This Paw Up! The Florida Panthers Find Their Feet

Robert YoungContributor IOctober 17, 2009

SUNRISE, FL - OCTOBER 16: Radek Dvorak #14 of the Florida Panthers celebrates after scoring a third period goal against the Philadelphia Flyers as referee Kevin Pollock #33 points to the net on October 16, 2009 at the BankAtlantic Center in Sunrise, Florida. The Panthers defeated the Flyers 4-2. (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)

On paper, the game versus the tough-hitting Philadelphia Flyers looked like an intimidating opponent for the Florida Panthers, who had lost 4 straight games coming into last night’s contest.

However, the Cats soon found their growl, outworked and out-muscled a rather timid-looking visitor’s side. That means that the Floridian felines now finally seem to be back on par after the Helsinki excursion.

Perhaps too much focus and energy were put into those couple of games as the Panthers have since struggled.

A whipping by the Hurricanes, a home opener marred by a sound outshooting to the Devils, a cruel third-period crush by the Lightning: It certainly was not adding up to the best of starts for the Cats thus far.

With the recent history of the Panthers, many fans started to fear it would be “another of those seasons” ahead.

Seeing a Pronger-fuelled Flyers team coming to visit was another ominous sign, it seemed.

Florida desperately needed to steady the ship, whether it was only five games in to the season or not, the South Floridians were nonetheless sinking fast...

Head coach Peter DeBoer has never been one to dread changing things up if they don’t work and his patience was already running thin. He wanted desperation hockey and got it versus the Flyers after some shuffleboard changes to the crew and a stern telling-off after a poor first period showing.

Prior to the game, he had sent C Shawn Matthias back down to Rochester in the AHL. This because he finally got new signee C Dominic Moore to be able to suit up after visa issues had delayed his arrival on the ice—delayed until yesterday when he could make his much vaunted debut.

Rostislav Olesz was also promoted to second-line wing, while veteran Cory Stillman was demoted to the third line. Scott Clemmensen, meanwhile, was given his first start in goal instead of Tomas Vokoun.

These changes seemed to do the trick and the Panthers finally started to click on the ice, work as a team and play the only way they can to be successful: with a large degree of desperation.

Signs of this pending revival had been seen on Monday as the South Floridians almost stole the show against their western coast counterparts, the Tampa Bay Lightning.

It was an even game that was decided late in the third period. In one sequence where the Cats missed a one-on-one, they were immediately punished at the other end with the deflating 3-2 goal. To say it was a bolt out of the blue would be rather trite, but nonetheless accurate.

Despite the defeat, the Cats showed a burgeoning confidence on the ice and the players looked like they finally were getting their act together.

Thus, the win against the Philadelphia Flyers was not a one-off performance, and the fans can take some heart from this victory. There is no reason to think the Panthers won’t continue to grow together as a team and improve with the season.

However, some caution is to be advised.

The Philadelphia Flyers looked sluggish in this game and were easily overpowered in the second and third periods. They have an awkward schedule with a lot of blanks in it at the moment, and their skaters could be expected to be a bit off their stride—which they clearly also were.

The Tampa Bay Lightning are similarly still trying to find an identity and playing some haphazard hockey at the moment.

That they still won the game against the Panthers is in itself a worrying fact. Antero Niittymaki was stellar in goal, but the Cats were equally rather off the bat in their shooting.

Indeed, whether or not the Panthers find some much-desired improvement in the upcoming games, I still think they may need to address the fundamental flaws that exist in the team at one point or another. That is, if they want to make a concerted effort to reach the postseason.

As I have previously mentioned in my articles, the Florida Panthers don’t really have the top names in the forward compartment to make any opposing defenders frightfully jingle-jangle in their skates. Our top line of Booth-Weiss-Horton may be a promising one, but it's hardly a line that will dominate many games.

Moreover, the second line looks a bit fragile. Whether it’s Olesz or Stillman teaming up with Reinprecht, or Moore and Frolik on the opposite wing, it still doesn’t amount to an offensive juggernaut of unstoppable proportions.

The checking third and fourth lines however, look very competitive within their limited field of play. They should be well-equipped to provide energy and power to get the Panthers up the ice.

As for the defense...

I have previously covered the blueline in an extensive analytical article, but the key deficiencies can be seen as its apparent lack of size, grit and raw power. Focusing rather on mobility and speed, the Panthers defenders can be caught out—and also outmuscled—in the defensive zone by an aggressive and determined opponent.

A point which was clearly demonstrated in both comprehensive defeats to Chicago (0-4) and Carolina (2-7).

Yesterday, however, versus the Philadelphia Flyers in that memorable 4-2 victory in Sunrise, none of these potential deficiencies reared their ugly heads. Nonetheless, this does not mean we have overcome them quite yet...

One win does not make a season, and I fear we will again see these shortcomings up close in South Florida.

Getting a win onboard for the continued continental journey is nevertheless very valuable for morale and confidence. All this will be needed the coming Wednesday when facing a strapping Buffalo Sabres team that has started the season in impressive fashion.

Hockey fans in South Florida will still be fretting the future after the discomfited start to the season by the Panthers, but the victory over the Flyers does bring some much needed hope and belief back to the B.A.C.

Perhaps this win can be the catalyst needed to jump-start the Florida Panthers' season?

We will see about that. But hopefully that win will at least mean the Florida players have finally put Helsinki firmly behind them. Now that they’ve found their hockey feet back in the NHL proper, hopefully they'll start playing with a much-added sense of urgency henceforth.