Tuesday, February 28, 2012
Down the Home Stretch with the Panthers!
With their win over the Montreal Canadiens last Sunday afternoon, the Florida Panthers inched closer to obtaining a playoff berth for the first time in ten years. They now have seventy points, two shy of their total for last year. With more than twenty games remaining, there is a good chance they will equal, perhaps surpass last year’s total.
There are a number of reasons for this year’s success. On the first of June, last year, the team hired Kevin Dineen to stand behind the bench. Kevin played nineteen seasons in the NHL, coached the last six years in Portland in the AHL, and grew up in a hockey family. He knows the game.
Following last Sunday’s game, I button-holed Kevin for a perspective. The team had dropped four games in a row before rebounding to win twice, the second game against the Habs. “They came out strong against us in the first period, as they usually do. Fortunately, we had an answer for them.”
Prior to the game, the Panthers held a ceremony for Steve Weiss. He had just broken the record for playing the most games as a Panther in team history. Weiss responded by scoring two goals, leading his team to the 4-2 win over the Habs. He was named game’s first star, and had the belt to prove it. Above his locker, a belt remarkably similar to one that Don King would have designed, rested proudly. Weary from the game and the post game media scrum he quietly told me: “I’ve had a great day”.
One reporter commented upon the fact that Dineen had “rolled his four lines” judiciously throughout the game. Dineen smiled, and added, “Better players can make you a better coach. You don’t have to tap the same players on the shoulder time after time. At this point in the season, we are not trying to trade players. We are adding players right now because we are in the hunt”. (The Cats had just signed Wojtek Wolski, who had been with the Rangers. Bulls fans will remember him as a fine player with the Brampton Battalion. He started his junior career with St. Mike’s B’s of the OPJHL.)
I asked Dineen about Shawn Matthias. He chose his words slowly and carefully. “The thing about Shawn that impresses me the most has been his growth this year, both on and off the ice. He has such a quiet demeanour, but I believe his fine play has opened up his personality. He has given us an added dimension with his speed and his size. I have been able to use him as a full-time penalty killer as well.”
During the game, Matthias swept into the Habs zone on the penalty kill, disrupting the breakout pass on several occasions. He covers a lot of ice, and does not shy away from contact.
As expected, Matthias gave credit to his teammates after the game. “We are excited to have Wolski with us. We have had some injuries lately, so he will be a great addition. Following those four home losses, we really needed this win, especially for our fans.”
Another important addition to the Panthers this season is Brian Campbell. He played his entire OHL career with the Ottawa 67s, often a thorn in the side of George Burnett and the Bulls. Campbell told me after the game, “I really like the balance on this team right now. It gives us a chance to win every night, a chance to finish things off”.
The Panthers wrap up the regular season on Saturday, April 7th at home against the Carolina Hurricanes. Another season will begin at that time. It is called “The Playoffs”. The end of it all comes when players sip from Lord Stanley’s mug.
February 28, 2012