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45 posts from October 2013

October 31, 2013

LOGAN COUTURE: Sharks Would Have Lost in Florida

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

San Jose's Logan Couture used the Panthers as an example when he said his team's loss at Los Angeles Wednesday had nothing to do with a so-called Staples Arena curse. The Sharks have won just one of their past 12 in L.A.

"We could have played in Florida tonight and probably lost that game, too,'' Couture told the San Jose Mercury News. "We just didn’t play well enough to win.”

A few fans took to Twitter on Thursday as they felt Couture was slighting the Panthers with his comment. I just think there are few places in the NHL further from Los Angeles than Florida.

For the record, the Panthers have won four straight against the Sharks and haven't lost to San Jose since Halloween night 2006.


PANTHERS NOTEBOOK: St. Louis Blues Come to Town; Tim Thomas Not Likely to Play

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

Tim Thomas didn't practice Thursday as he was seen goofing around by shooting pucks -- pretty accurately, too -- from just inside the blue line as the rest of his teammates skated off to a different sheet of ice.

Thomas had worked out the previous three days but took Thursday off making him unlikely to return to the lineup this weekend. Florida plays host to St. Louis on Friday and travels to Washington the following night.

The Panthers haven't disclosed Thomas' recent injury only saying it's unrelated to his previous groin injury.

"He's still being evaluated each day,'' coach Kevin Dineen said. "He's doubtful for the weekend.''

-- Dineen turned a little salty when he was asked how he would use Florida's 7-0 loss to the Blues on Oct. 5 in St. Louis in preparation for Friday's home game. The Panthers have lost three straight to the Blues.

"We got our [behinds] kicked so how do you think we're going to react to it?,'' Dineen said. "You get beat bad, a team spanks you and we're all professional and have pride. We know we took a really good kicking there.''



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

TV/Radio: FSNF; WQAM-560

The series: St. Louis leads 16-7-3

Scouting report: The Panthers will play the finale of their season-long six-game homestand. Florida is 1-2-2 so far with nine of the next 11 away from Sunrise after Friday. The Blues, who beat Florida 7-0 in the second game of the season, have won seven of their first 10 and two straight.



TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

By no means was Tomas Fleischmann the so-called 'Iron Man' of the Panthers, but he admits it was tough watching his consecutive games played streak come to a close Sunday.

Fleischmann had played in all of 148 games -- including the postseason -- the Panthers had since he signed with Florida on July 1, 2011 going into Sunday's game against the Lightning.

Yet Fleischmann was so sick Sunday he says he couldn't "hold a stick much less shoot the puck." The Panthers, for the first time since he joined the team, were without No. 14.

"I wasn't close enough to be able to help the team out,'' Fleischmann said after Thursday's practice. "I was really achy, couldn't compete at all. It's tough but those things happen. There's nothing I could do about it. I always want to play.''

When Fleischmann signed with the Panthers in 2011, few could have imagined it would take him two-plus seasons to miss a single game.

The Panthers took a risk in making Fleischmann their (at the time) highest-paid forward when he was signed to a four-year deal worth $4.5 million annually.

Fleischmann, after all, had missed the second half of the previous season with Colorado after blood clots were discovered in his lungs. In the two seasons before signing with the Panthers, Fleischmann missed an average of 43 games.

The Panthers are certainly more of a threat offensively with Fleischmann in the lineup as he led the team in goals (27) and points (61) in 2011-12 and in points (35) last year.

Fleischmann has two goals this season but leads the team with nine points.

"He's played a lot of hockey under a lot of physical conditions,'' coach Kevin Dineen said. "He's an impact player in our lineup and we're better when he's in it at his full effectiveness. He had a nice little streak that was broken.''



October 30, 2013

PANTHERS NOTES: Kevin Dineen Happy for Champion Miami Heat ... Jovo Close?

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said he didn't watch the Heat's banner raising ceremony on Tuesday as he said he was too engrossed in watching other hockey games.

That didn't mean he wasn't happy for the Heat. On the contrary.

Although no one could blame him if he was a little green with envy for the success the basketball team he shares the area with has had during his time here.

Since Dineen was hired by the Panthers, the Heat have been to the NBA Finals three times -- winning it twice.

Dineen says he is a fan of all the teams in South Florida adding Wednesday that he wasn't rooting for the Red Sox in Game 6 of the World Series because he's now a Marlins guy.

"We're all proud as South Floridians to see the success they've had,'' Dineen said. "That was a special day for them. A well-deserved day. We wish them luck on a long journey this year. They have a lot to live up to and that's a team I have a lot of respect for.''

-- Defenseman Ed Jovanovski wasn't at practice Wednesday but Dineen said he would be back Thursday. Jovanovski and the Panthers have said he could return from his hip surgery in the coming weeks and Dineen reiterated that Wednesday.

"He's getting there,'' Dineen said. "We've talked about November and we're slowly getting to that deadline. It's an exciting time for him.''


SURPRISE IN GOAL: Jacob Markstrom Getting Plenty of Work Despite Tim Thomas Signing

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

When the Panthers signed veteran Tim Thomas to a one-year deal last month, few expected Jacob Markstrom to see action in nine of October's 12 games.

Yet because of two injuries, Markstrom has indeed been Florida's go-to goalie in half of its games.

And with Thomas' status for this weekend still in doubt, Markstrom could be back in net Friday against the visiting Blues.

"We have been playing in some tight games, but no one is happy with the results,'' Markstrom said after Wednesday's morning practice in Coral Springs.

"We're going to start winning games here. I always have to be ready because stuff happens. I prepare every day as if I'm going to be playing. Nothing much has changed. I have confidence in this group, in this team. We're looking forward. This is a big weekend coming up.''

Thomas is currently working his way back from an undisclosed lower body injury and took part in half of Wednesday's practice before skating back to the locker room with two of Florida's trainers not far behind.

Coach Kevin Dineen said Thomas is "slowly moving in the right direction" and if the Panthers had to play Wednesday, Thomas wouldn't be ready to go.

Florida plays twice this weekend with Markstrom possibly going at home against the Blues with Scott Clemmensen a possibility for Saturday's game in Washington.

Clemmensen hasn't started an NHL game yet this season -- he has played in two games for Florida's AHL affiliate in San Antonio -- but he had two wins against the Capitals in 2011-12.

Clemmensen's only action with the Panthers this year has been relegated to practice and a brief stint in relief of Markstrom in a 7-2 loss at Tampa Bay on Oct. 10.

"At some point,'' Dineen said, "he's going to be a piece of the puzzle.''

As far as Markstrom's play goes, well, there has been room for improvement. Markstrom's best game came on Oct. 8 when he took over for Thomas when he injured his groin early in a game at Philadelphia. Markstrom didn't give up a goal as he turned back 25 shots in Florida's 2-1 loss.

In his six starts, Markstrom is giving up an average of 3.5 goals and has stopped 88 percent of shots faced.

