heading into Playoffs ... Devils will Watch Weiss, Fleischmann, Versteeg Closely

ToplineBY GEORGE RICHARDS grichards@MiamiHerald.com

TWITTER: @OnFrozenPond

For one reason or another, the Panthers top line didn't play together all that much during the preseason.

Whether it was Stephen Weiss given time off for nagging injuries or coach Kevin Dineen mixing and matching, the trio of Weiss, Tomas Fleischmann and Kris Versteeg didn't get much work going into the season opener. 

Yet on Oct. 8 when the new-look Panthers opened up on Long Island, the chemistry between the three forwards was evident. Weiss scored Florida's first goal of the season off a secondary assist from Fleischmann. The run was on as the Panthers top line was the most productive in the league in the first quarter of the season. 

“It's fun when the puck is going in the net,'' Weiss said. “We were scoring, contributing, winning games. You can't ask for more than that. Then there were Weiss3times when it wasn't so much fun. It went the opposite ways. It's not easy all the time. The team kept our heads above water and we moved through it.''

Through the opening 20 games, Florida had 59 goals. Weiss, Fleischmann or Versteeg accounted for  28 of them. All three were ranked in the league's top 20 as Florida was one of just three teams with three players among the top 30 scorers. 

“It was a lot of fun all season,'' Versteeg said. “We had a bunch of great games. But it was a roller-coaster of a season for us.''

That kind of crazy production, as expected, didn't last.

“Well, it would have been nice if it did,'' Weiss said. “We wanted it to continue but when you have the injuries we have and the opposition keys in on our line, not to use an excuse, but we struggled with that. We had the checking lines and the D being constantly in our face, that's a reason we went into a standstill for a bit.''

As the season wore on, both Weiss and Versteeg battled injuries and both went through long stretches where points were hard to come by.

Fleischmann had a career year with 27 goals and 34 assists as he played in all 82 games for the first time. But he had a stretch of 10 games in which he failed to score.

Weiss went 15 games without a goal from Dec. 8-Jan. 16. 

By mid-January, Dineen sat Versteeg during the third Versteegperiod of a loss to the Penguins. Through their first 25 games together, the three averaged 1.32 goals and almost two assists per game. After that 4-1 loss to Pittsburgh, their production over a 17 game span had shrunk to less than a goal and an assist.

“It was a funny midseason for all three of us,'' Versteeg said. “I think we got back at it.''

Versteeg, who missed nine games with a hip injury, is still fighting things a bit as his goal on April 3 was his first in 16 games. Versteeg, who had a career-high 23 goals with a career-tying 31 assists, is creating offense.

After breaking the trio up for a bit, they're back together. Not surprisingly, they look comfortable together.

Although they aren't putting up the flashy numbers they did early on, they are definitely producing and will have the Devils' full attention come Friday. 

In the final four games of the regular season, Weiss has a goal and an assist; Fleischmann has two goals with an an assist and Versteeg had a goal with three assists. This would be the perfect time for the first Fleischmannline to revert back to their early season ways.

“When they put us back together, it was almost instant, us playing together again,'' Versteeg said.

“We meshed again, played great and created chances.

"I definitely feel strong about what we can do together. Confidence isn't an issue. And the time off helped everyone. It'll be nice to get things going again. We're antsy and excited to get things going.''