Thursday, April 30, 2009

Richard Zednik Named Masterton Finalist, Headed to Russia

As written on the Hockey Writers, an excellent source of all things hockey, including my own Panthers contributions, like this one!

Florida Panthers’ forward Richard Zednik has been named a finalist for the Masterton Trophy. The award is handed out by the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association to the player who “who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to ice hockey.”

Zednik, as we all remember all too vividly, nearly lost his life on the ice last season after having his carotid artery cut by Olli Jokinen’s skate during a February 28 game in Buffalo last season. He returned this year to score 17 goals, including the 200th of his career, along with 16 assists while playing in 70 games. After the injury, hockey became secondary. No one would have questioned Zednik had he decided not to return to the ice. But he came back and was a veteran voice in a young Florida Panthers locker room, and helped lead his team in a playoff push that came up 1 point short.

On the same day that Zednik was named a finalist, CBC is reporting that he has signed a 2-year
deal with Russian Superleague team Lokomotiv Yaroslavl. He would have been an unrestricted free agent on July 1st. This is just the first move of what could be an interesting offseason for the Florida Panthers. Most notably, Jay Bouwmeester hits the open market, as well as highly regarded backup netminder, Craig Anderson. Other UFAs include Radek Dvorak, Ville Peltonen, Jassen Cullimore, and Nick Boynton.

As far as the Masterton trophy goes, other finalists include Steve Sullivan, who got back on the ice in January after he fragmented a spinal disc nearly 2 years ago. After missing over 140 games, Sullivan played in every game except one after his return, scoring 11 times and adding 21 assists for an impressiev 32 points in 41 games. The 3rd finalist is Chris Chelios, who played in his 25th season this year. Only 2 others have ever played as long in the NHL (Gordie Howe and Mark Messier). Despite playing in only 28 games this season, he played a leadership role behind the scenes all season.

The Bill Masterton award is named after the Minnesota North Stars rookie who lost his life after sustaining an on-ice head injury in 1968. It will be given out June 18 at the NHL Awards Ceremony in Las Vegas.

Cats at the World Championship Update

The preliminary round of the IIHF World Championships wrapped up yesterday, and a handful of Panther players have advanced to the qualifying round, avoiding relegation.

Keith Ballard and Team USA were able to win group C, posting a 2-0-1 record. The Americans looked like they were on their way to a flawless first round before the Swedes mounted an impressive 3-goal comeback en route to an overtime win. Ballard has been relatively quiet, posting just 1 assist and 4 shots on goal in the first 3 games.

Meanwhile, aslo in group C, the Latvians finished 3rd. Karlis Skrastins, who captains Latvia, has been a solid presence on the blue line. Also with just a lone assist, he is a +2 while leading his team in ice time. He was also "player of the game" in the Latvian win over Austria. "Latvia did an unbelievable job tonight," said Br├╝ckler (Austrian head coach). "Their captain (Skrastins) blocked a shot that would have gone into the net, and that shows the heart they had." Skrastins blocking shots? Who woulda thought... Panthers prospect Janis Sprukts has also been kept in check, registering just 1 assist.

The only other Panther representative plays for the 2nd place finisher in group D, the Czech Republic. Rostislav Olesz has been given limited ice time, and... surprise... has just 1 assist.

Not much other offseason news has surfaced. Anderson and Vokoun are still Panthers, although it seems one or the other could be headed elsewhere this summer. Anderson is an unrestricted free agent sure to get a substantial raise. Vokoun already has an immense salary. It seems unlikely the Cats can hold onto both. Andy appears ready and willing, and maybe most importantly, wants to be a starting goaltender somewhere. The Philadelphia Flyers have already expressed interest. Stay tuned...

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Panthers Go Global

A brief spring update on a few players heading off to the IIHF World Hockey Championships.

Suiting up for the United States, Keith Ballard.

Fresh off a solid rookie campaign, Michael Frolik will join Rostislav Olesz on the Czech Republic squad.

Karlis Skrastins and prospect Janis Sprukts will play for Latvia.

The games kick off this Friday from Switzerland. For all information regarding the tournament, check out the IIHF site here. Best of luck to the boys, and most of all, come back healthy!