"At the end, we need a win against St. Louis and goaltending is a big part of it,'' Dineen said. "I've seen Markstrom go out there and win us a game.''

Markstrom is also 0-2 in shootouts, stopping just two of the six shots offered. Thomas won his only shootout game, turning back both shots against Minnesota.

"It's frustrating,'' Markstrom said. "For me, it's personal because if we go into shootouts, we should win. But I haven't made the kind of saves I need to, the big saves I feel I can make. As a goalie, you have to be confident that if it goes to shootout, you're going to win it.''


October 29, 2013

NICE SURPRISE: Jesse Winchester Making Most of Chance with Panthers

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

After spending last season out of the NHL, Jesse Winchester came into Panthers training camp determined to do anything to stick around. Winchester even joked he would play any position, well, anything but goalie.

Not only did Winchester's play catch the eye of coaches during camp, but he's been one of the nice surprises so far this season. Winchester scored his second goal of the year Friday against Buffalo and got his second assist Sunday against the Lightning.

Last week, coach Kevin Dineen told Winchester to go ahead and pack up his temporary home and find more permanent living arrangements.

"I had one of the great joys in coaching when I told him to go ahead and get a place here in town, get out of the hotel he'd been living in,'' Dineen said. "He's a kid who has been hungry since Day 1. He developed a trust level that he can be a dependable player and offer a dynamic we had been missing. He can kill penalties, is responsible defensively and is physical. He's done what has been asked. He's been a great addition.''

Most didn't give Winchester much of a chance of sticking around in South Florida this long. Winchester spent four seasons in Ottawa after graduating from Colgate although his 2011-12 season cut short because of concussion issues.

The Sens passed on giving Winchester a contract in 2013 and he couldn't find work in the league. Winchester spent the lockout playing for a second-tier team in Finland before coming home hoping for an NHL job offer that never materialized. Winchester finished the season playing for Jokerit in Helsinki.

On Sunday, Winchester's line started against the Lightning, his 12th NHL game this season.

"I've been around so I wasn't nervous coming in here, I just wanted to put my best foot forward," Winchester said. "The guys here have welcomed me and the coaches and management have given me a chance to play. I'm just trying to run with it every day and do what I do.''

Although Winchester was helped along by Steve Pinizzotto's hip injury during training camp, he's earned his keep with the Panthers by being hard-nosed with the puck as well as being one of the team's most dependable penalty killers.

When Winchester said he would play anywhere the Panthers asked, he wasn't kidding.

"I've been playing hard I guess, but it's tough when you aren't winning games,'' Winchester said. "We compete and want to win. We're competitive people. I like to chip in when I can. I want to play the right way, be hard to play against. That's my role and I hope to do it every night.''

Dineen has made it clear he doesn't want players who only want to be playing in the NHL. He wants players who want to win in the NHL and are willing to make a difference in making that a reality with the Panthers.

Winchester is filling that order.

"I don't want guys who want to be NHL players on a bad team. We had that last year,'' Dineen said. "We want players who are bringing something to the table. Jesse Winchester may have been our best forward in the past couple of games. .-.-. If you watch the games, you see guys who play with Jesse seem to have a little extra spurt. He's had a fine start to his year.''

-- Dineen called a timeout soon after Steven Stamkos scored Tampa Bay's second goal within the first three shots on Sunday. He blamed that quick goal on Florida players coming off the ice as the likes of Stamkos, Ryan Malone and Martin St. Louis charged toward the net.

"There was some real correctable hockey on the second goal,'' Dineen said. "We had two change when we have skill guys coming up the ice. Shame on us. Those are areas we have to address and talk about. We're not pointing fingers because we're all in this together. But those are correctable mistakes.''

-- Dineen said Tomas Fleischmann was the latest player to be hit by the flu with Scottie Upshall and Ryan Whitney also being affected. Dineen said players were offered flu shots at the arena following Sunday's game.

"It's that time of year,'' Dineen said. "I would rather have guys hungry and healthy than talented and sick.''

Winchester photo courtesy of AL DIAZ/Associated Press


FLYING FAST: Jonathan Huberdeau Hopes to Get Season Back on Track ... Tim Thomas Could Practice Wednesday

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

Jonathan Huberdeau is finding out that winning the NHL's rookie of the year award brings some nice perks.

The latest one came Monday as he spent his off day at Homestead-Miami Speedway tooling around the 1 1/2 mile oval in a souped up Shelby Cobra Mustang thanks to his friends at Ford.

"It was pretty powerful,'' said Huberdeau, who bought himself a new Mustang convertible not long after arriving in South Florida last year. His track exploits will be featured on the South Florida Ford YouTube page.

"I really enjoyed going out there. I pushed it a little bit. It was great. I was coming in hot on the curves but they gave me some driving pointers. It was pretty exciting. I was very lucky to have a day off and be able to get away from hockey and go out to the race track. I would do that any time.''

One of the downsides of being the Panthers' lone Calder Trophy winner, however, is bigger expectations.

Huberdeau has three goals this season through the first 12 games and none in his past four.

After playing with a hip injury for most of last season, Huberdeau had offseason surgery to correct the problem. Although Huberdeau refuses to use the injury as an excuse, he hasn't gotten off to the start he would have liked.

"If I'm being negative, the puck won't go in,'' Huberdeau said. "I just need to keep skating, move my feet. I need to help this team win some games.''

The Panthers need Huberdeau to be one of, if not their top, forward just about every night if they hope to have any sort of success.

And although his three goals are tied for second-most on the team, Huberdeau knows fans are wondering why he doesn't have more. He feels he should have a few more as well.

"I feel like I'm getting chances, getting the opportunity,'' he said. "The puck may not be going in right now, but that's the way it goes sometimes. I'm going to get one and it'll pick up for me. I'm staying positive about things.''

The Panthers would like to see Huberdeau be a little more aggressive on both sides of ice, and coach Kevin Dineen liked the grit he showed when he used his speed to backcheck Martin St. Louis in the second period of Sunday's shootout loss to the Lightning.

"He put his head down and put his effort into his backcheck as he does for us on the offensive side,'' Dineen said. "He's an elite player because of his hockey IQ as well as his skill set. His game is really starting to take form.''

As for speeding off the ice, Huberdeau says he really had to check the speedometer on the long ride back from Homestead. Being the league's top rookie last year may mean something to a lot of people, but not to the Florida Highway Patrol.

"You really want to go fast after you race around that track,'' Huberdeau said. "But you can't. I had to be real careful."

-- Dineen took advantage of the Panthers having an opening in their schedule to hold a team workout away from the ice on Tuesday. The team will return to the ice at the Saveology.com Iceplex in Coral Springs for practice Wednesday at 10:30 a.m.

The Panthers don't play again until Friday night when St. Louis comes to Sunrise for the finale of Florida's six-game homestand. The Panthers have gone 1-2-2 so far.

