No secret to anyone who is a regular reader of this site, and many of you wonder how I can handle the stress of rooting for two teams, but trust me…..I do it. Born and raised in Chicago, I am a die hard Blackhawks fan as you know. Moving to South Florida in 1993 I quickly became a fan of the expansion Florida Panthers. Ironically, the first game in Panther history was against the Blackhawks, so my issues began rather quickly.
Fast track all the way from that inaguaral season for Florida in 1993 to today, and take a brief look back at last season for both teams. Two teams in different conferences with different objectives and goals, last year was a tough year, and it was a pleasant year all the same. While both teams made the post season, which made me happy, both teams were eliminated in the first round, and that is where the disappointment comes in.
For the Chicago Blackhawks, coming off a 2010-2011 season which saw them display a Stanley Cup hangover for much of the season, 2011-2012 was supposed to be a year of improvement, and a year of returning back to challenge for the Stanley Cup. The regular season for Chicago saw them finish 6th overall in the competitive Western conference with 101 points. A record on the road of 18-18-5 would be just one reason for disappointment, the other would be their special teams. With a power play efficiency rating of 15.2%, and a penalty killing percentage of on 78.1 (poor enough for 27th), these two areas would come back to haunt Chicago all season long and into the playoffs. In addtion, the third reason for disapppointment in the Windy City would the performance of goaltenders Corey Crawford who seemed to take a step back, and Ray Emery who was very……medicore…..except for a brief stint where he may have played over his head.
When you look at the offensive weapons the Hawks have, Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, and Marian Hossa, who was the teams leading scorer in the regular season, but had his head knocked off by criminal Raffi Torres in the playoffs, you wonder how the power play could be so inefficient. Those four players alone accounted for 114 regular season goals, however only 25 came with the man advantage. Needless to say, with former Panther assistant coach Mike Kitchen running the PP, those initals stood for something other than power play last season. In an effort to bolster that part of the game, the Hawks hired former LA Kings assistant coach Jaime Kompon who like Kitchen has worked with Joel Quenneville before, and thus the “band” has been put back together.
Goaltending for Chicago was average at best. Corey Crawford regressed from his previous season, and saw his numbers take a nose dive with his inconsistency. With a record of 30-17-7 you would think that would be something to be estactic about. Not so, as the games he lost, while not entirely his fault were crucial. At times when Corey needed to make a save, he didn’t. Maybe it’s youth, maybe it’s a sophomore slump, but the Hawks are expecting a rebound performance. The mere thought of GM Stan Bowman even entertaining thoughts of Bobby Lou wearing the Indian head are vulgar.
This offseason the only acquisition the Hawks made was signing defenceman Sheldon Brookbank. Hmmm. This could be a case of addition by subtraction as other teams in their division lost players, most notably Detroit with Nicklas Lidstrom retiring, Columbus losing Rick Nash, and Nashville losing Ryan Suter, and almost losing Shea Weber. In addition, it will also be interesting to see how the St. Louis Blues react with a full season of Ken Hitchcock behind the bench. He says he’s changed and mellowed. Let’s see how the Blues are doing with Hitch Hockey come Thanksgiving.
For the Florida Panthers, last season started off with a bang on July 1st. Dale Tallon gave new meaning to the term free agent frenzy with the signings of Jose Theodore, Tomas Fleischmann, Ed Jovoanovski, among others, as well as trading for smooth skating Brian Campbell, and Kris Versteeg. Getting Chicago to take on the bloated contract of Rusty Olesz was brilliant on Dale’s part, but also caused my stomach to turn at the same time. Needless to say, Tallon’s off season work last summer was nothing short of brilliant, as he kept his word about using the blueprint which helped the Chicago Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup in 2010.
The Panthers won their first ever division title last season, and returned to the playoffs for the first time since Lil Miss Rat Trick was six years old! With the FlashMob line of Versteeg, Stephen Weiss, and Tomas Fleischmann getting off to a tremendous start, the Panthers got off to an early lead in the Southeast, and held it for most of the season. The goaltending combo of veterans Jose Theodore and Scott Clemmensen surprised everyone, and put all thoughts of Theo’s inconsistency to bed. Not to call it a bounce back season for the likeable former Vezina Trophy and Hart winner, Theodore was one of the biggest reasons for Florida’s success. Climibing from 15th in the previous season to a division winner in the next, Tallon and first year head coach Kevin Dineen orchestrated a quick turnaround.
Players knew that Tallon and company meant buisness with the trading of David Booth just six games into the season. Coming on the heals of two poorly played games, the Panthers responded, and except for a little burp here and there, put all the pundits to shame with their division win. Like or not, the Washington Capitals had ample opportunities to take over Florida, and at one point did. However they fell back, and the Panthers marched on.
The off season for Florida has been busier than Chicago’s, but less active than last year. Rumors flying about Bobby Lou coming back have thankfully simmered down. Peter Mueller signed as a free agent could be another one of Dale Tallon’s sleeper moves, and defenceman Filip Kuba returns, taking the place of the departed Jason Garrison.
The playoffs for both Chicago and Florida in my mind were disappointing. Yes, both made it, and yes the Panthers almost won their first round series against the Devils, taking them to a double overtime in seven games. The heartache was that Florida was one goal away from advancing, and besides the Kings, gave New Jersey and Marty Brodeur all they could handle for seven games. Chicago meanwhile played against a tough, trapping and head hunting Phoenix Coyotes team that all but derailed the Hawks chances of getting back to the final with the Raffi Torres hit. When I talk about Florida losing in the first round, my disappointment comes from the fact that they found hard, worked hard, and for the season they had, deserved a break.
Chicago feels good about standing pat at the moment. A second consectutive long off season, giving Hossa ample time to heal, and allowing the rest of the players to do the same (Toews missed 23 games with a concussion) will make a difference. Young players like Nick Leddy and Andrew Shaw have some more experience under their belt, and the Hawks still have their main core together to compete for a Stanley Cup. A first round exit would most likely mean a departure for head coach Joel Quenneville.
For the Panthers, making the playoffs again, for two years in a row is mandatory. They cannot be one and done. They’ve added toughness with George Parros, an element that was missing last season. Erik Gudbranson who grew up before our eyes in the seven game series against the Devils is going to be a star in this league. Kevin Dineen will continue to have to press all the right buttons, and should Jonthan Huberdeau make the team as expected, Florida will have more skill and scoring up front, where it’s needed. But anything short of the playoffs won’t be well received.
Phew! All that said, both teams are earmarking another post season appearance, and advancing beyond the first round. The future is bright in Florida. The future is now in Chicago.
Thanks for reading. We welcome your comments and opinions.
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