Monday, April 13, 2009

Florida Panthers: A Year In Review

The 2008-2009 Florida Panthers season ended 1 point short of a postseason berth. While missing the playoffs for an 8th straight season is clearly a disappointment, the overall picture is much cloudier. No one expected much heading into this season. A month in, and the Panthers were 30th in a 30 team league, meeting many expectations. December ended with a dismal 4 game losing streak. Then the calendar turned to 2009, and the Panthers made their run. Only 2 regulation losses in January, winners of 5 of the first 6 games in February. The Cats climbed as high as 5th in the eastern conference. Talk of the playoffs gained momentum and validity. The trade deadline passed and Jay Bouwmeester was still a Panther. This was the team that was going to finally break through. And then the post-trade deadline pressure came, and Florida slowly crumbled. The Cats lost 5 of the first 6 after the deadline. 3rd period leads, that once were so secure, evaporated. At one point, the Panthers were 24-1-1 when leading after two periods. In March, Florida lost four times after they took a lead to the final 20 minutes. Meanwhile, Carolina, Pittsburgh, Montreal, New York, and Buffalo all made runs. Slowly, the Panthers slipped to 9th and out of the playoffs. Florida ended the year tied with Montreal for 8th, but the head to head tie breaker ensured that the Panthers would miss the playoffs for the 8th straight season.

Was this a disappointing season? Can you call a year in which you do not qualify for the postseason a success? It all depends on your point of view. There is no doubt that this team took giant strides this year. A rookie head coach, a core of players whose average age was around 24, no one on the roster you knew going into the year would be your top point getter. Expectations were justifiably low. But once we got to February and March, the expectations changed. David Booth emerged as a serious scoring threat. All four lines were contributing. The defense had solidified. This had become a team that could skate and did skate with any team in the league. In the end, youth and inexperience may have gotten the better of Florida. The majority of core players have been with the organization for their whole career, and never had the chance to play in high pressure, playoff style games. Down the stretch, the Panthers let the chance slip away. But there is no doubt, valuable experience was gained, and Panther fans can honestly, finally say the future looks brighter then the past.

So naturally, the next step is to look for reasons why the Panthers came up short, again. A slow start to the year, 7-11-1. A 3-8 record in shootouts. One more shootout goal, one more shootout stop, Florida gets that extra point it needed. That losing streak to close December, in which the Panthers lost twice to Tampa and once to the Islanders. Those blown 3rd period leads in March. There is no doubt, the Panthers were agonizingly close to the postseason this year. A bounce here, a shootout goal there, and we're talking about Florida fighting for home ice instead of next year. Unfortunately, we are left with this; the Panthers now own the longest playoff drought in the NHL, and the 2nd longest in league history.

Now, what does this team have to look forward to? The top season this offseason is clearly Jay Bouwmeester. He has yet to rule out a return to Florida next season, although it is hard to imagine a scenario in which he comes back. Other unrestricted free agents include backup goalie Craig Anderson, who filled in superbly this season. Also, Radek Dvorak, Ville Peltonen, Richard Zednik, Karlis Skrastins, Nick Boynton, and Jassen Cullimore. Nick Boynton has already stated that he expects to be playing elsewhere next year. Boynton and head coach Pete DeBoer butted heads late in the season, which resulted in Boynton being a healthy scratch for a number of games. Ville Peltonen and Radek Dvorak were vital cogs on what was Florida's most consistent line. But Peltonen will be 36 next season, Dvorak 32. How many more goals are left in their legs? The obvious, glaring issue that Florida had all year was consistent scoring. Whether or not the Cats can wait and see if Pelts and D-Vo are going to be able to produce next year is just one of many questions that general manager Jacques Martin will have to answer.

This season was fun, there is no doubt there. To see this team grow under a new coach all year was remarkable. Young players grew up. David Booth had a very nice breakout year, joining a very short list of Panthers to break the 30 goal mark (Booth finished 31). Stephen Weiss led the team in points with 61 (14 G, 47 A) and plus minus, at +19. Michael Frolik had a great rookie campaign, finishing the year with 21 goals and 24 assists. There is no question that there is now a solid foundation in south Florida. With a couple of smart moves this offseason, there is little doubt that these Panthers will soon be fighting for division titles, and not just to qualify for the playoffs.

