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19 posts from April 2015

April 30, 2015

OKC MOVES ON: Barons sweep San Antonio Rampage in three ... Panthers AHL affiliation now moves east to Portland, Maine

From the Rampage:



San Antonio Falls to Oklahoma City in Three Games in Western Conference Quarterfinals


SAN ANTONIO (April 29, 2015) – The San Antonio Rampage scored the game-tying goal with 59 seconds left in regulation, but fell in overtime to the Oklahoma City Barons 2-1 in front of 7,516 at the AT&T Center on Wednesday night. The loss marks the end of the Western Conference Quarterfinals for the Rampage, as the Barons will advance in the Calder Cup Playoffs, taking the best-of-five series 3-0.


After a scoreless first period in which the Barons outshot the Rampage 16-5, Oklahoma City got the first tally of the game, as Kellen Jones converted off a Rampage turnover and beat Dan Ellis at the 18:51mark of the middle frame.


The Rampage pulled Ellis for an extra skater with time winding down and Dylan Olsen scored the equalizer with 59 seconds left in regulation to force overtime.


Jujhar Khaira punched the puck past Ellis just 5:01into the extra frame to give the Barons the 2-1 win and end the season for the Rampage.


Ellis finished with 36-of-38 saves and both teams were scoreless on three power-play opportunities.



After combining for 15 total shots through the first two periods, the Rampage put 19 pucks on net in the third period, resulting in the equalizing goal to send the game to overtime.



Three of the Rampage’s four lines remained unchanged from Saturday’s game. Kyle Rau made his professional playoff debut, skating with Corban Knight and Wade Megan on the fourth line.


Shane O’Brien was back in the lineup after sitting out the last game as the result of a one-game suspension. Ellis made his second start in net of the series.

April 26, 2015

BIG TROUBLE IN OKC: Rampage heading back to San Antonio but down 2-0 in opening series





San Antonio Trails Western Conference Quarterfinal Series 2-0


OKLAHOMA CITY (April 25, 2015) – The San Antonio Rampage fell to the Oklahoma City Barons 4-3 in overtime in front of 2,135 at Cox Convention Center Saturday night. The Rampage now trail the Barons 2-0 in the Western Conference Quarterfinals, as the series heads to San Antonio for Game 3 Wednesday night.


The Rampage scored two goals in the first period and outshot the Barons 18-9 to take a 2-0 lead into the first intermission. The first came off the stick of Connor Brickley and the second was a power-play goal from Corban Knight, marking the first AHL postseason goals for each player.


John McFarland extended San Antonio’s lead to three, skating coast-to-coast and slipping the puck through the legs of Laurent Brossoit at 6:44 of the second period. That ended the night for Brossoit, who was replaced by Richard Bachman after allowing three goals on 24 shots.


The Barons got on the board with a power-play goal late in the middle frame, as Ryan Hamilton converted off a cross-ice pass from Andrew Miller, flipping the puck over the shoulder of Michael Houser to make it a 3-1 game at 17:27.


Jordan Oesterle made it a one-goal game with another power play goal late in the third period, and Matthew Ford scored the Barons’ third power play tally of the game, tipping in a Jason Williams one-timer with 36 seconds left in regulation to send the game to overtime.


Just over four minutes into the extra frame, Connor Jones beat Houser to secure the win for Oklahoma City and give the Barons a 2-0 series lead heading back to San Antonio.



With a goal and an assist on the night, Brickley led all Rampage skaters in points and earned the Third Star of the Game.


The Silver and Black outshot the Barons 40-39, but were outshot 16-9 in a crucial third period in which Oklahoma City erased a two-goal deficit to force overtime.


The Barons scored all three of their regulation goals on the power play.



The Rampage line combinations remained the same as they were in Game 1 of the series. Dylan Olsen drew into the lineup with Shane O’Brien serving a one-game suspension for a boarding penalty on Ryan Hamilton in Thursday night’s game.


Michael Houser made his first AHL playoff start, as Dan Ellis was out with a minor injury.



The Rampage return home for Game 3 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals on Wednesday, April 29 at 7 p.m. at the AT&T Center. Tickets are available and can be purchased by calling a Rampage representative at 210-444-5554 or online at sarampage.com.


