Theodore silences the critics…for now
By Bill Whitehead
It’s only been a little over a week since a meaningless contest shook up not the Florida Panthers but the team’s fans. You remember that fateful night in Dallas, right? The Cats returned the favor of facing the Stars after the Western Conference team beat Florida in overtime two days earlier in the BankAtlantic Center. The result was ugly and gave no red-garbed fan in South Florida any solace heading in to the regular season: a 7-1 drubbing by Dallas.
The lion’s share of the criticism went to Jose Theodore, Florida’s new goaltender. After Tomas Vokoun signed with Washington, the Panthers had to shore up its goaltending and opted for Theodore, essentially signing the 35-year-old as a backup to Scott Clemmensen. But Clemmensen’s knee injury in pre-season changed everything – Theodore moved up to the No. 1 spot in the crease, while Jacob Markstrom, who had been targeted for San Antonio, easily outplayed Tyler Plante to secure the backup role. However, Theodore’s shaky showing in Texas and throughout the pre-season left some calling for Markstrom to get the nod for the first game. New coach Kevin Dineen, though, stuck to his plan and put No. 60 in net Saturday night.
Simply, Theodore answered the bell and stemmed the skepticism by stopping all 27 saves in his Florida debut against the Islanders and recording the 31st shutout of his career in the 2-0 win. It was an outstanding showing all around by the Panthers, who used better team speed, more jump and a responsible defensive game to limit the Islanders’ talented offensive players. John Tavares, Michael Grabner, Matt Moulson, Kyle Okposo and Josh Bailey were all rendered ineffective. Much of the credit certainly goes to Florida’s defense, but Theodore, who never really had to stand on his head, was rock solid, too.
Jozay, Josey, Hosay, hey call him what you want. But his name needs to be called often for successful saves by broadcasters Steve Goldstein and Randy Moller if the Panthers intend to make a dent in the Southeast Division standings. The key for Theodore Saturday on Long Island was his calmness. Playing in a city known for its in-your-face, hectic pace and against an Islanders club that some feel is improved and on the rise, Theodore never wavered. The former Vezina and Hart trophies winner didn’t overreact on a 2-on-1 chance by Tavares, never flailed after Okposo rang the post, stood strong as Jay Pandolfo rifled a shot from the high slot and held the post as if for dear life.
Many question marks exist for the Panthers. Saturday was the first time since camp opened that Florida iced its regular lineup. Perhaps a little surprisingly, the result was not simply good, average or what was expected; it was downright excellent. And if the Cats can come away with something productive Tuesday night in the Steel City, maybe at least taking a point from the Penguins, the enthusiasm next Saturday will be through the BAC roof.
But the biggest question is this: Can the Panthers do anything significant in the Southeast this season without similar play from Saturday night in net from Theodore?
No way, Jose.
By Bill Whitehead
NHLHS Florida Panthers Credentialed Correspondent