Saturday night at the American Airlines Center, the Dallas Stars and Florida Panthers will ring in the new year together. It’s only fitting, as you’d be hard-pressed to find two teams with more in common.
Both clubs made major personnel changes on the blue line last summer. Both have battled injuries to multiple forwards from preseason to the present. Both have been forced by circumstances to make significant in-season strategic adjustments.
The difference between Dallas and Florida is that the Stars, 5-1-1 in their last seven games and winners of three straight, seemed to have turned the corner, while the Panthers, who enter tonight’s game with three consecutive overtime or shootout losses, have not.
The Cats are getting close, though. “It’s basically one bounce away, right?” said Florida defenseman Michael Matheson. “You get into three overtimes in a row, if all three of those had gone our way, we’d be feeling much differently…If one play had gone our way, we’d still be playing the exact same way, but have three wins instead. It’s that close, and hopefully, some of those plays start going our way.”
Panthers interim head coach Tom Rowe offered a more detailed analysis. “I think we’re close…it’s just cleaning up some little things in our defensive system. Even more than the system, it’s back to managing the puck, when we’re trying to make plays that aren’t there.” Rowe added, “When we manage the puck well and we get it deep when we have to, we’re a really good team. When we don’t do that, we’re an average team, like everybody else.”
Watching Florida lately is much like watching Dallas a few weeks ago. Will the last game of 2016 see the Panthers turn the corner, or will the Stars continue to roll?
Florida Panthers at Dallas Stars
American Airlines Center – 7:00 pm CST
Broadcast channels – FS-SW, FS-F
2016-17 Season Series: First Meeting of the Season
Florida Panthers: 15-14-8 – 38 Points
Road Record: 6-8-5
Hot Players: Jason Demers, Jonathan Marchessault and Vincent Trocheck
Key Injuries: Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Colton Sceviour and Alex Petrovic
Seth Griffith – Vincent Trocheck – Jaromir Jagr
Jussi Jokinen – Nick Bjugstad – Reilly Smith
Jonathan Marchessault – Michael Sgarbossa – Denis Malgin
Greg McKegg – Derek MacKenzie – Shawn Thornton
Keith Yandle – Jason Demers
Michael Matheson – Aaron Ekblad
Jakub Kindl – Mark Pysyk
Dallas Stars: 16-14-7 – 39 Points
Home Record: 11-5-3
Hot Players: Kari Lehtonen, Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and Jason Spezza
Key Injuries: Antoine Roussel, Mattias Janmark and Ales Hemsky
Jamie Benn – Tyler Seguin – Jason Spezza
Curtis McKenzie – Radek Faksa – Brett Ritchie
Patrick Sharp – Devin Shore – Patrick Eaves
Lauri Korpikoski – Cody Eakin – Jiri Hudler
Esa Lindell – John Klingberg
Dan Hamhuis – Jamie Oleksiak
Johnny Oduya – Jordie Benn
1) Dallas’ Antti Niemi and Florida’s James Reimer are the starting netminders tonight. While the former comes as no surprise, the latter is somewhat interesting, since Reimer started the Cats’ last game, a 3-2 overtime loss to Montreal. The Panthers don’t play again until Wednesday, so perhaps Rowe just wanted to give 37-year-old Roberto Luongo a longer break.
2) Patrick Sharp returns to action for Dallas tonight. He’s been out since December 1 with concussion-related issues but is now healthy and ready to go. The Stars didn’t do line rushes this morning, so the guess here is that Sharp plays on the left wing with Devin Shore and Patrick Eaves. Mike Heika disagrees. We’ll see who’s right.
3) Florida (and former Dallas) winger Reilly Smith also returns to action tonight, after sustaining a concussion against Detroit December 23. He’s expected to skate on a line with Jussi Jokinen and Nick Bjugstad.
4) It’s a Small World: Injuries, defense corps changes and strategic adjustments aren’t the only things the Stars and Panthers have in common. Florida’s roster features five former Stars (Jason Demers, Colton Sceviour, Reilly Smith, Jussi Jokinen and Jaromir Jagr), while Dallas winger Jiri Hudler was acquired by the Panthers at the trade deadline last season and played the final 19 games, plus playoffs, with them.
5) It’s a Small World, Part Two: Florida associate coach Dave Barr played for the Stars during their inaugural season in Dallas. While he was in Big D in 1993-94, the expansion Florida Panthers had an assistant coach named Lindy Ruff and a defenseman familiar to Stars fans, Brent Severyn. Also, Reilly Smith and Curtis McKenzie were teammates in college, while Florida TV analyst Randy Moller and Ruff were teammates with the New York Rangers from 1989-91. Last, but not least, Hudler and Jagr have been friends for years.