After losing veteran blueliner Ed Jovanovski to a hand injury after a fight on January 12th against the Boston Bruins’ Dan Paille, the Florida Panthers were fortunate that Keaton Ellerby had been waiting in the wings to step in. Nine days later when defenceman Dmitry Kulikov sustained a knee injury in a game against the Winnipeg Jets on January 21st, the Panther faithful collectively asked themselves “what now”? With the forwards of the team battered and banged up during the first half of the season, the “bug” all of a sudden hit the back line, and as of Sunday’s game against the Islanders the Florida Panthers had lost 233 man games to injury.
Fortunately, the depth of the organEYEzation has come through. GM Dale Tallon and his assistant Mike Santos have done a masterful job with this franchise in the almost two years they have been at the helm. When Jovo went down, Ellerby stepped in and has played a steady and uneventful role, which is absolutely fine. In the 11 consecutive games that Ellerby has played, he’s been a plus one, has been physical,and is gaining confidence.
On January 24th Tyson Strachan was inserted into the lineup after the Kulikov injury and has played surprisingly well. In eight games the 27 year old has one goal (his first ever in the NHL), and two assists, is a plus 3, and has shown his physical capabilities with 12 hits. All that to go along with a plus 3 rating. One little secret that we were unaware of was his blistering slap shot from the point, which when used will be referred to as “Release the Strachan”.
On Sunday after Jason Garrison injured himself in the Devils game the afternoon before, the Panthers found themselves in another quandry. Only five healthy defencemen were with the team, but fortunately the AHL affiliate for the Panthers the San Antonio Rampage were playing close by, and Colby Robak was called on fill in for Garrison. Robak a 21 year old second round pick in 2008 was making his NHL debut for Florida. Robak is 6′ 3″ and has some offensive upside potential, but for now, he doesn’t need to do that much. Just play smartly, and make good decisions.
With Brian Campbell and Mike Weaver as the only two “veterans” on defence, the youngsters, and Tyson Strachan have done a superb job in the past eight games. The Panthers have a 5-2-1 record during that time, and are in the midst of a three game winning streak which they hope to stretch to four Wednesday evening against the Ottawa Senators at home.
However, with all the surprisingly good play that we’ve seen from Ellerby, Strachan and Robak, you must now have noticed how well Erik Gudbranson has been playing. His minutes have increased to where he’s virtually playing 20 per night. He’s getting power play time, has been paired mostly with Brian Campbell, and has begun to make his physical presence known on a nightly basis. Many fans were wondering why Erik wasn’t getting much playing time early on, and was it the right decision to keep him up here, rather than send him back to his junior team in Kingston. As I have said all along, Erik has zero to prove in juniors. The only thing he would have accomplished would have been learning bad habits. Coach Kevin Dineen was very smart in limiting his ice time early on, and as much as he didn’t like it, the stretch of games where he was in the press box for six of nine contests was ultimately a good thing.
Defence is one of the most difficult positions to master, and at 20 years old, there is so much to learn. It helps that Dineen, a former player himself knew how to bring our prize possession along. He has his whole career ahead of him, and the best way to help Erik develop is by putting him in situations where he has the opportunity to be successful. The past few games we are beginning to see just a glimpse of Erik’s future, and with the rest of the defence playing as well as they are, it’s no surprise that the Panthers haven’t missed a beat.
Get yourselves to the game on Wednesday. Come out and support your first place Florida Panthers.
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