Florida Panthers Longing For Respect

The Florida Panthers have waited a long time for respectability. The next four games should go a long way towards determining whether they have achieved it.

The Panthers themselves are cautiously optimistic. They won the season opener, lost the next two and spent the next month trying to climb back over .500.

On Monday night, they finally completed their quest, completing a sweep of their home-and-home series with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Those two wins were gratifying not just for the usual reasons, but also for the fact that they were so different. In the opener, the Panthers had to fight back with a late goal scored while goaltender Roberto Luongo was on the bench for an extra attacker, then go on to win in a shootout. The final score was 5-4.

On Monday, they again scored a late goal — with 20.2 seconds left — but this time it was to take the lead, not tie the score, and it was the only goal of the game.

If you can beat the defending East Conference champions in a high-scoring game in their building and a low-scoring game in your own building, you have good reason for optimism.

Right now, the Panthers appear poised to make their move. With the possible exception of the injury to defenceman Dimitry Kulikov, there are no dark clouds on the horizon. The unfortunate thing is that it looks like Kulikov will mess at least two weeks with a knee injury.

Other than that, when you look at the Panthers, all is rosy. The occasional cynic might say, “When your leading scorer is the 43-year-old Jaromir Jagr, you can’t be that good.”

The Panthers have to accept that there is some truth in that statement. In fact, the reason that it took so long to get back over .500 is that haven’t been a high-scoring team.

But a closer look tends to result in a different perspective. First of all, even though Jagr does indeed qualify as the leading scorer with 14 points, he’s not the only one in double figures. Jonathan Huberdeau has 10; Nick Bjugstad has 11; Jussi Jokinen has 12; Reilly Smith has 10 and Vincent Trochek has 13.

In other words, you can’t shut down the Panthers by shutting down their top line. And Aleksander Barkov, who is arguably the team’s best forward, has played only eight games having been out until Monday with a hand injury. The Panthers managed to survive his absence and may in fact be better because of it.

When Barkov was asked on Monday morning if he was strong enough to play a full game, he laughed and said, “I’m stronger than when I left. I’ve been sleeping in the gym.”

There’s no doubt that when his line – with Huberdeau and Jagr – is on the ice, the opponents are in for a tough time. They play a puck-possession game and all three are capable of moves that leave would-be checkers whirling in their wake.

The Panthers are also solid on the defensive side of the game. Luongo wanted to come back to Florida after his problems in Vancouver, so he’s happy here and wants to stay. The blue-line corps is led by Aaron Ekblad, last year’s Calder Trophy winner who would be acclaimed as a superstar if he were playing in a more traditional hockey market.

There are, of course, dangers in having a young team but the Panthers give every indication that they’ll overcome them. One concern is the need for extra guidance. It stands to reason that if a lot of players are relatively new to the rigours of the NHL, they require more input from the coaches than would be the case with a veteran team.

In head coach Gerry Gallant, the Panthers have a coach who has a justifiable reputation of being great with kids, so that’s a big factor. But they also have Jagr, who is almost as much a coach as he is a player. Barkov and Huberdeau idolize him, and invariably, after each shift, Jagr is holding court while the other two are listening and eagerly soaking up his observations.

Furthermore, it doesn’t do the Panthers any harm to have Denis Potvin as the colour man on their TV broadcasts. He chats at length with the players and while being careful not to overstep the bounds of propriety, can often help a player who has a question about the NHL game.

Potvin is not just a Norris Trophy winner who is in the Hall of Fame and won four Stanley Cups, he’s also a serious student of the game.

During the telecasts, he doles out praise and criticism, never resorting to the homerism that can be so prevalent in that business.

He never ridicules players who make mistakes, instead saying something along the lines of, “if he had to do that over again, he probably would…” But his points are well made.

Hockey players rarely have a problem accepting well founded criticism and let’s face it, with the exception of Jagr, nobody on that team would feel right approaching Potvin and saying, “I think you were wrong about the way I handled that situation.” Instead, they take the advice to heart.

Now, having clawed their way back to a positive won-lost record, the Panthers must take the next step. They won the first game of their five-game home stand and now must face Anaheim, New York Rangers, Los Angeles and New York Islanders.

After that, we should know whether they have indeed reached the status of respectability, or whether they’re still waiting to break out.