And from a personal standpoint, thank you to everyone who has read or followed this blog. I started it out as a way to voice my thoughts on the Panthers with anyone who would listen, a channel to get my feelings out. Living in Orlando, with little to no one to talk hockey about (let alone Panthers hockey), I thought I'd give it a try. I didn't really think I'd stick with it through the whole season, yet here I am. Never, ever did I expect to get over 1,600 unique visitors, or to get invites to join other blogs. It has been a pleasure, and I'll be in and out with thoughts and updates on anything that happens through the summer, and hopefully we'll be back, better then ever, in just 6 short months. Until next time...

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Panthers End Season With Win

It was a meaningless night, in terms of future games. But the 7-4 win against the Washington Capitals may have (hopefully) been a sign of future seasons to come. David Booth tallied 5 points on the night, including 2 goals, making him the 6th Panther to hit the 30 goal mark. Steve Eminger scored his first goal as a Panther. He could very well be a big part of future seasons, should Jay Bouwmeester leave (like we all know he will).

While the win was nice, it did get the Panthers to 93 points and a tie with Montreal. Should the Rangers lose tomorrow, and Florida will end the season with the same amount of points as the 7th and 8th place teams, yet no more hockey will be played this season in the Sunshine State. Agonizingly close. Why couldn't they just use goals for as the first tie breaker? (Florida 234, NYR 206) Or goals against? (Florida 231, Montreal 247) Or goal differential? (Florida +3, Montreal +2, NY -9) Or road wins? (Florida 19, Montreal 17, NY 16) In reality, the first tie breaker is wins, and Montreal and Florida both end the season with 41. The head to head comes next, and the Habs took 3 of 4 from the Cats this year, therefore sending the Panthers to an early tee time.

There will be a full season recap on Cat Scratch in the days to come, as well as full offseason news. But for now, enjoy your Easter, enjoy the Masters, enjoy your summer. See you in October.

Because Everyone Gets 82 Games...

There's a Panthers game tonight, but it's going to be hard to muster the will to watch. It's meaningless. Yes, the Panthers can reach 93 points, which would be the 2nd best point total in franchise history. But that's not much consolation for a team that was as high as 5th in the conference and trying to end the NHL's longest postseason drought. There are so many different directions to point your finger while trying to find reason for the season ending tonight (I'm sure I'll get to it in my season recap, probably Monday or so). And in the end, it doesn't really matter who or what you blame, because the offseason begins tomorrow. And it should be an interesting summer (I hope).

Washington is locked into the 2nd seed, so there's nothing on the line for them, either. Tomas Vokoun is in net tonight against the Caps. I'll be interested to see the crowd tonight, and how they greet the Cats as they take the ice. One thing you cannot say about this team is that they quit. There is plenty of heart on this team, they never stopped skating. They just didn't have the talent to get to the finish line. Puck drops at 7:00.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Cue Helga...

8 straight seasons without a playoff game. And just to rub it in, Boston beat Montreal in OT. Goodnight. More to come eventually... I guess.

Quick and Simple...

Florida makes the playoffs IF:
The Panthers go 2-0-0, the Rangers OR Montreal go 0-2-0.
The Panthers go 2-0-0, the Rangers go 0-0-2.
The Panthers go 1-0-1, the Rangers go 0-2-0.


That's it. Pretty straightfoward. If Florida loses in regulation tonight, it's over. If Montreal AND the Rangers win tonight, it's over.

Tomas Vokoun is in net. If the Panthers don't find a way to score, it won't really matter who's in goal. Less then a week ago, the Panthers could only manage 1 goal against Johan Hedberg. If the Cats can't do any better tonight, it's game over. Puck drops at 7:00.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

That Should Just About Wrap It Up...


The Florida Panthers still have two games left to play, but after tonight, those game's are now literally "must wins." The Panthers suffered a devastating, 2-1 defeat tonight in Philadelphia. With the New York Rangers beating Montreal, Florida now has to win both of it's remaining games, and hope the Rangers or Canadiens lose both of theirs. Otherwise, it's another season that ends after 82 games.

