We have played 41 games in the 2011-2012 season and if you would have told me that the Florida Panthers would be sitting at the top of the Southeast division back in September, I would have scheduled a frontal lobotomy for you with your health insurance provider. While I predicted a playoff appearance, I wasn’t thinking we’d be anywhere near the top of the division, let alone conference. However boys and girls, that’s where we are, and guess what? There’s no reason to believe it can’t continue.
Admittedly there have been some bumps along the way, especially over the last few weeks with the brutal schedule, and the fact that we’ve been infested with injuries. At one point we had seven regular roster players out of the lineup, and we DID resemble an AHL team for a few games. We survived that, and we”ll continue to survive as players get healthy, and return to the lineup. Getting Mikael Samuelsson and Marcel Goc back will help tremendously from an offensive standpoint as well as on the defensive side of the game. As they get back into game shape, they will make a difference with their experience and grit. Speaking of experience, acquiring John Madden was a sly move by Dale Tallon. I honestly can’t believe this veteran player was playing pick up games in Minnesota, and that no one had use for him. In the slightly more than 11 minutes that he played on Friday night, you’ve seen already what he brings to the Panthers.
There are a few concerns though that must be mentioned and one of them is this: Where the h-e double hockey sticks has the Flashmob Line gone? They were hotter than fajitas during the first 30 games, but have been as cold as the Molson Canadien in my fridge lately. Midseason slump? Maybe. Tired? Possible. Other teams more concerned and playing them differently? Have to believe that’s part of the equation as well. All good players go through a rough patch, and I firmly believe that is what this trio is going through now, and you can bet they are aware of it as well. Say what you will though, Kris Versteeg was a goal post and a half empty net away from changing the complexion of the Devils game on Friday night. He connects on at least one of those shots, and the game changes. Tomas Fleischmann has to continue to create scoring opportunities and Stephen Weiss must get back to being in the right place at the right time, and dig a little deeper.
The other issue that is concerning, is traffic in front of the net. Our net. There’s been way too much of it lately, and on many occasions the opposition is allowed to sip their Tim Horton’s coffee untouched waiting to score, or impair the vision of a Panther netminder. Our defence needs to muscle these players out of the way, and win the battles so as to give our goaltenders a clear view of the shots coming their way. This physical presence has been missing at times, and needs to resurface, yet on a regular basis. No stretch drive or playoff run can survive without it.
On the plus side, we’ve been getting secondary scoring as players like Shawn Matthias, Dmitry Kulikov and right before he was hurt Sean Bergenheim are beginning to find the net. As we get more players back, and all our injuries have been on offence, our game will get back to where it was in October and November.
The play of Erik Gudbranson has slowly been getting better. Many people have been quick to criticise the young defenceman, but forget that he just turned 20 years old. He’s been brought along slowly, and for good reason has been put in situations where he can be successful, rather than in situations where he could be prone to mistakes. In all candor, and this has nothing to do with the man crush I have on him and his ability, the Panthers are very smart to have done this. His reflexes are beginning to catch up, his timing and decisions have been better, and he’s applying himself more, while being less timid. The more ice time he gets, the more comfortable he is, and you can tell by his tape to tape passes, and his ability to read plays better to go along with knowing when to pinch along the boards or not. His offensive game has picked up as well, and he’s been more willing to use his blistering slap shot. Something tells me the second half will show the Erik Gudbranson you’ve been wanting to see.
The recent stretch of games for Florida has certainly put a massive amount of pressure on them, when combined with the injuries. The return of goaltender Jose Theodore can’t come soon enough as well. For those fans however who are either ready to jump ship, or start with the “I told you so”, stop! To a man this is a different team, and a different culture operating under different leadership. A continued slump won’t be allowed by the players in the dressing room, and if there is a continuation of it you can believe that Dale Tallon won’t sit tight. There are a number of teams, Calgary, Columbus and Anaheim all with players potentially on the block. If there’s an opportunity to improve our club, you can bet Dale will do it.
This team has more guts, determination, and character than the past three or four years of teams combined, and won’t stand for a poor effort. Every team goes through a slump for various reasons, and good teams find a way to get out of them. We have seen the resolve and resiliency that this years’ version has, and there is no reason to believe that it won’t continue. This club is good enough to make the playoffs. So don’t panic, and don’t jump ship. This is not your same old Florida Panthers you’re watching. You’ve been spoiled from early season success, but your brain is telling you that the past might rear it’s ugly head. This is a game that requires an intense amount of emotion and mental toughness. There are enough players on this team who have been through stretches like this before, and know what it takes to survive rough patches like this current one.
Times are tough, but so are they. Each game will be a test. You can be upset about loses as any good fan should be, but stick with this team. They deserve your (our) support.
Thanks for reading. We welcome your comments and opinions.
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