# # www.sarampage.com # #


April 24, 2015

BAD START: Rampage open postseason with loss to OKC Barons

From the San Antonio Rampage:

OKLAHOMA CITY (April 23, 2015) – The San Antonio Rampage allowed four goals in the third period, and the Oklahoma City Barons took Game 1 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals with a 5-2 victory in front of 1,393 at Cox Convention Center Thursday night.
The third-seeded Rampage made their first playoff appearance since the 2011-12 season and fourth in franchise history, while the sixth seeded Barons made their fifth straight postseason appearance.
Brad Hunt tallied the first goal of the game when he flipped the puck past Dan Ellis on the power play to give the Barons a 1-0 lead at 12:04 of the opening period. Vincent Trocheck scored the equalizer just 3:52 later when he shot the puck off the post past Laurent Brossoit’s left side. Shane O’Brien and Garrett Wilson picked up the helpers on the goal, and the Rampage and Barons headed into the first intermission tied at one.
Rocco Grimaldi took a pass from Jonathan Racine and slid it into the net to give the Silver and Black their first lead of the game and the only tally of the second period at 8:01.
Joshua Winquist picked up his first professional playoff goal with a shot from the circle to tie the game at two near the midway point of the third period. The Barons took a 3-2 lead when Ryan Hamilton converted off a Rampage turnover, and Connor Jones and Matthew Ford each scored empty-net goals to give the Barons a 5-2 victory over the Rampage.
Ellis, in his first postseason appearance since April 13, 2011 when he played for the Anaheim Ducks (NHL), made 33 saves on 36 shots stopping all 15 shots faced in the second period. Brossoit turned away 29-of-31 shots, and the Rampage were unable to capitalize on four power-play opportunities.

Grimaldi and Trocheck both recorded their first playoff goals in their professional playoff debut, and all but three Rampage players registered a shot, led by Wade Megan with four.
The Rampage collected 25 penalty minutes in the game and Oklahoma City scored two goals on five opportunities with the extra man.
“We have to be better. We definitely can be better, and we’ll regroup and come back on Saturday.” – Rampage coach Tom Rowe
Wilson, Trocheck and Dany Heatley skated as the Rampage’s first line and Connor Brickley, Brett Olson and Mark Mancari composed the second line. Grimaldi centered John McFarland and Quinton Howden on a third line, and Megan, Corban Knight and Logan Shaw made up a fourth line. Greg Zanon and Alex Petrovic, O'Brien and Jesse Blacker and Racine and Blake Parlett composed San Antonio’s defensive pairings.
The Rampage face the Barons in Game 2 of the conference quarterfinals Saturday at 7:00 p.m. at Cox Convention Center before returning to San Antonio for Game Three Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. at the AT&T Center. Playoff tickets are available and can be purchased by calling a Rampage sales representative at (210) 444-5554 or online atsarampage.com.






April 23, 2015

HEADING TO CALDER: Florida's Aaron Ekblad one of three finalists for NHL's top rookie honors

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

The Panthers are in line to have their second NHL Rookie of the Year in the past three seasons as defenseman Aaron Ekblad was named one of three finalists for the Calder Trophy on Thursday.

Ekblad, 19, was the top pick of the 2014 NHL Draft and played in all but one of Florida's 82 games.

Calgary's Johnny Gaudreau and Ottawa's Mark Stone -- both forwards -- are the other two Calder finalists. The winner will be announced at the NHL Awards Show in Las Vegas in June.

Nashville forward Filip Forsberg, considered a favorite to win the award early in the season, didn't finish in the top three in voting.

Ekblad, who will play for Team Canada at the World Championships in Czech Republic next month, wasn't available for comment Thursday but spoke of the possibility of winning the award in the final week of Florida's season.

The award is voted on by the Professional Hockey Writers' Association. Jonathan Huberdeau is the Florida's lone winner of the award, taking it in 2013.

"It would be great, it would be awesome,'' Ekblad said late last month.

"I know for a fact the guys going after this trophy are great guys. Best of luck to whomever wins it.''