The game itself was one of the toughest to swallow this season. The Panthers scored first, a perfect tic-tac-toe that resulted in Brett McLean finishing in the 2nd period. Unfortunately, the Flyers woke up after that. An unlucky bounce off of Joffrey Lupul's skate tied it. No kicking motion, but instead a "redirection." Perfectly legal, perfectly unfortunate. The game winner, on the other hand, was not so clear. The play started after blindingly obvious cross check was not called on Scott Hartnell, resulting in a turnover in the Panthers corner. Jeff Carter picked up the puck, turned, and beat an ill prepared Tomas Vokoun. As ugly as the non-call was, Vokoun was just as bad. This was the type of goal that got Vokoun benched two weeks ago. It was terrible. Granted, the shot never should have come. The Panthers should have had a face off in the Flyers' zone and a power play, but that was not the case. Game, set, season. A valiant press in the final minutes came up short, and the Panthers' now need a giant helping hand if they hope to end their 7-season postseason drought.

It's going to be awfully hard to get past this one. Florida was ready. They were on an even playing field with the Flyers all night. The Cats showed the desperation you would expect from a team in their position. To lose not just the game, but probably the postseason, on a play like that... it's painful. They limited one of the league's top offenses to few pure chances. The Cats were able to set up and work their offense numerous times. They backchecked hard. They forechecked tenaciously. But, as has been the case many times this season, all the effort and heart in the world can do no good if you don't have the talent to put the puck in the net. Brutal.

So here's what's left. 2 games for Florida, 2 games for Montreal, 2 games for the Rangers. Florida has to win their final 2, in Atlanta Thursday, then home against the Capitals Saturday. If that happens, and clearly a big if, either the Habs or Rangers will have to lose both of their remaining games. New York has a home and home against the Flyers. Montreal is in Boston Thursday, then home against the Penguins Saturday. Is it possible that NYR or MTL lose both? Of course it is. Could Florida win both of it's remaining games? Sure. But one more win for the Rangers and Canadiens, and that would ensure the Panthers watch the playoffs for the 8th straight season from home. It would take a small miracle for the Cats to get in, but let's not write any obituaries until the body is in the ground...

Biggest Game of the Year; Part 14

Not much to say about this one that isn't blatantly obvious. 3 games to go. Tied for the 8th and final playoff spot. Panthers are in Philly. Rangers are hosting Montreal.

The biggest key to the Panthers win over Pittsburgh last time out was energy. The Cats were horribly out shot in the first period, and were fortunate to have a lead. The biggest change in the game came via Keith Ballard's hit on Malkin, and the following fight. From that point forward, Florida was jumping at chances, hitting bodies, and playing with an energy that needs to be there from the opening drop of the puck tonight. There simply isn't the luxury of having a bad first period and being able to climb back. This needs to be a physical, spirited game for the Panthers to feel like they are in it. Once the pace slows down, Florida seems like it almost gets bored, then lazy. Not tonight.

No local TV, so get those dishes pointed, or hit the bar. Center Ice will have it. FSN-FL decided the Marlins game 2 of 162 is more important than the Panthers game 80 of 82... just don't get it. Anyways, puck drops at 7:00.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Panthers Win!


Awesome. Great. Super. Got that all out of your system? Good, because the Panthers big 4-2 over the Penguins is so 2 hours ago. Hopefully, the Panthers can enjoy tonight, and forget about it tomorrow.

It's now a best of 3 game season between the Panthers and the New York Rangers. Both sit with 89 points and 3 games remaining. Let the playoffs begin.

Today's game against the Penguins was good on so many levels. Scoring from unusual suspects (Olesz and Peltonen) as well as the top guys (Booth and McCabe). A power play goal. A 3rd period lead held. The Penguins 2nd goal three weeks ago was a sign of an impending collapse. Today, it seemed to give the Panthers one more rush of energy.

