Okay so maybe this wasn’t exactly what Panther fans had in mind for the 2012-13 season. While I thought it was conceivable that the Panthers might miss the playoffs, I could have never imagined the turmoil Florida would undergo on their way to a last place finish. So things did not go as planned, injuries took their toll, players failed to play up to their expectations, it was a tough season. In the coming weeks The Rat Trick will take an in depth look at the season that was, but for now it is fair to just relish in the positives from last night’s 5-3 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Panthers took their lumps this season, that is indisputable. But by going out with a win, the Panthers helped push all those bad memories further back in the rearview mirror. Last night wasn’t the epilogue to a disappointing season but rather it was the prelude to a promising future.
The most important performance from last night was that of Jonathan Huberdeau. Huberdeau had been locked in a battle of attrition for the NHL rookie scoring title. For the better part of the season it was Jonathan Huberdeau and Cory Conacher atop the leader board but as the season progressed, both players scoring dropped off. As the final week of the season played out, it looked like no one would step up and stake their claim to the title. That was until last night when Jonathan Huberdeau tallied three points, all assists, to give himself a three point cushion in the race.
That was of course before Nail Yakupov and the Edmonton Oilers’ 7-2 rout of the Vancouver Canucks. Yakupov seemed a distant third in the scoring race before this week but he ended his season by scoring six goals in his final three games including a hat-trick last night. Those goals tied Huberdeau for the rookie scoring lead and the rookie goals lead. Conacher and the Senators play today against the Bruins but as it stands it looks like it will be Yakupov and Huberdeau who share the scoring title. Regardless of Yakupov’s ridiculous final game, it was impressive to see Huberdeau finish his season with a scoring flourish and his performance only serves to heighten expectations for what Huberdeau can do next year with a season under his belt and full slate of 82 games.
The Panthers also got a strong performance from Nick Bjugstadanother young Panther with a bright future. Bjugstad tallied his first point of his NHL career with a goal in the first period. Bjugstad was signed by the Panthers after his collegiate season in Minnesota came to an end. Bjugstad played in 11 games with the Panthers gaining invaluable experience.
The games Bjugstad got to play in this season represent a head start in his development. When next season rolls around and the games matter again, Bjugstad will have already overcome many of the struggles and adjustments that come with the jump to the NHL. Bjugstad now knows what to expect and should be better prepared to tackle the challenges of the pro-game. Bjugstad’s first career goal will also leave Panther fans chomping at the bit to see what the future holds for this promising player.
Goaltender Jacob Markstrom also ended his up and down season on a high note. Markstrom stopped 28 of 31 shots and stood tall when it mattered most, keeping the Bolts off the board in the third period. Markstrom finished the year with 8 wins a .901 Sv % and a 3.22 GAA. Obviously not elite, but definitely a solid starting point to build a strong career off.
Looking at all the players who made an impact last night, it is clear that the Florida Panthers are trending upwards. Highly skilled youngsters, Huberdeau, Bjugstad, and Drew Shore all got on the scoresheet. Alex Petrovic played big minutes on defense and even fought Vinny Lecavalier in the third period. Eric Selleck recorded his first NHL point with an assist and Jacob Markstrom shut the door.
Yes the Panthers finished with the worst record in the NHL this season, but they also were able to get a lot of their young players important game experience. They were able to get their goalie of the future an extended opportunity to prove his worth and oh yea they will also have one of the top two picks in the draft. Those are the type of positives that will make this years’ playoffs and offseason less painful.