"We've been going hard for the past 40, 50 days here with just the odd day off here and there,'' Dineen said. "I looked at the schedule and it looked like a good time to get some quality off-ice time. We're going to hit the ground fresh on Wednesday.''

-- Goalie Tim Thomas finally has his new Panthers-themed goalie mask in and will likely break it out for Wednesday's workout. Thomas, who has been out with an undisclosed lower body injury since last week, skated on Monday and Tuesday and is expected to practice with the team Wednesday.

Thomas can now come off the injured list at any time and would be eligible to play Friday if he feels up to it.

"He's coming along,'' Dineen said. "We'll see where he is."



October 27, 2013

IS IT ON YOU?: Upshall Squirts Gudas, Fun Ensues

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

Tampa Bay's Radko Gudas was kicked out of Sunday's game after he hit the ice in front of the Florida bench and then smashed his stick up against the bench area nearly striking both Nick Bjugstad and Scottie Upshall.

Upshall was the obvious target.

Why was Gudas so mad?

Because Upshall squirted him with Gatorade -- blue, Upshall confirmed -- while Gudas was down on the ice.

"He overreacted a bit,'' said Upshall, who was hit with a bench penalty for the dousing. "He's a guy who plays a bit on the edge. He plays hard and he was fired up, took a run at our guy by the bench and fell. I think he was embarrassed he fell. You would think it was the end of the world. He was freaked out."

Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said he felt that not only was Gudas' punishment too steep, but Upshall's wasn't enough.

Panthers' coach Kevin Dineen didn't agree with that assessment.

"I was concerned for our players. When you chop your stick like that, it can be very dangerous,'' Dineen said. "The stick is a very dangerous weapon. .-.-. [Gudas] was understandably upset, but that's certainly the wrong response by that young man.''


BOYES COMES UP BIG: Instead of Benching, Boyes Forces OT in Panthers 4-3 SO Loss to Lightning

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

Panthers coach Kevin Dineen was going to bench Brad Boyes on Sunday, but when Tomas Fleischmann called in sick, Boyes was back in.

Good thing.

Boyes scored the game-tying goal to help force overtime in Tampa Bay's 4-3 shootout win over Florida at BB&T Center. Florida never led as the Lightning twice held two-goal leads. Yet Boyes' goal helped force overtime to get at least one point in the standings.

"That's a coaches dream,'' Dineen said. "Someone is going to get [benched] and instead gets a little life, gets back in there. .-.-. He's made for those kind of moments. It was a professional response by him.''

Boyes admitted his emotions were up and down this weekend as he was benched for much of the third period of Friday's loss to the Sabres and was on a scratch line at Saturday's practice.

On Saturday, Boyes said he wanted to prove he belonged in the lineup. Sunday he did just that.

Not only did Boyes score his team-leading fifth goal midway through the third, but his shootout goal forced a fourth-round. Boyes has 33 goals in 73 shootout attempts, tying him with Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk as the league's active leader.

"Obviously I was down when I got the news then I got on the ice [Sunday],'' Boyes said. "I did what I could to get back in. I got an unfortunate break by having one of our best guys out.''

Boyes was Florida's lone shooter to score as Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov and Dmitry Kulikov didn't.

Tampa Bay got two shootout goals past Jacob Markstrom with Val Filppula and Steven Stamkos scoring to give Tampa its second win over the Panthers this season. The Lightning beat Florida 7-2 in its home opener on Oct. 10.

Sunday looked like it may be a repeat of that rout off Channelside Drive as the Lightning stormed to a 2-0 lead with Marty St. Louis and Stamkos scoring on two of Tampa's first three shots.

Shawn Matthias cut the deficit in half by scoring his first goal of the season with 6:12 left in the period.

"It's nice to get that monkey off my back but it sucks we lost it,'' Matthias said. "We played really well this homestand and it's a shame we didn't get two points in all of them. We fought back again.''

Tampa Bay got a power play goal in the second when Radko Gudas' long shot clipped Mike Weaver and past Markstrom for a 3-1 lead.

Florida charged back in the third, though, with Nick Bjugstad getting his first of the year as he redirected a Scottie Upshall shot past Anders Lindback.

About three minutes later and it was Boyes' turn. Tampa Bay's Ondrej Palat left the puck sitting right in front of the net and Boyes hopped on it, backhanding the puck between the goalies' skates. Florida came close to taking the lead moments later, but Matthias' point blank shot was stopped.

"It wasn't the start we wanted,'' Boyes said. "We've responded but we're on the backend when we get back into games.''


October 26, 2013

LOOKING FOR ANSWERS: Dineen Trying to Find Combos that Work for Florida Panthers

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

With wins in just three of the opening 11 games, Panthers coach Kevin Dineen is desperate to find a combination that works.

On Saturday, Dineen said Tomas Kopecky and Shawn Matthias, two of Florida's leading scorers last season, would be put in better position to score their first goal of the season.

Brad Boyes, however, may not play Sunday against visiting Tampa Bay after being benched for all but two shifts in the third period of Friday's loss to Buffalo. Boyes leads the Panthers with four goals but Dineen hasn't been too keen with Boyes' play on the defensive side of the ice.

"Brad Boyes was brought in here to score goals and we know he can score goals,'' Dineen said about Boyes, who worked on a fifth line with Krys Barch and an injured Steve Pinizzotto on Saturday.

"When he gets into the scoring areas he needs to take advantage. That's when we're excited about his play. He also has to understand we have to be a complete hockey team, to be good in both ends. That's part of our makeup.

"I can go through every player and pick things I'm not happy about. Look at our record; I'm not happy with my coaching. I'm not happy with a lot of different players' overall game. Again, we need a complete game from everyone to have success. That's doubly important for our veterans.''

Boyes came into the locker room Saturday afternoon with Barch dripping in sweat after putting in extra time on the ice. Boyes scored 10 goals with the Islanders last year and his four goals with the Panthers is one better than Marcel Goc, Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov. Boyes is third on the Panthers with six total points.

Scottie Upshall has seemingly taken Boyes' spot in the lineup after he was scratched Friday. Upshall was working with Nick Bjugstad and Kris Versteeg on Saturday.

"I want to be in the lineup,'' said Boyes, who signed a one-year deal with the Panthers after coming to training camp on a try out. "It sucks, but I'm going to work to get back in there. .-.-. I want to keep going out there and have the opportunity to score. It hasn't happened lately. Everyone had shots [Friday], I just need to keep firing at the net."

Although Boyes has four goals, Matthias and Kopecky are both looking for their first of the season. Both players have created a bunch of chances as Kopecky is third on the team with 26 shots on goal and Matthias has 15.

Dineen said both will be given additional time on the power play and added he isn't worried both players will break through and score soon. Of course, the longer the drought, the more doubt creeps into their collective game.

"I've been there before and it's no fun,'' Dineen said. "It gets in your head a little bit and you start driving a different path to the arena because you think taking the expressway instead of the Sawgrass will make a difference in how you play. At the end, hey, whatever works. As a coach I have to put them in situations to succeed. I do have confidence and belief in those players.''

