Hockey in Florida. Dumb idea, right? Well, people often say so. Except that each team from the state has been in the Stanley Cup Final, one a winner (Tampa Bay) and the other a loser (Florida). Now here the two teams are making some noise in the East, with the Lightning holding down the second spot in the Conference and
the Panthers having made noise, and news, as the landing spot—so obvious in retrospect—of Roberto Luongo.
And this past summer, they spent their tushes off buying players in what most observers saw as less an attempt at getting anywhere playoff-wise than just making a respectable showing and being somewhere above the salary cap floor. Some of the veteran names now populating their roster, aside from the goalie, include Willie Mitchell, Stanley Cup winner, and goalie Al Montoya, Derek MacKenzie, Shawn Thornton, Jussi Jokinen, and Dave Bolland, now injured.
And still, everyone predicted that they’d be lousy. So they go out and prove “everyone” right, at least to start the season, by posting a 5-4-5 record in their first 14 games. Only thing is, everyone else in the East has played more games than the Panthers have, some as many as five more. Give the Panthers even half those points, say five, and they’re neck-and-neck with Toronto and Ottawa in the playoff hunt.
But it’s November, and no measure of any meaning takes place before American Thanksgiving, right? Well, one thing that Florida might use is how they do over the next three games on the same West Coast trip which other East Coast teams have suffered so badly on already this season. That for the Panthers is Anaheim Sunday, LA Tuesday, and San Jose after that.
The Ducks came out Sunday taking them lightly, though of course nobody would ever say that. Why do I, then? Because within the first seven minutes of the game, Florida had two two-on-ones. Some games, you see none of those. On the first one, the Panthers scored. On the second, Vincent Trockek put the puck over to Bjugstad, and he rang it off the goalie and then—big clang!—off the post.
Those names bring up another feature of the Florida lineup. Of the 20 guys on their game time roster on Sunday night, fully eight were their draftees.
“Not hard, when you’re that bad for that long, and you get a top pick every year,” you say. Maybe. But you and I both could name any number of high draftees who never did anything in the NHL. And these guys are making something of their chance. Their names, since I took the trouble to look them all up, include Aaron Ekblad, Dmitry Kulikov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, Trockek, Bjugstad, Erik Gudbranson, and Colby Robak.
Is it just me, or are most of those names on the odd side? Why? Because they Panthers are not taking the strategy of many successful teams (Anaheim, LA) and drafting big, tough Canadians from the Prairies. Time will tell if they’re behind the curve or ahead of it.
But on Sunday versus the Ducks, all of those names figured into a spanking of the nearly healthy Anaheim squad. On that note, the Ducks had Corey Perry back from the mumps. Their best defenseman (depending upon your point of view), Beauchemin, was still out with the same illness. Heatley, who has impressed exactly nobody thus far, was missing another game with a groin strain. Devante Smith-Pelly was nursing an upper body injury and missing his second game in a row. In place of these missing soldiers were Kyle Palmieri, making his season debut after missing 18 games with a high ankle sprain, and Perry.
Florida came out flinging the puck around, and the Ducks played into that style, which, actually, is more or less their game—risky, lots of long passes, heavy emphasis on the skating.
The first period was a 1-1 knot. By the end of two, it was 5-1. For Florida. And who got all the goals? Well, Trocheck. Bjugstad. Huberdeau, and Boyes with a couple. In other words, for at least one night, the draftees were shining. And the Ducks were just flailing. They changed their goalie five minutes through period two with the score against them at 3-1, and Jason Labarbera let in two more, one of them a softie.
Period three produced another goal for the Panthers, this time on Andersen, who was reinserted to play the third. The shots ended up 29 for Florida and 35 for Anaheim. The difference was that everything the Panthers shot went in, and almost nothing the Ducks launched got past Al Montoya.
Montoya? That’s right. He got his first win for the team, after which he said, “We were rewarded tonight. But I don’t look at the other goalie at all. For me, it’s just stick to it. They’re a team that can score four in a period, so for me it was just about focusing and staying with it, and we did it tonight.”
His coach, Gerard Gallant, was naturally effusive in his praise. “It was his time. He’s a really good backup goaltender, a good number two. But he played really well tonight, and we’re happy for him. That’s the job he can do.”
But the other subtheme of various players’ comments was how much they had expected to get bombed by the big, tough, West Coast Ducks. And the Kings and Sharks who they play in order after Anaheim.
Bjugstad said, “Big road trip for us. West Coast teams that we’re playing here in California, and going out to Nashville after that. It felt like everything was clicking for us, and uh, we feel like we played well defensively to start with. Then we changed things and the offense was working real well together, and that was a big win for us. Tough building to play in, tough team, so it worked out well for us. One of those games where everything was kind of clicking for everyone. We were doing the little things, which was different. Anaheim’s got a good lineup. We came in mentally prepared. We knew what we were up against, and everyone rose to the challenge.”
Willie Mitchell echoed this: “It wasn’t Anaheim’s best game, but still, it’s tough to come in this rink and win a game, and it’s fun to be a part of something where you see it grow. It kind of brings me to the same spot from 2010 when I went to LA. That’s why I went there [Florida], and I was fortunate to have the opportunity to pick a few teams. It was a growing young team . . . and just like I did in 2010, that’s what I did here. So far it’s been really good, and really, really enjoyable.”
And the coach weighed in too. “The team [Anaheim] played yesterday, and they had a tough emotional game, and we caught them a little bit flat for sure.” Later he said, “We came in here against a great team, and let’s face it, we caught them at a great time. They lead the conference in points, but we played well. We give a lot of credit to our guys, and we knew it was going to be a battle. They played a tough game yesterday, and we caught them at the right time. That first period was real big for us. Getting the lead in the first game of a tough road trip out in California, and it was a great win for us.”
“Just shoot the puck and go to the net. We’ve talked about it all year long. That’s what we did tonight,” he summed up. But he also knows that this won’t happen every night. For now, though, he’s happy with the balance of icetime. “Most guys played fourteen minutes, sixteen minutes, and that’s a team effort.”
Mitchell also summarized: “I don’t think that was Anaheim’s best game. LA’s a great team. Good structure, well coached. It will be a huge challenge. We know this road trip is a big road trip for us as far as where we want to be, if we want to get to the playoffs, just want to take that next step. This Western swing, every team in the league is looking at it and says, ‘Oh, you’ve got to put some wins together against some big teams that play a big, hard, physical game,’ and we managed to get one early. We’re going to look to get the next one.”
My Gretzky book, Facing Wayne Gretzky, is out now. Ask for it at your local bookstore if you’re a fan of the Great One. Thanks.