Ekblad set Florida's franchise records for goals (12), assists (27) and points (39) by a rookie defenseman. Ekblad's 39 points were two shy of the NHL record for an 18-year-old defenseman (he turned 19 on Feb. 7), set by Hall of Famer Bobby Orr -- his agent -- in 1966-67 (41).

April 12, 2015

BRANDON PIRRI FOR CY YOUNG: Panthers' sniper ends season 22-2, has biggest gap between goals and assists since roaring 20s

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

Florida GM Dale Tallon joked that Brandon Pirri is gunning for the 2015 Cy Young Award as the sniper put up numbers befitting a top-end starting pitcher: 22-2.
Of course, that's goals and assists not wins and losses. Numbers this lopsided may have been a commonplace in the old Original Six era of the NHL but sure aren't seen in hockey these days and gives Pirri one of the strangest stat lines in the history of the NHL.
According to STATS, Pirri had the biggest gap between goals-to-assists since Cy Denneny had 22 goals and just one assist for Ottawa in 1923-24.
"It's kind of strange and I can't even explain it,'' said Pirri, who had 13 goals and 12 assists for the Panthers and Blackhawks last season.
"Both of my assists weren't even passes. It's very strange. Next year I'll get some more assists.''


JAGR RETURNS FOR MORE: Florida Panthers sign Jaromir Jagr to one-year extension


TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards
As the Panthers' equipment staff packed away the final pieces of the locker room Sunday afternoon, Jaromir Jagr was on his phone in the hallway.
A deal to keep the future first-ballot Hall of Famer in South Florida for at least another season was done.
General manager Dale Tallon announced the Panthers signed Jagr to a one-year contract after just about everyone -- save for Jagr and Tallon -- had departed the BB&T Center for the summer.
"This team has a big future,'' Jagr said. "Hopefully I can be part of it.''
Florida's offseason, which likely won't be as busy as past years, was off to a pretty good start.
"Once he got here, and he saw all the talent, he got on board and was really excited about it,'' Tallon said. "It's win-win for everyone.''
Florida acquired Jagr, 43, on Feb. 26 in a deal with New Jersey, sending a third and a fifth round draft pick to the Devils -- basically what the Panthers got back in trading away Tomas Fleischmann and Sean Bergenheim.
Jagr was scheduled to become a free agent on July 1 but after Saturday's 3-2 victory over New Jersey in the season finale, Jagr indicated he wasn't going anywhere just yet.
"First off, I'm glad I got traded here. I didn't really know how good this team is,'' Jagr said Sunday.
"A lot of people thought I was done. Those young guys gave me extra energy, extra life. I'm glad to be coming back next year.''
Tallon made signing Jagr a priority and put things in motion when he met with Jagr's agent in Montreal last month.
A big reason why Tallon was in a hurry to sign Jagr was his revitalized play alongside youngsters
Sasha Barkov (19) and Jonathan Huberdeau (21).
That trio was on fire in the final five weeks of the season as Jagr had six goals and 18 points in his 20 games with the Panthers; Barkov had seven goals and 15 points during that span and Huberdeau had six goals and 21 points.
"It's great for this franchise to get a superstar of his ability and his leadership quality, you can see the young guys how much they look up to him and respect him,'' Tallon said.
"The play of Huberdeau and Barkov really improved. Nick Bjugstad is excited to follow in his footsteps. He's a great role model for our guys. It's a great piece to have, gives us stability. Shame on me for not trading for him sooner.''
Jagr's star power -- he won the Stanley Cup in 1991 and '92 with the Penguins before Florida even had an NHL hockey team -- was evident the day Tallon made the deal.

Although he has one of the more recognizable names in all of sports, Jagr has been able to blend in and not cause too much of a stir when he's out in the public due the nature of the South Florida hockey market.
With the Panthers hoping they're on the verge of becoming a perennial playoff contender -- "I'm excited about the next decade,'' Tallon said -- Jagr may find things different around town next year.
"Let's change it,'' said Jagr, who is fourth on the NHL all-time list in scoring, fifth in goals and 11th in games played.
"People have started to realize, at least what I heard, was this is a different team, these are the different Florida Panthers. We have a lot of talent, a lot of speed. We can beat anybody.''


