The Florida Panthers hosted their first home pre-season game Friday night in front of 11,000 (?) or so fans at the Bank Atlantic Center against the Tampa Bay Lightning. It was a good feeling to be back watching live hockey, seeing some of my season seat friends, and paying $9.00 for a pizza!
Prior to the game I took in the Town Hall meeting with General Manager Dale Tallon and Majority owner Cliff Viner as they answered questions from the faithful crowd that attended. The audience also featured about six transplanted Chicagoans, all wearing Chicago Blackhawks sweaters as one of them stood up, thanked Dale for what he did in Chicago, and wished him well here in Florida. Ahhhh, us mid-westerners are just as friendly as they say aren’t we? Anyway, most of the discussion revolved around the usual expectations of improvement, playoffs, and moving in the right direction.
Two items that you may want to know about. One is that both Dale and Cliff feel that the attitude in the dressing room amongst the players has changed for the better. That’s good to hear as small changes were made with the roster, but potentially the negativity has been removed. The players seem to be working harder than in the past and seem to be in better shape than in the past. Tallon let it be known early on, no job is certain, and no one will be here who doesn’t want to be. The second item of interest to many is the future of Erik Gudbranson. Will he stay the season or be returned to juniors. Dale answered the question carefully. To summarize, he said that Erik is making a very solid statement with his play and his maturity. The Panthers want to make the right decision for this kids future, and for the future of the Panthers. It will be a very well thought out decision by the organ-eye-zation. Here’s George Richards from his blog On Frozen Pond with more details.
My money still says Erik stays the entire season. Not to slobber over my keyboard again about this kid, but last night he looked right at home with partner Bryan McCabe. Erik was vocal, quick, and his passes were sharp. He wasn’t perfect, but he also wasn’t out of place. I am hoping he’s a keeper for this season.
As for the game, Tomas Vokoun and Tampa’s Mike Smith were the main stories. Vokoun appeared to be in mid-season form, and while the score was finally settled in overtime, 2-1 Tampa, it could easily have been 6-1. Vokoun made 40 saves, which might be a little misleading since Florida spent most of the first two periods killing penalties, giving Tampa the offensive edge. The other good news is that while Vokoun was stellar in net, the penalty kill was just as good as they killed off eight Lightning power plays. That makes the PK unit 32 out of 32.
Simon Gagne scored for Tampa giving them the lead in the second and Jason Garrison tied it up at one with less than six minutes left in the third, as he whiffed on his first shot, recovered the puck and put it past Smith. The penalty parade continued in overtime as the teams ultimately skated three on three with the Lightning’s Mike Lundin shot from the point getting past Vokoun for the winner.
Some things that I saw besides how well Big G seemed to fit in, and that Shawn Matthias seemed very quick and played with confidence. Maybe he’s finally going to break out. Kenndal McArdle looked fiesty on the fourth line, and also creating scoring chances. Something that the fourth line will have to do. Rusty Olesz tried to score on a backhander that everyone in the building knew was coming, so not much change there. Mike Santorelli was, well, um, not very noticeable? Can’t really say much about him other than that. Still can’t tell if the workout regimen that Little Stevie did this off season with Gary Roberts has made a difference.
In closing, it was nice to see a game live. Talked with Stu Siegel for quite some time, and that’s always nice. But for the offensively challenged Panthers, they are going to have to stay out of the penalty box. Way too many kills early in the game, and that’s no way to establish a tempo.
Baby steps. Patience. Take some, and have a lot. We’ll need it.
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