Matthias, who scored a career-high 14 goals in last year's lockout-shortened season, said he hasn't changed up his off-ice habits during the slump but may on Sunday. Matthias, who plays on a line with Kopecky and Marcel Goc, is back on the wing after spending much of the past few seasons at center.

"The worst thing you can do is think too much about it, and I've been doing that,'' Matthias said. "I need to get one to get this off my mind and start rolling. It's hard not to think about it. If the chances weren't coming I would be really worried. But they are there. It's just a matter of time. I'll get one and the stress will go with it.''

-- Sean Bergenheim had a big impact in his first game back since Game 7 of the 2012 Eastern Conference quarterfinals. Bergenheim, who had been out with various lower-body injuries, assisted on Florida's lone goal and had numerous chances against the Sabres.

"There were some high-end scoring chances that he helped create,'' Dineen said. "It was a good start for him. It was a baby step. The first one is out of the way and we can stop talking about anything but his performance.''

-- Although Pinizzotto is working out with the team after suffering a hip injury during training camp, Dineen said the former Vancouver forward isn't close to being game-ready.


When, Where: 5 p.m.; BB&T Center, Sunrise

TV/Radio: FSNF; WQAM-560

The series: Florida leads 57-43-10

The game: The Panthers have lost four of six to the Lightning dating to last year including a 7-2 setback in Tampa Bay's home opener on Oct. 10. Tampa Bay played host to Buffalo on Saturday night before traveling to South Florida. The Panthers have three points in their past three games.

October 25, 2013

BUFFALOED, AGAIN: Panthers Dominate Play, Sabres Get 3-1 Win in Sunrise

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

The Panthers have had more than their share of games they would like to forget over the past decade or so, but Friday's unexplainable loss may jet to the top of that list.

Despite being dominated all night, the hapless Sabres scored three goals in the second half to beat the Panthers 3-1 in front of an announced 12,984 mostly ticked off fans at BB&T Center.

Florida took aim at backup goalie Jhonas Enroth -- whom Florida coach Kevin Dineen coached in the minors -- 79 times with 45 shots on goal (Buffalo blocked 17 shots and the Panthers misfired on another 17).

All the Panthers got for their effort was one goal and a lot of boos from those who stuck around until the end.

"It's a hard loss for us,'' a sullen coach Kevin Dineen said. "At the end of it, we weren't trading chance-for-chance. It was three or four then one against. It's just the quality of that one chance against. .-.-.

"We're still looking for that complete effort on both sides of the puck. We couldn't crack that nut out there and that's the frustrating part of the game.''

For Buffalo, Friday's win is one to celebrate -- and perhaps savor since they won't enjoy that winning feeling much this season.

The Sabres came into Friday's game with one win in their first 11 games and had held a lead for a whopping 9:35 this season. That number almost doubled Friday.

When Steve Ott scored at 12:42 of the third to give Buffalo a 2-1 lead, that gave the Sabres only their second lead in a game this entire season. Buffalo led Friday's game for the final 7:28 as Cody Hodgson ended Florida's comeback hopes with an empty net goal with 47 seconds left.

Buffalo was being outshot 30-10 when Rasmus Ristolainen fired a shot from 65 feet away. Goalie Jacob Markstrom (18 saves) never saw the puck as it skipped into the back of the net. That tied the score at 1 with 6:28 left in the second period.

Florida, truth be told, should have been up 5-0 at the time. Enroth, however, turned back one shot after another. Tomas Fleischmann, Kris Versteeg and Tomas Kopecky had a combined 17 shots on goal yet never saw the scoresheet.

"I don't know why the hockey gods aren't shining on us right now,'' said Versteeg, who was on the ice for all three of Buffalo's goals and was credited with seven shots. "I have no answers. Personally, I've never been this snakebitten in my life. And it sucks. Really bad.''

Florida took a 1-0 lead with 6:02 left in the first period when Sean Bergenheim -- playing in his first game since the 2012 playoffs -- took a feed from Erik Gudbranson after he picked the puck off. Bergenheim worked the puck down the left boards and rifled a shot at the net. Florida's Jesse Winchester was crashing the net at the time, slammed on the brakes and popped the puck past Enroth.

It was a nifty goal, one the Panthers definitely thought they would get more of as the night went on. Buffalo, after all, had one of the league's biggest disparity in goals at minus-18. The Sabres got a few back against the Panthers.

"If we have to win 1-0, we have to do that,'' said Brian Campbell, who was drafted by the Sabres and spent eight seasons in Buffalo.

"We have to work hard to score goals, get ugly ones, whatever. We're not a fancy team, make the pretty plays. Look at our record. This was a must-win game. We needed to finish that team off.''


Bergenheim was back in the Panthers' lineup for the first time since Game 7 of the 2012 playoffs against New Jersey. Bergenheim missed all of last season after having surgeries involving his abdomen, groin and hip.

"It's been a while,'' Bergenheim said Friday morning. "When I look at how many months it's been since I played, I don't feel that on the ice. I don't feel it's been that long. I'm really happy to be back. I missed this.''

With Bergenheim back in the lineup, Dineen now has three extra players on the roster. For the second time in five games, Scottie Upshall found himself on the bench as a healthy scratch.

Upshall, who makes $3.5 million per season, joined Krys Barch and Ryan Whitney on the shelf Friday night.

Dineen, for one, likes having that extra depth. In the past, the Panthers have stayed as close to the minimal 20-man roster as possible. That makes competition for playing time a reality and not just a veiled threat.

“We’ve got through a few years here where we were pretty light not only because of injuries but just because of our situation,'' Dineen said. "We were fairly on the number, meaning a lot of times there was no decision to make. We just basically rolled with our 12 forwards and our six defense.”

-- The Panthers may have earned a point against the defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks on Tuesday, yet they have no points in losses to Philadelphia and Buffalo -- the two worst teams in the Eastern Conference.

Of Philadelphia's four points this season, two have come against the Panthers. Buffalo has two of its five points thanks to Florida.

"There was a lot of hard work and there was no reward, no consolation prize for playing hard and playing well,'' Dineen said. "At the end of the day, we're all about the two points. It was not a good night.''



October 24, 2013

BERGENHEIM'S BACK?: Signs Point to Sean Bergenheim's Return ... Sabres Limp into South Florida

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

If there's one player with the Panthers who knows what Sean Bergenheim is going through right now, it's Kris Versteeg.

Bergenheim is expected to be back in the Panthers lineup for the first time since the 2012 playoffs when Florida plays host to Buffalo on Friday night. Bergenheim missed all of last season after needing a number of surgeries dealing with abdominal and hip injuries coming off that postseason run.

"I've had both surgeries that he's had,'' Versteeg said Thursday. "The thing he's coming back from, and what [Jonathan] Huberdeau is coming back from is something that lingers. It's about putting the pain, something that doesn't feel right, behind them.