April 11, 2015

GOING OUT ON A HIGH NOTE: Panthers top Devils to win season finale 3-2, make 25-point improvement from last year ... Jaromir Jagr nets winner, says contract with Cats is close to being done ... Aaron Ekblad to Team Canada

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards
With both teams staring down another long summer, Saturday's season finale between the Panthers and visiting Devils could have been a sloppy mess.
Although it was no masterpiece, Florida's 3-2 victory gave it a push into next season and a sense of a little accomplishment.
Not only did the Panthers win the final two games, but their 25-point improvement from last year's 29th place finish was biggest in the league.
Florida ended with 91 points -- only the fifth time the Panthers have eclipsed the 90-point mark in franchise history.
"We weren't knocked out until Game 79,'' general manager Dale Tallon said. "We're not happy about it, but we're going in the right direction.''
Said coach Gerard Gallant: "It wasn't a meaningful game in the standings but we worked hard. We deserved to end the season in the right way.''
One of Tallon's biggest offseason moves may be resigning ageless Jaromir Jagr to either a one or two-year deal.
Saturday, Jagr pulled in a long rebound from a Dmitry Kulikov shot and out-muscled Cory Schneider to put in the game-winning goal with 7:37 left -- less than 90 seconds after the Devils had tied it.
Afterward, Jagr smiled when he and Tallon joked in the locker room and continued to express his desire to remain with the Panthers.
A deal could be made before Jagr, 43, heads back to Czech Republic.
"We're getting close; I want $10 million and they're giving me $1 million,'' joked Jagr, who made $3.5 million in base salary this season.
"It's pretty close, it's almost done. I think it's close and I feel like the team wants me here and I love this team. It's going to happen pretty soon.''
With a playoff spot up for grabs in Tampa and Buffalo, Florida and Jersey played a uninterested and scoreless opening period.
Things changed in the second with Jordin Tootoo putting the Devils on the board 1:50 in. Dave Bolland tied it after taking a crisp pass from Brad Boyes on the doorstep and putting it past Schneider.
"You don't want to go out with a loss,'' Bolland said. "We had a good improvement and we're disappointed we didn't make the playoffs. But we improved. That's what we're working for.''
Florida led for the first time when Jonathan Huberdeau followed Jagr's rebound and scored. With the game tied at 2, Jagr jumped all over Kulikov's rebound and beat his former teammate.
"These are tough games to play with both teams being out of the playoffs,'' said Jagr, acquired in a deal with Jersey on Feb. 26. "We wanted to win it but it was tough to play. If you're here you should enjoy it. I think we did.''
Al Montoya started the final game of the season after missing the previous five weeks with a groin injury.
Montoya replaced an injured Roberto Luongo during a game against Toronto on March 3. Montoya then got hurt himself but was forced to continue on until replaced by Luongo.
"This team worked hard in front of me,'' Montoya said after making 31 saves for his first win since March 1 against Tampa Bay. "I wanted to give them a chance to win and they gave me that chance.''
-- Steven Kampfer injured a knee when he was taken out by Steve Bernier during the third period. Kampfer had to be helped off the ice by Jussi Jokinen and trainer Dave Zenobi but seemed in good spirits as he visited with family after the game.
"I'll be fine,'' Kampfer said as he wore a new knee brace.
Bernier was slapped with a kneeing major as well as a game misconduct. Alex Petrovic was hit with a misconduct for fighting in defense of his teammate.
-- Erik Gudbranson was out after being knocked out in the first period of Thursday's game with Kampfer replacing him.
-- Gallant started veterans Tomas Kopecky and Scottie Upshall in what could be their final game with the team. Both signed four-year deals with Florida during its roster overhaul in 2011.
-- Tallon confirmed rookie Aaron Ekblad has been invited to join Team Canada for the upcoming World Championships.
-- Jagr's goal was his sixth with the Panthers and first without Sasha Barkov or Huberdeau assisting on it.
"I can do it without them, see?,'' Jagr said with a grin.
"I have to negotiate; those guys are slowing me down.''


