Panthers Headed in the Right Direction

The Florida Panthers have proven to be quite a difficult opponent this month, largely due to goaltender Tomas Vokoun and their stingy penalty-killing unit. But despite their strong defensive play, the Panthers have gone 2-for-3 through their first five games, largely because they haven’t managed to provide Vokoun with adequate support on the offensive end.

The Panthers started off their season in Western Canada, falling to the Oilers and Canucks in successive one-goal defeats, both times squandering a stellar performance by Vokoun. But three nights later, Vokoun got some support in Calgary, where the Panthers’ three-goal output was more than enough to ensure a 3-0 shutout win over Miikka Kiprusoff and the Flames.

Vokoun would continue his dominating performance between the pipes in Panthers’ home opener two nights later against Tampa Bay, where he recorded his second consecutive shutout; meanwhile, the Panthers offense struck for a combined six goals against Dan Ellis and Mike Smith of the Lightning.

The Panthers were in action again on Thursday night, as the Dallas Stars came into Sunrise. The Stars got things going late in the first period, with two rebound goals from Steve Ott and Tom Wandell. In both cases, Vokoun found himself out of position after making the first save.

With the Panthers already down, the Stars would added two more goals in the second period. The second came on a wrist-shot by Wandell, and it ended Vokoun’s night; he was replaced after 40 minutes by Scott Clemmensen. Vokoun was out-played at the other end by Stars goalie Kari Lehtonen, for the Stars’ shot advantage was fairly slim.

In the third period, the Panthers finally got on the board, as Stephen Weiss spoiled Lehtonen’s shutout bid. This would be the only tally given up, as Lehtonen and his club pulled off a decisive 4-1 victory.

In both games the Panthers won, they were applying consistent pressure on their opponent throughout the entire 60 minutes, whereas the first two games it was isolated pressure that enabled the other teams to pick apart their fore-checking ability and placing the pressure back on the Panthers defense as well as Vokoun. And a positive for the Panthers to take from their loss to the Stars is their continued strong penalty-killing. They are now 10-for-10 on the penalty-kill this season, a trend that bodes well for their ability to win close contests.

Defenseman, Mike Weaver was one that especially enjoyed hearing praise.

“You really don’t get a lot of ink being on the PK’s,” Weaver told the Florida Sun-Sentinel. “Guys take a lot of pride in coming back in the dressing room, everybody congratulating them there rather than it being seen in the paper.”

Florida’s offense has not been running on all cylinders yet, but they are starting to kick it into a higher gear, getting contributions from all over the ice. However, this team must improve their power play effectiveness; they have only capitalized on one of their first 15 opportunities. To reverse this trend, they’ll need more contributions from the likes of Rostislav Olesz, David Booth, and Radek Dvorak, along with new additions Marty Reasoner and Dennis Wideman.

Based upon the strength of their goaltending and penalty-killing, the Panthers are providing to be a very formidable squad, capable of making noise in the Eastern Conference playoff race. But their playoff hopes – much less Cup hopes – will ride almost entirely on Vokoun, an enormous burden that he just might be able to handle.

The Panthers will have one more at home against the Islanders on Saturday night before taking a three game road trip to Canada against the Maple Leafs, Senators and Canadiens next week.

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