The Panthers ended 2011 on a satisfying high note, silencing the myriad of Habs fans in the Bank Atlantic Center with a 3-2 win in regulation on New Year’s Eve. That game further solidified their Southeast division lead and sent them into the new year with a 20-12-7 record.
Then January happened. During the past month, the Panthers mustered two measly wins, only one of which was in regulation. This 2-3-4 outing cost them the top spot in the division and sent them down the standings where they currently sit uncomfortably in 7th place in the East with 55 points.
I can only take a few positives out of January, so I’ll get those out of the way first. The largest margin of defeat was three goals, which was the 4-1 home loss to the Pens on Friday, Jan. 13 (spooky)! I still have a bad taste in my mouth from the 8-0 and 6-1 routing’s the Bruins and Rangers, respectively, gave us last month so it was nice to not have to witness one of those types of games. The other upside is that we took 4 points from games that we ended up losing. While it’s good to grind out those valuable points, it still stings knowing that you left the matching point on the table.
On to the bad… where do I begin? For starters, the Flash Mob line of Kris Versteeg, Stephen Weiss and Tomas Fleischmann isn’t producing to near the capacity that they were in the opening months of the season. Between the three of them, only four goals were scored and they combined for an unimpressive six assists. The Panthers’ points leader for the month of January was Marcel Goc with three goals and four assists. Tomas Kopecky and Mikael Samuelsson both had five points. While it’s great to have the contributions from your second and third liners, those need to be paralleled by the offense that should come automatically from your top line. Especially when a month ago that line was the best in the league.
Of course it has been tough for the Cats to play with so many injuries lately, but the end of the month saw the return of wingers Jack Skille, Scottie Upshall and Sean Bergenheim. They all only played in two games since coming back and none of them really made a statement or generated any offense. Bergenheim did nothing other than rack up three minor penalties in one game and Skille and Upshall were only good for one shot on goal a piece. I didn’t expect them to have Sidney Crosby/Claude Giroux-like returns, but nothing of their first games back stood out to be any form of encouragement. The timing of Bergenheim’s injury was unfortunate, seeing as how he was on a mini hot streak after scoring three goals in a little over a week right before he went down with a groin injury. Flashes of greatness have been seen from the three, so the Panthers need them to come out of the All Star break fired up.
For some reason, and I’ve been rattling my brain for the last three weeks to try to pinpoint it, the Panthers just can not close out games. Earlier this season, the story seemed to be “play hard for 60 minutes, but really turn the jets on late in the third.” They didn’t always have the first lead of the game, but they found ways to rally back and get wins. Our offense has become stagnant and our -14 goal differential reflects it.
At this point I have to start questioning Dineen, at least a little bit. The talent is there, and Panthers fans have seen what that can amount to when players were playing up to their potential regularly. To me, the biggest red flag right now is a lack of consistency. The Panthers have not won back to back games since winning on Dec. 16 and 18, and they still gave up a point in both of those. I’m not big on throwing the blame on a coach, especially a first-year coach, but being complacent with early success isn’t going to get a team to the playoffs. A four game losing streak in January amidst a tightening division race also isn’t going to get a team to the postseason. Clearly, strategic changes need to be made, and fast.
When Dale Tallon shipped David Booth off to Vancouver in shocking fashion after six games, the Panthers seriously peaked. It was difficult to watch the fan favorite leave South Florida, but a message was definitely sent in the process. It’s tough to say whether or not a trade of that magnitude is the answer at this stage, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it happens. I still have nothing but faith in Tallon, and though I admit to sounding a little more pessimistic now, I’m still on board with the improvements we have seen within the organization. Call me greedy, but I want more.
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