"Bergenheim plays a hard game, he's always digging in. He has to come back when he feels it's right. He has to be comfortable in his style.''

Florida hopes to get the player Bergenheim was for them in 2011-12, a hard-nosed forward who has a knack for scoring timely, needed goals.

Since he hasn't played an NHL game since April 26, 2012, perhaps expecting Bergenheim to be that type of player is asking a little too much.

The Panthers' lasting memory of Bergenheim on the ice is one they'd like to see moving forward. Bergenheim scored three goals in the seven-game series against the Devils.

Bergenheim was working on Florida's fourth line at Thursday's practice with Scott Gomez and Jesse Winchester.

"He's had a good week of practice and I think his mind's in the right place, back on hockey,'' said coach Kevin Dineen, who was critical of Bergenheim's extended absence just last week.

"The last time we saw him, he was an extremely effective player for us. To get even more specific, he really changed the tempo of Game 7 here with his play in the third period. I know it was a long time ago, but I'd like to see him pick up where he left off as a Florida Panther.''

Versteeg missed most of last season after needing major knee surgery and said after Tuesday's shootout loss to the Blackhawks that was the best he felt since returning.

It's taken Versteeg a little time to feel comfortable doing the things he's grown accustomed to on the ice, although it appears the most physical part of his game is coming back.

"It was a matter of timing, getting used to one-on-one battles around the ice after not playing for a while,'' Versteeg said. "It had been a long time. I needed confidence because the mental side is such a big part of the game.

"I really felt good the last game out and was rewarded with more ice time. Being comfortable breeds confidence. I just need to keep going to those gritty areas that make me successful. This isn't an overnight thing.''


Dineen promises the Panthers aren't overlooking the last-place Sabres despite how bad Buffalo has looked this season. Wednesday's 5-2 loss to the Bruins was Buffalo's tenth loss in 11 games this season.

Entering Thursday, only Philadelphia had fewer points in the Eastern Conference. The Flyers' lone win of the year came against the Panthers.

"We've prepared ourselves the same way,'' Dineen said. "The emotional level has to be consistent. We can't play at one tone for the Stanley Cup champions and then change it for someone else.''

The Sabres aren't just losing, they are losing ugly and getting players suspended for long stretches of time for dirty play. On Thursday, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman upheld the 10-game suspension on Patrick Kaleta after he ran Columbus' Jack Johnson on Oct. 10.

The NHL also gave Buffalo's John Scott the option for an in-person hearing -- meaning he's getting five games or more for concussing Boston's Loui Eriksson on Wednesday. The Sabres fired coach Lindy Ruff last season; now GM Darcy Regier is feeling the heat at least externally.

"I don’t think I’m a dirty player," Scott told the Buffalo News on Thursday before the team headed south.

"I try to play within the code, within the rules. This is my first suspension. .-.-. I was sick to my stomach last night knowing what happened watching the video. I just kind of regret the whole situation. I don’t want to be a dirty player."

-- Goalie Scott Clemmensen was back with the Panthers on Thursday after being sent back to AHL San Antonio last week.

Tim Thomas is out through this coming week after being hurt Tuesday against the Blackhawks. Dineen said Thomas wouldn't practice Friday but could be back on the ice Saturday.



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

TV/Radio: FSNF; WQAM-560

The series: Buffalo leads 33-28-4

The game: Florida has picked up three of the available four points in its past two games all while Buffalo is sinking fast. The Sabres lost their first seven before beating the Islanders in a shootout. Buffalo comes into Sunrise riding a three-game losing streak. Florida took two of the three meetings last season and will face Buffalo four times this year as members of the Atlantic Division.


October 20, 2013

PANTHERS CONFIDENT IN GOALTENDING: Dale Tallon, Panthers teammates Praise Tim Thomas ... Florida Penalty Killers Bringing It

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

Dale Tallon knew he was going to see the best of Tim Thomas on Saturday night. The day before, Tallon spoke with his goalie and got a feel for where he was mentally.

"He told me he was sick of losing,'' Tallon said Saturday night, moments after Thomas' 31-save performance in a 2-1 shootout win over Minnesota.

"He's not used to this. And let me tell you something, this guy is a winner. When we talked to him in the summer, that's the first thing that jumped out. He wants to win and he battles. He's a difference maker and he gives our guys some confidence out there. He's a champion. He's what we need.''

Thomas was Florida's biggest offseason acquisition, although technically he signed during training camp.

A Stanley Cup champion with Boston two years ago, Thomas appears to be hitting his stride.

After giving up two goals in the first period against the Bruins on Thursday night, Thomas has surrendered two goals in the next 112-plus minutes off 63 credited shots on goal.

Thomas also stopped both shots faced in the shootout as the Wild went 0-for-2.

"I'm feeling more comfortable there, feeling progressively better,'' said Thomas, who missed a week after injuring his groin Oct. 8 in Philadelphia but returned to face his former teammates.

"I thought I was felt good through the preseason and even [the opener] in Dallas. Then I had a couple of rough games there and I had my little injury. Now, I can feel my movement getting better. There's nothing like a game. You can practice all you want. You need games.''

Although there was a report in Sunday's Ottawa Sun saying Tallon was willing to deal veteran players, that wouldn't come until the Panthers are out of playoff contention.

Florida may spin off players, sure, but it won't come until the trade deadline -- if at all.

Thomas, with a one-year deal, could be an attractive addition to a team in contention come the deadline if the Panthers are out of it. The Panthers, and Tallon, aren't thinking about that right now. If the Panthers are to crawl out of this early hole, Thomas can help.

"He's only played four or five games in the past 18 months,'' goalie coach Robb Tallas said. "It takes some time to settle in but he's doing it. He comes to the rink every night believing he's going to win. That gives our guys confidence. They know he's going to make that timely save. They can do what they need to do.''

-- One thing the Panthers have been really good at this season has been killing penalties. Minnesota went 1-for-5 on the power play Saturday with its lone goal of the game coming when a shot hit Jesse WInchester's stick and went past Thomas.

"Thomas' calm attitude sure helps things,'' Winchester said. "Their power play goal went off my stick. I went back to the net and he said 'no worries.' That's refreshing. I apologized after the period and he told me it was just a hockey play. You move on, get the next one. That's key for a growing team. It was nice to see.''

Winchester has been a nice addition to the Panthers penalty kill. When Florida was killing off a long 5-on-3 disadvantage in the third, Winchester was on the ice for a good portion of it as was Mike Weaver.

"It's great to have a goalie who can make the key saves for if not, you're not killing it off,'' said Weaver, who played 2:19 of Florida's 2:41 shorthanded time in the third Saturday. "I thought we played pretty tight in our zone and made the simple plays, sacrificed our bodies.''

Florida's penalty kill came into Sunday ranked 19th in the league after finishing dead last with a franchise-record low success rate last year. Florida has been successful on 81 percent of its penalty kills.