April 10, 2015

COMING TO A CLOSE: Roberto Luongo may be Florida Panthers MVP, but Dmitry Kulikov has strong comeback season ... Erik Gudbranson likely out v Devils as Al Montoya looks for final start of the year

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

As the Panthers play their final game of the season Saturday against New Jersey, there isn't much debate who their Most Valuable Player was in 2014-15.

Goalie Roberto Luongo gave the Panthers a chance to win almost every game, many nights keeping Florida in the mix despite its lack of scoring.
On Thursday, the team honored Luongo with a pregame ceremony to celebrate his 400th NHL victory -- 141 coming with the Panthers -- before he went out and made 34 saves in a 4-2 win over the Bruins.
"He's played great hockey, has been our MVP, our best player most nights,'' coach Gerard Gallant said Friday morning.
"He's everything I could ask for as a coach. He's been great.''
If there was an award for most improved player on the Panthers, a strong case has to be made for defenseman Dmitry Kulikov.

At the start of last season, Kulikov was struggling on both ends of the ice, coughing up the puck in his own zone while having defensive lapses in the other.
Things got so bad then-coach Peter Horachek benched Kulikov as rumors of an eminent trade swirled.
General manager Dale Tallon denied Kulikov was headed out of South Florida -- the Avalanche were mentioned as a probable landing spot -- and things suddenly started to get better.
Kulikov was a much stronger player in the second half of last season than he was in the first and that carried over this year.
"He's definitely become more consistent, more steady and can handle any minutes you give him,'' Brian Campbell said. "He came into the league pretty early and has done some good things. I think that's going to continue.''
The Panthers not only didn't trade Kulikov during the offseason but signed him to a three-year deal worth $13 million taking him through his first year of free agency.
Tallon recognized the talent the strong-skating Kulikov possesses and this season, the defensive miscues were rare. Handling the puck became strength, not a weakness.
"I think it's been a solid year on the defensive end, learning from a veteran like Willie Mitchell has helped me more solid, more responsible,'' said Kulikov, who has 21 points in 72 games and is a minus-1 after being minus-26 last year.
"I feel like I had a good NHL season. It wasn't great but it wasn't bad. I'm going to work on being better. I want to be great. I don't know what it's going to take but I'm going to work on it."
Kulikov is, somewhat surprisingly, Florida's most tenured player within the organization. A first round pick in 2009, Kulikov is on his fourth head coach and plenty of new teammates and defensive partners.
Kulikov plans on playing for Russia in the World Championships then spend a month in Toronto working at Gary Roberts' camp before coming back to Florida in August.
"I think it's great any time you get a chance to represent your country,'' Kulikov said. "You want to give it your all. It's the dream of every kid.''
Defenseman Eric Gudbranson was slammed hard into the boards by Boston's Brett Connolly early in the first period Thursday and left the game.
Gudbranson didn't skate Friday and is likely to miss Saturday's finale against the Devils. Steven Kampfer will replace him in the lineup.
-- Players who appear in 1,000 NHL games are awarded a silver stick from the league. Thursday, the Panthers presented Luongo with a silver goalie stick for his 400th win. The stick was as heavy as it looked, apparently.

"I probably hurt my shoulder again just lifting it,'' Luongo joked.
-- Thursday was likely Luongo's final appearance of the season with backup Al Montoya ready to play. Montoya has missed the past month with a groin injury.
"He's been working hard,'' Gallant said. "If things work out, it'll be good to see him play a game before the season is over.''
-- Saturday will be Jaromir Jagr's first game against the Devils since being traded from New Jersey to Florida in February. Jagr scored in Jersey's 3-1 win over the visiting Panthers on Jan. 31.

"I didn't have any control [in being traded to Florida] and maybe I'm happy I didn't,'' Jagr said. "Maybe if I would I would have made a different choice. Sometimes the best things happen when you just let go.''
When, where: 7 p.m.; BB&T Center, Sunrise
TV/Radio: FSFL; WQAM 560
Series: New Jersey leads 51-27-7
Noteworthy: The Devils have beaten the Panthers in both meetings -- including a 5-1 win in Florida's home opener. The Panthers say they are giving out $50,000 worth of prizes in Saturday's 'Fan Appreciation Night.'

