When the Florida Panthers took the ice for their 2014-15 season opener in Tampa Bay, no one really knew what to expect. There had been some good, some questionable and some downright odd changes during the off-season and there was no telling what was going to happen. If you want to just make it simple and sum it up, the fact is that they didn’t win, something that makes Florida fans hang their heads in resignation. What that doesn’t tell you, however, is what actually happened on the ice.
The first thing that happened was Jussi Jokinen. Picked up as a free agent over the summer, the 31-year-old Finnish player was everything they needed him to be. A leader, who got in Tampa’s players’ faces to protect his goalie. A player who made things happen on the ice, and gave opportunities to the scorers. A veteran, who showed these guys how to be a team. They already know how to play hockey; what they’ve lacked in the last decade or so has been heart, and they had a whole lot of that in last night’s game.
The next thing that happened–and it happened BIG–was Erik Gudbranson. Where was this player last year? The 6’5″ nearly 220 pound defenseman stepped up. Really stepped up. He was all over the ice, playing offense, defense, and everything in between. It probably wouldn’t have surprised anyone to see him in net with Roberto Luongo. Despite a few unnecessary penalties, this is a guy who could totally change the face of the team this year. A defenseman who scored a goal and dropped the gloves more than once to show that this isn’t a team who’s going to take it anymore. Seriously, where was this guy last year?
Then there was Aaron Ekblad, the 18-year-old rookie, who got his first assist as an NHL player and played a big part of keeping the team in the game. Though his ice time was somewhat limited, new head coach Gerard Gallant gave him just enough to show his stuff without taking too many chances for injury (he had a concussion over the summer during a tournament) but still able to add the kind of passion that can only come from a young rookie playing his first regular season NHL game.
Let’s be clear, there were lots of mistakes. Penalties that shouldn’t have happened, power plays that went wrong, and even a 5-on-3 situation that was downright ugly. However, the referees played a part in this problem. It was glaringly obvious in the playoffs last season, and even after a summer of rest, some refs seem unable to keep up with the pace on the ice. To be fair, they can’t be everywhere or see every single thing, but completely missing the nasty hit to Scottie Upshall by Radko Gudas should not be acceptable. Instead of getting the man advantage they deserved, Steven Stamkos got two minutes for high sticking Brad Boyes, leading to Gudbranson taking a mandatory two minute penalty for dropping the gloves to defend his fallen teammate. Upshall went to the locker room and the Panthers got nothing.
Even Tampa Bay’s announcers were quick to criticize the hit to Upshall, calling it a dirty hit. Not only did it cost the Panthers a power play opportunity, it could have been a much more serious injury with what will apparently carry no repercussions since the NHL only issued Gudas a warning.
What happens next is anyone’s guess. There was so much fire on the ice Thursday night, even a super star like Steven Stamkos couldn’t make the Panthers look bad. And they didn’t even pull off the win. Imagine if the referees had actually been paying attention. Imagine if a few of the guys hadn’t made just one too many mistakes. The Lightning capitalized on those mistakes big time, and yet the overtime loss didn’t feel so much like a loss as it did a disappointment. The Cats kept them off board on even strength, making what should have been small mistakes seem bigger, and the missed call by the refs leaving a bad taste in everyone’s mouth.
On the other hand, these boys hung in there. They played hard and they played strong. Roberto Luongo made 29 saves on 32 shots, Jonathan Huberdeau seems to have gotten over last season’s injury scoring a goal that tied everything up, and despite it all, they still start out the season with a point. This is a new team, a new season and a whole lot of new energy. The Cats might just be back!