"The penalty killing was stupendous,'' coach Kevin Dineen said. "We had two 5-on-3s and they made big plays. .-.-. We had to do that part of the game and it's something we're taking a lot of pride in.''

-- Florida's power play finally got something going as it got the team's first goal in four games. The Panthers are 24th in the league scoring at a 12 percent clip.

"We got a power play goal, we killed off some penalties,'' Jonathan Huberdeau said. "We did everything [Saturday]. That's how we got the two points.''

-- The shootout goal scored by Brad Boyes on Saturday moved him into a tie for second on the active skater list, not first as was reported in the Miami Herald. Boyes has 32 goals in 71 shootout attempts; he's tied with Minnesota's Zach Parise and one back of Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk.


October 19, 2013

HAPPY HOMECOMING FOR BJUGSTAD: Wild Win for Mr. Minnesota ... Dineen Doesn't like Gophers ...

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

Saturday was a big night for 21-year-old center Nick Bjugstad as he squared off against his hometown Minnesota Wild for the first time.

Bjugstad was Minnesota's Mr. Hockey in his final season in high school and he also spent three seasons at the University of Minnesota.

A first round pick in 2010, Bjugstad made his debut with the Panthers last April after leaving Minnesota after his junior year. Bjugstad played in 11 games with the Panthers to end last season, but missed all of training camp after suffering a concussion on Sept. 8.

"I'm excited to play my hometown team because I know I have a lot of family and friends back home watching,'' said Bjugstad, who had an assist Thursday against the Bruins in his second game back from the concussion.

"I can't worry about who we're playing though. I have to worry about our gameplan and our style. I will have it the back of my head. I grew up watching these guys.''

Coach Kevin Dineen pulled Bjugstad aside for a long, private conversation after Friday's workout with some wondering if Bjugstad may be headed to the minors.

Dineen said that was not the case. Bjugstad started the night on a line with Shawn Matthias and Jesse Winchester.

"The gist of the conversation was for him to not be happy just being here,'' Dineen said. "I have no problems with his last couple games.''

Bjugstad was expected to start the season in the minors but made his return from a concussion last Tuesday in Nashville. Bjugstad only had one family member in town for Saturday's game but knows the Wild has sold quite a few tickets to Team Bjugstad in anticipation of Florida's visit to St. Paul next month.

"Everyone's watching this one on the tube,'' Bjugstad said, "but if I'm there next month, there are a lot of tickets sold just in case I am playing. That will be the big ticket for the home folks, if I make it there.''

-- Dineen joked that as a former player at the Denver University, he wasn't a big fan of Bjugstad's while he played at Minnesota.

"I'm a DU guy. I'm not big on the Gophers so that doesn't go far with me,'' Dineen said with a grin. "The stinkin' gophers, like on Caddyshack.''


Minnesota's Dan Heatley has had many memorable moments at the Panthers' Sunrise arena although he wasn't able to get out of his scoring slump Saturday.

The 32-year-old winger came into Saturday with 17 goals in his career against the Panthers but none in four games against them as a member of the Wild.

Heatley, who has yet to score a goal this season, was MVP of the 2003 All-Star Game held in Sunrise when the then-Atlanta Thrasher scored four goals in a losing effort. Heatley's 17 goals against Florida is most of any current Minnesota player.

-- Bjugstad isn't the only Florida player with ties to Minnesota as defenseman Tom Gilbert is a Minneapolis native who spent parts of the past two seasons playing for the Wild.

Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher spent a few seasons with the Panthers and was at one point the team's interim GM. Fletcher was featured in one of Florida's 20th anniversary 'good luck' videos shown during opening night.

-- Minnesota defenseman Keith Ballard was scratched Saturday for the third straight game after taking a puck to the face last Monday in Buffalo.

Ballard signed a six-year deal with the Panthers not long after coming over in from Phoenix in the Olli Jokinen trade on draft day in 2008. Ballard only spent two seasons with Florida, however, going to Vancouver in a deal that netted the Panthers a first-round pick (Quinton Howden).


PANTHERS WIN A WILD ONE: Thomas Stands Strong, Huberdeau and Boyes Shootout Minnesota 2-1

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

The Panthers have played so many overtime games the past few years, the team's Zamboni has flipped its odometer and is no longer under factory warranty.

Saturday, they went into overtime with Tim Thomas in goal for the first time. Not surprisingly, everything felt different.

Thomas earned his 31st career shootout win as he stopped both Minnesota shooters leading the Panthers to a much-needed 2-1 win. The victory halted Florida's three-game losing streak as Thomas rose to the occasion time after time.

The lone goal Thomas surrendered Saturday was a fluke. It came off the stick of one of his own teammates.

"When you win in a shootout, it's a true win for your team,'' said Thomas, who stopped 32 of 33 shots including the one-on-one shootout offerings from Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu.

"When you lose in a shootout, it's not really a true loss. Seriously, that's the way it is. We needed a win and we'll take it anyway we can. We won in a shootout, but we earned it through hard work. We need that output every night.''

Thomas moved into a tie with former Florida goalie Roberto Luongo for seventh on the active list with 31 shootout wins. Brad Boyes, who scored the second shootout goal to end it, is tied with Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk for tops among active shootout scorers with 33 goals.

As coach Kevin Dineen said, Thomas can be hit-or-miss in the shootout session although his winning percentage (53 percent) is much better than that of his new franchise (38 percent).

"Timmie stood tall when we needed him to,'' Dineen said, referring to a big save at the end of overtime. "You could see a little confidence when he's out there. That's why I elected to shoot second. He makes the save then [Jonathan] Huberdeau would work his magic.''

Said Thomas: "I haven't been in a shootout in a long time. I didn't think about that until right now. We had a lot of tight games in Boston, so it's something I'm relatively familiar with.''

The shootout is generally regarded as little more than a game-deciding exhibition, like deciding a tied major golf tournament at the local putt-putt joint.

For a Panthers team that had won just two of their first eight, whatever.

"I think we've been gripping hard and working hard,'' said Dineen, wearing a tie featuring tiny shamrocks he said was given to him by GM Dale Tallon.

"It hasn't been fun for us. We've been through the ringer here. Winning is a great cure for a lot of things.''

Dineen, as were most in the sparsely-filled arena, were a little perturbed at the way the Panthers were outplayed for big chunks of the game.

Florida changed up its pace in the third as Dineen played with a short bench. Boyes (four shifts) and Scott Gomez (three) didn't see much playing time in the final 25 minutes of the game although Boyes was a most obvious choice to come out for the shootout.

"It's a tale of two cities with our team,'' Dineen said. "I talked before the season about accountability before the season and guys who weren't playing well didn't see much ice in the third. I think that is starting to take affect, knowing this is a performance-based business. Do your job, you'll be OK.''

Minnesota and Florida played a pedestrian scoreless first before the Wild took a 1-0 lead in the second as a shot from Josh Brodin hit the stick of Florida's Jesse Winchester at 4:05 of the second.

