Florida Forges Ahead in Important Homestand

By Bill Whitehead

This is partially about the Florida Panthers’ horrible showing in Boston last Thursday. That game was ridiculous. Fittingly, I’d like to start out with someone equally ridiculous — a reference to The Simpsons ride at Universal Studios. While standing in line, the soon-to-be-riding patron watches a video of villainous Sideshow Bob, who is brandishing a gun and says to Homer that he’s offering up “a dish best served cold.” Homer responds: “Is it ice cream?”

Of course not. It’s revenge, which is exactly what the Boston Bruins had in mind last Thursday in its 8-0 pounding of the Panthers, who were rendered hapless after playing without seven forwards. That’s right, seven — in itself ridiculous. It was basically the San Antonio Panthers that coach Kevin Dineen was working with at TD Garden. But Florida being shorthanded didn’t keep the Bruins from serving. There was a heaping helping of Brad Marchand. A daunting dollop of Tuukka Rask. Even a smidge of ex-Panther Gregory Campbell was thrown in. It made for an easy night of headlines. How about “Beatdown in Beantown”? “Boston Sixty-Three Party” in honor of Marchand’s hat trick? Or “The Nightmare Before Christmas”? I didn’t see any of those, but they were there for the taking.

But here’s the reality: That game is behind Florida now and, standings wise, was little different than the club’s 2-1 loss to Phoenix earlier in the week. Boston had revenge on its mind and got it, but as thrilled as Bruins fans were after the game, they were just as upset 15 days earlier when Jose Theodore blanked them and Tomas Kopecky and Kris Versteeg broke their hearts. One win, one loss. The only oddity is goal differential, which is an insignificant, overrated stat anyway. Tampa Bay was within one goal of facing Vancouver in the Stanley Cup Finals last year, but the Lightning managed just a meager plus-7 in goal differential during the season.

The first-place Panthers (18-11-7) can’t be caught looking past Toronto tonight and worried about revenge of its own against Friday’s opponent, the New York Rangers, who beat Florida soundly in Madison Square Garden two weeks ago. Florida has defeated both Toronto and Montreal, Saturday’s foe, in separate Canadian road swings. The Maple Leafs (18-13-4) have won two straight, just extended coach Ron Wilson’s contract at Christmas and have Phil Kessel, second in scoring (41 points) and tied for second in goals (20). Goaltending has always been an issue, though. James Reimer and Ben Scrivens have put up better save percentages and GAAs, but Jonas Gustavsson has more starts and half the team’s wins.

A late Christmas gift for Florida would be getting healthy and playing the style of hockey that’s put the Panthers atop the Southeast Division. Stephen Weiss and Mikael Samuelsson are likely the closest to return, and the hope is that Jack Skille, Marco Sturm, Scottie Upshall and red-hot Shawn Bergenheim suit up soon, maybe when Florida hits the road after New Year’s.

Florida has put itself in a good position and created a nice cushion — one it’s needed lately in a three-game losing streak. It’s earned points when that didn’t look likely, such as at Ottawa last week and against Carolina, but now that lead is down to six over second-place Winnipeg. The Jets, however, have nearly played half of its home schedule, and third-place Washington can’t seem to gain any footing in the standings.

Revenge can be set aside for now, and that nasty game in Beantown perhaps could be used motivation in this week’s three-game homestand in front of full houses. Time for these Florida Panthers to start grabbing points however they may come and padding that cushion again.

By Bill Whitehead
NHLHS Florida Panthers Credentialed Correspondent
Twitter: @BillWhiteheadFL
Email: BillWhiteheadFL@hotmail.com