As the Florida Panthers return home after a tough three game stretch in western Canada, fans in Sunrise should be excited for the 2010-11 season as it kicks off in BankAtlantic Center Saturday against the in-state rival Tampa Bay Lightning. Although they return to sunny south Florida with a 1-2 record, the Panthers have given reason for fans to believe in them this upcoming year. They fought hard in one-goal losses to both the Edmonton Oilers and Vancouver Canucks, but just couldn’t get the victory. That changed last night as they left Calgary with a 3-0 win under their belts and confidence oozing out of their pores.
Despite coming home with only one win, more can be taken from that trip than just the two points. A good road trip can have a huge impact on a team, especially one looking to find an identity. Being on the road, especially on the opposite end of the country, makes a team come together just a little bit more, they go through the beginning of the season with three tough games and only have each other out there. It also gives the players time to bond and come together as a team, and the Panthers seemed to do just that. They improved every game and that’s a good sign for a young team that’s looking to finally make its impact on the league. If they can continue to grow together and form a close-knit family on and off the ice, the wins are bound to come.
The Panthers top players, David Booth, Stephen Weiss, Michael Frolik have yet to score a goal and have only 2 points combined (both assists by David Booth), but they all have looked spectacular in the opening week. They have combined for 22 shots so it’s only a matter of time before the pucks start bouncing their way. Marty Reasoner is proving to be a pleasant surprise, acquired in a trade with the Chicago Blackhawks for Jeff Taffe, as he scored two against the Oilers and added two assists last night for 4 points in his first three games in a Panthers uniform. Reasoner, on a line with Dvorak and Stillman, have provided most of the Panther offense thus far. If they can keep up their contributions the Panthers seemed to have found that secondary scoring they’ve been desperately searching for. The Shawn Matthais, Rotislav Olesz, and David Booth line looked great in last night’s win as well, who were all in on the third goal which cemented the Panthers win. Olesz also had the lone goal in Monday night’s contest against the Canucks.
The defense, led by Bryan McCabe and Dennis Wideman, has done a good job thwarting the opponents chances. Only two of the defensemen, Jason Garrison and Mike Weaver, are minuses, both a -2. Wideman is the only defender with a point so far this season, but the stingy play of the top four (completed by Dmitry Kulikov and Bryan Allen) has led to only five goals against, a major improvement from last season when they gave up 14 through the first three games. The only area the defense needs improvement in is getting the puck out of the zone. The breakouts have been mediocre at best, with a lot of bad passes leading to turnovers and extra offensive pressure by the opponents.
The defense isn’t the only thing to credit for the low-scoring games the Panthers have been involved in. Goaltender Tomas Vokoun seems to have found his form in the early-goings this year. After a shaky game in Edmonton, Vokoun responded with a solid, but unfortunately losing, effort the next night in Vancouver. As questions started to rise about how the 34 year old would perform in what could be his last season in a Panthers uniform, he silenced doubters with a stellar shutout performance, stopping all 27 shots the Flames threw his way Thursday night which included some very tough saves. Vokoun finshed the three game trip with a .933% save percentage, six amongst goalies who have played more than one game, and a 1.69 GAA which is third best.
Overall, the Panthers look to be a team on a mission in the early stages of the season. That mission: Qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since the 1999-2000 season. According to David Booth, “This is the best start we’ve been off to since I’ve been here although the record isn’t. We keep playing games like this and we’re going to win”. Tomas Vokoun also added “I’ve been here a long time and that was one of the best – if not the best – games I’ve ever seen this team play”, talking about Thursday’s game. Of course, the team still has to score goals, which was their biggest problem last season, but with secondary scoring leading the way through the first three games, that should ease the pressure on Booth, Weiss, and Frolik, who are bound to score soon. The powerplay has been an abysmal 0-11, but the penalty killing has been stellar, killing off all 5 attempts. Monday night in Vancouver, the Panthers went without a minor penalty for the fourth time in franchise history. With the young team confident in their abilities to compete in this league, the question seems to be can they keep up their solid play for the next 79 games? If they manage to stay healthy, there seems to be no evidence to suggest they can’t. So Panthers fans enjoy the regular season and don’t be too surprised if you find yourself in a pleasantly unfamiliar territory come April.