The Panthers didn't tie the score until Tomas Fleischmann's fired a shot that rookie Aleksander Barkov clipped and put past Josh Harding (21 saves).

Florida and Thomas then had to do some heavy lifting by killing off a pair of penalties after Gomez and Brian Campbell both went to the penalty box 41 seconds apart.

Minnesota got a few good looks at Thomas but never got the puck past him despite having the two-man advantage as the game remained tied heading down the stretch.

Thomas made seven saves off Minnesota shots in the third period and overtime before Florida went 2-for-2 in the shootout with Huberdeau and Boyes both scoring.

Florida will take Sunday off and return to practice on Monday. The defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks visit Sunrise on Tuesday.

"We just needed the two points, get our third win and start winning at home,'' said Jonathan Huberdeau, who hit the game-winner in the shootout.


October 18, 2013

ODD COUPLE: Controversial 'Big Brother' Star Part of Florida Panthers LGBT Night

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

The Florida Panthers being hockey's first team to host a night for the LGBT community on Saturday has been well publicized.

A secondary promotion held by the team has not been.

At best it seems like an odd pairing.

Aside from the 'You Can Play Equality Night,' fans can pay $25 for a ticket to Saturday's game against the Minnesota Wild at BB&T Center in Sunrise as well as a pregame 'meet-and-greet' with Amanda Zuckerman and McCrae Olson from the CBS/Viacom reality show Big Brother 15.

Zuckerman, who resides in South Florida, was one of the Big Brother houseguests who made headlines during last summer's show for making off-putting racial and homophobic comments.

Panthers defenseman Brian Campbell taped a public service announcement in support of the 'You Can Play' initiative and its goal to let people of all sexual orientations feel welcome within the game of hockey.

Campbell adds that everyone from all walks of life should feel they can be part of his game.

"It's nice to be able to go about and publicize that everyone is welcome here,'' Campbell said. "I support that. But it's not just about gays and lesbians; everyone is welcome."

Matt Sacco, the Panthers' executive vice president in charge of communications, said the team condemns the things Zuckerman said on the show -- which were derogatory toward African-Americans, Puerto Ricans and Asians -- and that Zuckerman is a supporter of LGBT rights and wanted to be part of the team's equality night.

Zuckerman attended Florida's game on Thursday and told the Miami Herald she was trying to be funny and now regrets the way things came out. Zuckerman has made similar comments to news outlets since leaving the show.

"Unfortunately I have a crass sense of humor and that doesn't excuse some of the things I've said because they've hurt people,'' Zuckerman said. "I'm ashamed they came out of my mouth to be honest. I'm a huge advocate for the gays, parades, purple, black, green, yellow; it doesn't matter to me. I love people for who they are.

"People in the house knew that but I was portrayed differently which is unfortunate. All I can do now is apologize and move on from there. We're excited to be part of equality night.''

Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said Friday that he commends the NHL and the Panthers for taking steps to push the 'You Can Play' idea by hosting a special night Saturday.

"I'm a huge believer in diversity in this world,'' Dineen said. "We are a family that has strong faith and beliefs but we're very understanding of every situation and that's our world now. .-.-. Our world has changed. We are very respectful of that and extremely proud to be part of an organization, the NHL, that is on board with diversity and 'You Can Play'.''


CLEMMENSEN RETURNS TO MINORS: Panthers Send Goalie Back to San Antonio ... Wild Comes to Town

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

Florida's three-goalie experiment didn't last long at all as Scott Clemmensen was sent back to the Panthers' AHL affiliate in San Antonio.

Clemmensen, 33, missed all of training camp after having minor knee surgery in September. He has started one game in the AHL this season and relieved Jacob Markstrom in a loss at Tampa Bay last week. Markstrom is now backing up Tim Thomas.

"This is a flexible situation,'' coach Kevin Dineen said. "It's important for Clemmensen to get some games. We need depth at every single position and a goalie is no good if he's sitting every day.''



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

TV/Radio: Fox Sports Florida; WQAM-560

The series: Minnesota leads 9-3-1

The game: The Wild has lost two straight and has been outscored 7-2 in the process. Florida has only beaten the Wild twice in Sunrise (2001 and 2010). Center Nick Bjugstad is a former prep Mr. Minnesota hockey winner and faces his hometown team for the first time.

BERGENHEIM STILL OUT: Dineen Says He's 'Worried' About Panthers Winger

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

By late last week it appeared Sean Bergenheim's road back from injury was close to being over. Bergenheim's work load in practice had increased and he was working with Florida's top forwards for the first time this season.

Bergenheim's return date is now anyone's guess.

On Friday, Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said he "worried" about Bergenheim's career as the 29-year-old remains working with a physical therapist in Toronto whom Bergenheim's agent recommended.

"I'm worried about the guy first as his coach and I worry about him as a player,'' Dineen said. "It's been an extremely long time off. I understand this is a tough game we play. He needs to be physically involved, be active. I'm worried he's going to come back and he can't feel his way back into the NHL.

"I have guys here with bumps and bruises and are playing hurt every night. You're not going to feel 100 percent. He needs to get the medical situation straightened out. Once he does, he can be a valuable member of our team.''

Bergenheim had two surgeries in the past year to repair his hip and a sports hernia which are said to be related. Although he reported to camp on time, Bergenheim has been brought back slowly and started full practice sessions in the past two weeks.

Dineen said last week that Bergenheim was to see his surgeon when the team traveled to Nashville and perhaps receive medical clearance to play. Instead, Bergenheim left the team to work with a specialist in Ontario for what was supposed to be five days.

On Friday, Dineen said Bergenheim would remain away from the team for at least a few more days.

"He'll be back toward the end of the week,'' Dineen said. "This is something he believed could help him out. It's been an extremely long rehabilitation process.''

Bergenheim was part of a contentious medical grievance with the Panthers last year and when he won, he was granted his entire 2012-13 salary of $2.75 million.

The Panthers contended that Bergenheim was injured in Finland as he played in two games during the NHL lockout; Bergenheim's doctors said he had a pre-existing condition dating to his 2011-12 season with the Panthers.

Although both sides have said there is no ill will from the hearings and that it was simply the cost of doing business, it appears Dineen is losing his patience with Bergenheim.

"He's an extremely long time removed from the surgeries,'' Dineen said. "He needs to come back in a healthy frame of mind ready to help the hockey team.

"We've waited an extremely long time and we've been patient and very understanding. We continue to be that way. We just need him to come back and give us some of the energy we know he can and stop worrying about anything about playing hockey.''

Of course, if Bergenheim returns in good health, the Panthers would love to have him back in the lineup. In his one full season with Florida in 2011-12, he scored a career-high 17 goals in 62 games.

Bergenheim, who scored nine playoff goals for the Lightning in 2011, had three goals and three assists in Florida's seven-game series against the Devils in 2012. Bergenheim is scheduled to make $2.75 million both this season and next after signing a four-year deal with the Panthers on July 1, 2011.