There were negatives, as there usually are. The Cats gave up 43 shots. But after being outshot 19-7 in the 1st period, the Panthers gave up only 24 in the final 2 periods. Tomas Vokoun looked a little rusty, to be sure. The 2nd goal wasn't a good one to give up, but today, his teammates played well enough (and scored enough) to back T Vo up. Malkin and Crosby were relatively maintained, and no one controlled them more so then Keith Ballard, who delivered a beautiful hip check to Evgeni Malkin and then fought Sydney Crosby. That got the crowd going, the Panthers fed off the energy, and never looked back.

Take the positives from today's game and remember them. You can't afford to get too high after a win like today. There are still 3 games left. There is zero margin for error. The Panthers' can't afford to worry about what the Rangers are doing. They can only control their own game, the next one coming on Tuesday in Philadelphia. As big as today's win was, the next game is just that much more important. Until next time...

It's Kinda Obvious...

Gonna keep it simple and brief. The Panthers are 2 points behind the Rangers for the final playoff spot. Florida welcomes the red-hot Pittsburgh Penguins to south Florida this evening. The Cats will have to play their best 60 minute game of the season if they hope to keep their playoff dreams alive. It's the biggest game of the year. No more excuses. No time left to try and figure it out. Win or pack your things.

Puck drops at 5:00.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Devastated


Pete DeBoer could only watch as his Panthers wasted what could be the last chance they had to get into the playoffs for the first time since 2000. It was heart breaking. It was agonizing. It was horribly frustrating. It was a 3-1 loss to the Atlanta Thrashers that may prove to be the final blow to the Panthers’ playoff hopes.

Last night’s loss was not about a lack of effort. It was not about being outplayed or outworked. It was simply an inability to put the puck in the net. Throw in a couple complete and total defensive breakdowns, and that’s all Atlanta needed to put this game away. Twice, Rich Peverley was able to walk through the slot. And twice, Peverley beat Craig Anderson high. Tack on an unfortunate bounce and an empty net goal, and the Panthers’ final four games may have lost all meaning.

Florida had it’s chances. The Panthers managed 36 shots on goal, but only once were able to beat Johan Hedberg. It was a loss that cannot be blamed on lack of effort, and those are the hardest to take. When you play bad and make mistakes, you know what to fix. When you play well enough to win, yet cannot get the puck in the net, you do not know where to go. Last night, Florida simply did not have enough desperation to beat Atlanta.

People around the hockey world have pointed to the Panthers’ lack of experience as the reason for the fall from playoff positioning. Yes and no. The main core of this team has little to no postseason playing time. Mainly because they have been with this franchise since they were drafted. Stephen Weiss, Nathan Horton, David Booth, and Jay Bouwmeester are vital components of this team’s success. They also combine for zero playoff games. But there is experience in the locker room. Cory Stillman owns two Stanley Cup rings, Jassen Cullimore has one. Radek Dvorak has played in two Cup finals. There are leaders on this team. Unfortunately, there are too many “character” players and not enough top line finishers for the Panthers to make a consistent run. David Booth has had a nice, breakout year (27 G, 26 A). Michael Frolik has had a successful rookie season (20 G, 21 A). But last offseason, Florida chose to address it’s pitiful defense. That has paid off, but at the cost of the offense. Maybe next season, the Cats can finally put the two together.

Yes, there is still a possibility of making the playoffs. Should the Rangers lose this afternoon against the Bruins, Florida is still just 2 points out with 4 to play. And Montreal is only 3 points ahead, but has a game in hand. The reality is that Florida would almost certainly need to finish ahead of the Rangers or Canadiens, as the first tie breaker, wins, would likely not go the Panthers’ way. (Florida has 38 W’s, Montreal and New York have 40). So, with 4 games remaining for both the Panthers and Rangers, Florida would have to be 3 points better in those 4 games. The Panthers remaining games? Pittsburgh, @ Philadelphia, @ Atlanta, Washington. Not very hopeful, even though the Rangers’ final four are @Boston, Montreal, and home and home with the Flyers.

I’ll refrain from writing any obituaries until it’s official, but tonight has drained all but the very lost drop of hope from my soul. I am really not looking forward to watching another postseason with no horse in the race. I am trying to push inevitable reality away as long as possible. Maybe tonight will bring another glimmer of light. Go Bruins

The Door's Open...

