Saturday, March 28, 2009

Pushing Forward

The Florida Panthers capped off a quick 3-game road trip with a well earned victory over the Dallas Stars. Despite sleepwalking through the first period, Florida trailed just 1-0 going to the 2nd. The Cats were outshot 15-5 in the opening frame. One can only imagine what head coach Pete DeBoer said between periods... because for the rest of the game, the Panthers appeared more energetic and more desperate then the Stars. The end result was a 6-3 win and 2 more important points.

After the first 20 minutes, I was already writing the Panthers' obituary. Too many young players, not enough talent, not enough experience in playoff-type situations. It's easy to get up and ready for the high intensity nights like the Flyers game Thursday. Bringing that same intensity to a non-conference game, against a team who is playing out the string... well that's not as easy to get up for. And the excuses were waiting for Florida tonight; the last game of a 3-games in 4-nights road trip, a physical win that last time out that gives you that good feeling... The Panthers didn't show anything that would lead you to believe that they were fighting for the playoff lives.

Which is why the response in the 2nd and 3rd periods inspire that much more hope. Cory Stillman is on a very short list of Panthers with solid playoff experience, and he is starting to show it. He got his 3rd goal in the last 4 games tonight to tie it at 1. But it wasn't enough, because just minutes later Dallas retook the lead. Again, Florida fought back. This time, Stephen Weiss got the goal on a nifty move opened Marty Turco's legs like a can opener. It was also Weiss' 3rd point in the last 2 games. And then, with just seconds remaining in the 2nd period, Nathan Horton chipped in an impossible angle rebound to give the Panthers the lead heading to the 3rd period. Kamil Kreps kept it going for the Cats early in the 3rd, beating Turco short side on a nice individual move of his own that extended the lead to 2. Then Dallas scored to make it 4-3, and all the thoughts and fears of the last few 3rd period leads the Florida has wasted came flooding in. Luckily, and impressively, the Panthers showed no signs of letting it get to them. Jay Bouwmeester found a hole in Turco's shield to regain the 2 goal lead, and then Radek Dvorak iced it with the empty netter.

To me, this is a sign of a team growing at the right time, if not a little late. The leaders, the Weisses and Hortons and Bouwmeesters have been missing for long periods of time this season. Seeing them come through in the cluth instills a bit of confidence. Then throw in a Brett McLean goal here, a Kamil Kreps goal there, and you have the team that looked so strong through early 2009. Your top line guys have to produce for you. When you add in 3rd and 4th line scoring, you get a dangerous team that is incredibly hard to play against. Back it up with strong defense and solid goaltending, and you get a team that is incredibly hard to beat. No "top line" to match your best defenders up against, no weak defensive pair to get your scorers on the ice against... Thursday in Philly and the last 2 periods tonight in Big D, that's what we got from the Panthers.

And don't think I overlooked Craig Anderson. The situation he was put in was not an easy one, by any stretch of the imagination. All he did was put up back-to-back solid performances in the most crucial of times. While he doesn't always look like the calm, collected Tomas Vokoun, he gets in the way of the puck, and that's all that really matters. Swimming through the crease on your stomach throwing appendages back towards the puck doesn't look pretty, but if the puck stays away from the twine, who cares.

Just 2 games ago, the Panthers blew a 2-goal, 3rd period lead in Buffalo. That loss seemed to be the first nail in the coffin. It was the 4th time the Panthers lost a 3rd period lead in 8 games. There were 2 tough road games coming up. There was no confidence in starting goalie Tomas Vokoun. The young Panthers looked down and out. Now, here we are. The Panthers won those 2 road games and are just 1 point behind the Montreal Canadiens for the 8th spot, and 2 points behind the Rangers for 7th. The Cats next 3 games are at home, and the first 2 have to be looked at as "must wins." Ottawa and Atlanta come to south Florida. Both teams are out of the race and playing for pride. The Panthers have to want it more, need it more. 4 of the Cats' final 6 are at home. Florida looks to have its confidence back. The goals are starting to come. The bounces have turned in Florida's favor. Got all those good feelings out of your system yet? Good, because that was last week. Now, it's just a 6 game season and you have to find your intensity and desperation all over again. Should be a fun finish.

P.S. Don't think I missed the hit on Greg Campbell... check out the Hockey Writers tomorrow for my thoughts...

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