Silver goalie stick, Jagr with Aaron Ekblad and Sasha Barkov photos courtesy of @FlaPanthers








April 09, 2015

PAY IT FORWARD: Panthers hurt Bruins playoff hopes with 4-2 win

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

The Florida Panthers won't be in the playoffs again this year, but they may have just knocked the Bruins out of it as well.
Thanks in part to Thursday's 4-2 loss at BB&T Center, the Bruins no longer hold a postseason spot nor control their own fate.
The Panthers sure liked playing the spoiler this time around as they got a little revenge after Boston all but ended their own playoff hopes last month.
"It's not sweet because we're still not in the playoffs,'' said goalie Roberto Luongo, who moved into a tie for 10th all-time with his 401st career victory after making 34 saves.
"But they did it to us last week. It was a heartbreaker so it was nice to return the favor. But we're still on the outside looking in. We'll take it and get ready for the last one and move on.''
With Ottawa beating the Rangers and Boston getting none of the four available points on its back-to-back set in Washington and Sunrise, the Bruins are in trouble.
Boston finds itself two points back of Ottawa for the first spot and one behind Pittsburgh for the second and last wild card position.

Thursday, it was a Boston boy who all but did them in.

Jimmy Hayes, who grew up not far from the Garden, scored after Jussi Jokinen (not from Boston) picked off a puck in the Bruins' zone and slid over a nice pass with 4:46 left.
Boston had clawed back to a one-goal deficit on a sweet Brad Marchant goal moments before but Hayes' goal all but put the Bruins' fire out
"We wanted to end on a high note,'' said Hayes, who now has two goals in the past 23 games.
"We showed we can still compete, still play hard. I'm a Florida Panther so no emotions there. We made it tougher on them, but tonight was about us.''
Boston took the initial lead with 4:48 left in the second but Florida answered on a Sasha Barkov wrister three minutes later.
The Panthers opened things up in the third off goals from Jonathan Huberdeau (off goalie Tuukka Rask's head) and Brad Boyes before the Bruins closed to one with 6:45 remaining.
Luongo, honored by the team in a pregame ceremony for winning No. 400, was solid throughout and stopped 16 of 17 shots in the third.
"They have to win now, but this was more about us showing up now that we're out of it,'' said former Boston enforcer Shawn Thornton.
"It's about playing hockey the right way. If we do that, we'll get results. The other stuff is out of our control. .-.-. I really wanted to win this game. It feels good in here.''
Al Montoya was back on the Florida bench for the first time since being hurt along with Luongo against Toronto on March 3.
With Montoya healthy enough to play -- and expected to start Saturday's finale against the Devils -- Dan Ellis was sent back to AHL San Antonio.
Ellis was 4-3-1 with a 91 percent save rate in his fill-in role and is eligible to participate in the upcoming AHL playoffs.
-- By assisting on Barkov's goal, Jaromir Jagr took sole possession of fourth place on the all-time scoring list with 1,799 points.
Jagr's assist on Huberdeau's wild shot gave him 1,800 career points and tied him for sixth on the assist list with 1,079.
-- Equipment manager Chris Moody worked his 1,000th NHL game Thursday and Florida players honored the milestone by wearing baseball caps with 1,000 stitched on the front and Moody's nickname on the back.
After the game, they presented Moody -- in his 10th season with the Panthers -- with a Breitling designer watch.


April 07, 2015

TOMAS KOPECKY: Veteran forward is Florida Panthers' nominee for the Bill Masterton Trophy