"He's been gone so long I haven't given it much thought,'' Dineen said. "We had a snapshot in training camp that he was getting close. Now it's a prolonged thing. He's totally off the radar right now until he becomes what I consider a viable option.''

Photo by JOE RIMKUS JR./Miami Herald Staff


October 17, 2013

BRUINS BEAR DOWN ON THOMAS: Reilly Smith Scores with 58.7 Seconds Left, Boston Downs Panthers 3-2

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

New Panthers goalie Tim Thomas said he approached Thursday's game like any other. His shaking body in the moments after a hard-fought 3-2 loss to his former teammates belied Thomas' words.

This one stung.

"It hurts the way ended up,'' Thomas said minutes after Reilly Smith -- one of the few Bruins on the ice Thomas hadn't shared a locker room with -- trickled a backhanded shot through for the game winner.

"I really wanted the guys who played in front of me to be rewarded.''

Thomas turned away a lot of pucks in his seven-plus seasons with the Bruins -- he's credited with over 12,000 saves wearing the spoked-B -- yet but it didn't take long for them to turn the tables on their Stanley Cup winning goalie.

Thomas may not have looked like his vintage self early, but he sure did as the game went on. Thomas, back after missing a week with a groin injury, made 37 saves as he kept the Panthers in the game. At times, Thomas was all Florida had.

"If it wasn't for Timmie, the game wouldn't have been this close'' said Kris Versteeg, who scored Florida's first goal in the second period to cut the Panthers' deficit in half. "He played for great for us.''

Boston took the first lead 3:45 into the game when Daniel Paille charged through the Florida defense and roofed a shot past Thomas.

The Bruins' second goal of the first came on the power play as Dougie Hamilton flung a shot from 55 feet away. Thomas, blocked down low by old pal Zdeno Chara, never saw this puck coming and it was 2-0 with 7:13 left in the first.

"That first may have been our worst period of the year which was really surprising to us,'' coach Kevin Dineen said of a rough opening period for the Panthers, one in which they were outshot 15-8 and didn't challenge Tuukka Rask with a shot in the final nine minutes of the frame.

"We played well the rest of the game. We pushed hard in the third, carried some momentum. .-.-. We ended up fighting back the rest of the night. When we play hard and a workmanlike game, we can play with anyone in the league. Tonight's another hard lesson that it needs to be a full 60 minute game.''

Florida hung on thanks to Thomas and crawled back into it when Versteeg fired a shot from the right circle with Tomas Kopecky slamming into Rask at just the right time.

The Panthers didn't get much else going, but tied it with six minutes remaining as Jesse Winchester -- out of the NHL last year -- fired a shot at Rask then stayed after it. Winchester saw the puck crawl away from Rask and he pounced, chopping it into the net.

Florida played tough defense for much of the second and third to tie the score.

"It's unfortunate the way it ended,'' Versteeg said. "It's a [crummy] feeling to lose, especially when you come back like that. Hopefully we can change that Saturday.''

Thursday's game looked like it was heading to overtime -- somewhere the Panthers have yet to be this season -- before Smith backhanded a soft shot that Thomas called a "tough one."

As the Bruins celebrated, the Panthers hung their heads. Thursday's loss was Florida's sixth out of eight this season and third straight since upsetting the Penguins in last Friday's home opener.

"It certainly was different playing against guys who you played with for so long,'' Thomas said. "I tried treating it as another game. But having said that, it was a big game for me coming back after awhile and playing guys .-.-. There's was a big to-do about it. I was a little nervous today, but not too bad.''

--The announced attendance for the defending Eastern Conference champions was a disappointing 14,440.


TIM THOMAS RETURNS FOR BRUINS: Florida Panthers Face Defending East Champs Tonight

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

Tim Thomas will make what he hopes is a triumphant return to the Panthers net tonight when the Panthers play host to the Bruins.

"It's a good thing, a good storyline and it's exciting for our team to have Tim in net,'' Dineen said after this morning's skate in Sunrise. "He's been out for a week and I think you always get excited to play your old team. I get excited when we play the Whalers. No, it's a good thing.''

The Panthers raised some eyebrows Wednesday when they tweeted that Thomas would be in goal against his former team.

Dineen said today that he had nothing to do with that tweet -- as we expected -- although he wasn't against it.

"That was the first time someone else announced who would start and you know what? I'm excited,'' Dineen said. "Our fanbase, to see Tim, I think there's a great buzz coming out of New England as he faces his former team. There's no problems with me there.''

Dineen knows the Panthers have been selling this game for weeks and need Thomas in net to sell more tickets.

That said, Dineen said Thomas wouldn't be in there if he wasn't healthy.

"I wouldn't play him if he wasn't [100 percent],'' Dineen said. "He had two good practices with the team, worked on the ice when we were in Nashville. He's ready to go.''

The Panthers have been pulling out all the stops in trying to get more Boston fans in the building. Although team president Michael Yormark tweeted "support your cats tonight .-.-. We need you there," this morning, the team is obviously pandering to Boston fans to fill the arena.

The team not only has a three-game 'Tim Thomas Pack' which includes tickets to both Boston games this season, but the team will put tonight's Red Sox-Tigers playoff game on televisions throughout the concourse.

NHL games, as well as the Heat preseason game and the Hurricanes' game in North Carolina, will be available in Club Red and in the Duffy's bar atop the arena.

Thomas left Florida's game in Philadelphia last week with a slight groin pull. Thomas didn't practice the following Wednesday in Tampa but has been on the ice since. He didn't travel to Nashville but stayed behind and continued to workout.

Thomas told the Panthers PR staff on Wednesday that he wouldn't be talking to the media until postgame tonight.

That didn't prevent a large crush of media from descending on the Panthers locker room this morning. Tim Thomas taking on the Bruins is a big deal in South Florida, Boston -- and beyond.

"Everyone has to step it up tonight, this one is going to be on the highlight reel,'' Scottie Upshall said.

"We have to play well defensively for him. If we play good defense and do simple things, he's going to look good and we're going to look good. We're playing one of the best teams in the league. Hopefully we have a good outcome.''

-- Dineen said the Panthers would continue to carry three goalies at least through tonight before deciding what to do. Scott Clemmensen could be back in San Antonio if Thomas looks sharp out there tonight.

Jacob Markstrom will be tonight's backup with Clemmensen sitting this one out.

-- There was an incorrect report out there this morning stating that defenseman Ed Jovanovski had been taken off the injured list. Jovanovski says he hopes to be back in the next few weeks.

-- Upshall said it sucked to be a healthy scratch against Nashville on Tuesday and that he thinks he needs to become "a pest." Upshall is back in the lineup tonight with Krys Barch and Ryan Whitney apparently the scratches.

"My play warranted being a healthy scratch,'' said Upshall, who had an assist in the season opener. "I have to come out tonight and be the best player on the ice. That's what they expect. The coaches want me to be an impact player and I haven't been. I feel great.''

Photo via floridapanthers.com