The Florida Panthers finally got some help last night, as the New York Rangers fell to the Carolina Hurricanes, meaning a win tonight over the Thrashers, and Florida is tied with NYR for the 8th and final playoff spot. Unfortunately for the Cats, both New York and Montreal, who is now 3 points up on Florida in 7th, have 2 more wins then the Panthers. This means that will more then likely have to finish with more points, with wins being the first tie breaker. The 2nd tie breaker, you ask? If Florida ends up with the same amount of wins as MTL or NYR, it comes to head to head, which would put Florida in over the Rangers, but not the Canadiens. With just 5 games left for Panthers, it's imperative that Florida earn points against the teams lower then them in the standings.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. There are still those 5 games remaining on the schedule, none more important then the one they are playing tonight. The Atlanta Thrashers come to south Florida, fresh off of an OT win over the Buffalo Sabres that ended their realistic playoff hopes. There is no doubt that the Thrashers would enjoy putting another team out of playoff contention tonight. Atlanta has also won 4 of its last 5.

There really isn't much left to say. Florida knows what it has to do. They know the standings. They know what works and what doesn't. Play their style for 60 minutes, and they have a good chance at winning. Come out slow, play without desperation, play tight and nervous, and the postseason could get out of reach. Simple.

Atlanta's #1 goaltender is on the shelf, so it's Johan Hedberg in net for ATL tonight. It's another chance for the Panthers to keep it's offense going against a backup in net. Craig Anderson will get the start for Florida, hoping to earn a 4th straight win. No local TV tonight, so head to the BAC or your local NHL Center Ice carrying pub. Puck drops at 7:30.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Little Help, Please?


The Florida Panthers are doing their part. Last night, the Cats earned their 3rd straight win via a 5-2 victory over the Ottawa Senators. The 2 points kept pace with the 7th seed New York Rangers, who won Monday night, and the 8th seed Montreal Canadiens, who also won last night.

While last night's game wasn't the best the Panthers have played, they were able to capitalize on their chances, and Craig Anderson stood tall yet again. Special teams were the difference. The Panthers' penalty kill was 2 for 2, while the power play continued to produce. Florida got 2 more goals on the man advantage last night, giving them 6 PPG in the last 3 games. The key for the power play is to get the puck to the net as quickly as possible. Pass quick, shoot quick, score. When the defensemen hold the puck too long, the penalty killers are able to reset and get in lanes. Recently, it's been catch and shoot from the blue line. Keep it up.

Another big reason for the Panthers success is that they continue to get production from all 4 lines. Last night, all 5 goals were scored by a different skater. Florida now has 11 different players with 30+ points, as well as 11 different players to hit the 10+ goal mark. When the Cats click, there is no "top line." Instead, there are 4 very balanced, equally dangerous lines that make it hard to match up against.

Craig Anderson made 30 more saves last night in the win. And as long as he keeps winning, he will continue to get the starts. Whether that's "fair" to Tomas Vokoun doesn't really matter at this point. Obviously, you can't blame the entire slump the Panthers went through in mid-March on Vokoun. He was getting very little scoring help. But he gave up too many weak, untimely goals, and Anderson got the chance. He's made the most of it, and will be in net in the Panthers' next game, Friday night against the Thrashers.

Speaking of next game, how on earth can 2 of the final 5 games of the season not be televised locally? That's like not broadcasting the final series of the Marlins' season when they're a half game out of the playoffs. I cannot begin to imagine what programming genius at FS-FL decided a college baseball game is more important. Simply unbelievable. The Thrashers home network is broadcasting it, and they've been out of the playoff race since November. Thank God for NHL Center Ice...

Anyways, off my high horse. The Canadiens remain 1 point up on the Panthers, while the Rangers sit 2 points up. Both MTL and NYR play Thursday night, so Florida will know the situation when they take the ice Friday. Should both win Thursday, the Cats' game Friday becomes a must-win to keep pace. Should the Habs or Blue Shirts drop, Florida will have a chance to catch and\or pass. Enjoy tonight, get some rest, then get your scoreboard watching glasses ready for Thursday.