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards
Tomas Kopecky was struggling to score and going through one of the toughest seasons of his 10 years in the NHL with the Panthers last year.
He hoped a trip to Sochi to play with his Slovakian national team would help his game when he came back to South Florida.
It didn't.
Kopecky was taken out during an game at the Olympics on an elbow to the head from Slovenia's Sabahudin Kovacevic; the hit was so brutal, Kovacevic was suspended.
Kopecky eventually returned to Florida but the symptoms from the severe concussion remained.
Kopecky was unable to do any physical exersion for months and he lost 20 pounds off an already slender frame. When he got the all clear from doctors to start working out, he only had this season in mind.
"It's always hard coming back from an injury no matter what it is,'' Kopecky said Tuesday.
"With a concussion, you never know if it will last a couple weeks or a couple of months. It was a couple two, three months. I was still getting headaches and months later, sleeping nine or 10 hours a night and waking up feeling like I just played in a game. It's tough when you're doing the right things and can't recover. It's not in your hands.''
For his perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to the game of hockey, Kopecky is the Panthers' nominee for the annual Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy by the Florida chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association.
"I just love hockey and it doesn't matter what injury you have, having the support of family, teammates and trainers was huge,'' Kopecky said.
Although Kopecky has struggled at times this season and has been a healthy scratch by coach Gerard Gallant 12 times in the past two months, his play on Florida's fourth line and penalty kill units has been counted on.
"He's been good most of the year and I've been happy with him,'' Gallant said. "This is well deserved for him. He's a good veteran, a good leader on this team. I really like him. He's had some tough times and I've had to sit him. But he's a pro. He's won the Cup a few times and always comes to work.''
A pending free agent, Kopecky said he hopes to return to the Panthers and help the team return to the postseason next year. "It's fun to be part of this,'' he said.
Kopecky, who led Florida in goals during the lockout-shortened 2013 season, was a key piece of the Panthers 2012 Southeast Division championship team.
"I came here to help the team win and I don't know if I've done my job,'' said Kopecky, who has six goals in 112 games since scoring a career-high 15 in 47 games during the 2013 season.
"The time has really flown by. It's been a great four years. There's a lot of good things going for this organization. You see [Huberdeau and Barkov] becoming superstars.''


AL MONTOYA: Closer to a return for the Florida Panthers


TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

Al Montoya went through another practice Tuesday and says he would like to play in Florida's season finale Saturday against the Devils as Gallant said Roberto Luongo would play Thursday against Boston.
"This is a tough time of the season to go down and I've been focused on getting healthy and hopefully playing in that last game,'' said Montoya, who hurt his groin against Toronto last month. "I'm feeling better every day. I just want to give the team a chance to win if I get in there. I would like to play, off course, but it's not up to me.''
Montoya said the game in which both he and Luongo got hurt at the same time was "brutal" and he confirmed that he basically returned to the game skating on one leg.
The other option, at least at the time he initially returned to the game, was for Florida to suit up center Derek MacKenzie and put him in goal.
"I couldn't really put weight down on one leg,'' Montoya said.
"I knew the circumstances and what was our option, MacKenzie going in the net? At the end of the day I wasn't going to let that happen. It was great Lou came back and did what he did. It was a tough situation. For me, the past month has been tough. It was unfortunate timing.''


JAROMIR JAGR: Chances of returning to Florida Panthers are good

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

Jaromir Jagr, 43, told the Czech Sport Daily "the chances that I will sign new contract with Florida are pretty good.”
Tuesday, he expanded on those comments saying he is happy in South Florida and likes the future progression of the Panthers.
"The Czech people follow me a lot so the Panthers have become very popular there,'' Jagr said. "I love it here and there's interest on both sides. I think my agent [Petr Svoboda] is going to meet with Dale [Tallon]. I don't want to push things and we have a lot of time.
"What's not to like about it here? I'm still pretty confident with my game and think I can get better. If I come back, I know I'm going to come back stronger. I'm not going to come back just to play, I'm going to be the best I can. There are a lot of young guys here.''
Jagr also said he expected to join the Czech national team for the upcoming World Championships held in Prague although with the bigger ice sheet, he hopes to just play third or fourth line minutes.
Rookie defenseman Aaron Ekblad also said he would accept an invitation from Team Canada if it was offered.
"Anytime you get a chance to play for Team Canada it's an honor and a privilege,'' Ekblad said.



April 06, 2015

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

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

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

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


April 05, 2015

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

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

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


April 04, 2015

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

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

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

April 03, 2015

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

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




April 02, 2015

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

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roberto Luongo bike photo courtesy @FlaPanthers


April 01, 2015

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

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


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

TWITTER: @GeorgeRichards

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