Coming into Tuesday’s game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Florida Panthers had a few of things going against them. They had lost their past five games in the confines of the BB&T Center with a 2-4-3 home record on the season. Their power play, a key ingredient in last year’s success, had only produced one goal since February 7th. And, in the Pens net was former Cat Tomas Vokoun, who won all three starts against them last season as a member of the Washington Capitals. The good news is that Vokoun would finish his night on the Pittsburgh bench as Florida rode a Tomas Kopecky hat trick to a 6-4 win over the team that beat them this past Friday.
Florida had a season high four power play goals as it took advantage of an undisciplined night from the Pens that saw them take nine minor penalties. Kopecky, who’s become Florida’s go-to guy in front of the net, recorded two of those goals as he crashed the net and collected rebounds on both efforts. His second goal of the night caused the biggest stir of the night. After scoring, he took a late cross check to the back from Craig Adams, which caused him to fall in Vokoun’s crease. After the netminder threw a punch (for lack of a better word, wasn’t exactly a Parros-like bomb), the South Florida neighbors traded shoves and punches (again, for lack of a better word) before being broken apart, with eight minutes in penalties being doled out, including a double minor on Kopecky for roughing. I’m not usually one to complain about officiating but, I’m still trying to figure out how a guy gets cross checked in the back and punched as he lays on the ice and gets called for a double minor while Adams went without a penalty.
Brian Campbell’s power play tally later in the period would put Vokoun on the bench for the rest of the night and give the Panthers a 4-1 lead midway through the second. However, over the final 11:09, the Pens would mount a rally of their own to tie game at four after two period and put Panthers starting netminder Jose Theodore on the Florida bench to start the third in favor of Scott Clemmensen. The backup netminder stopped all 15 shots he faced in the frame, despite spending the final five miinutes of the period with his cage under siege. Coach Kevin Dineen said of the change:
“I was trying to give us the best chance to win and Theo didn’t look like he was on top of his game. It was a tough second period for him so Clem was the right guy to go with.”
Clemmensen commented on how it was easy for him to relax in the situation of coming in for a period:
“It’s always difficult no matter what the circumstance is going into a game like that but you have nothing to lose. You go out there, it is 4-4 and you have fun with it. Obviously it worked out tonight. I felt good coming off my last start there in Philadelphia so I think that helped me carry through”
While Clemmensen locked down his end of ice, Tomas Fleischmann would atone for his early third period penalty by scoring the game winner, the 100th goal of his career, ten seconds after leaving the penalty box for the 5-4 lead. Kopecky’s empty netter would put the baby to bed and send the home crowd (the non Pens fans in attendance, that is) home happy for the first time since 1/31.
While this season has been largely about the kid line of Jonathan Hubderdeau, Drew Shore and Peter Mueller, this game was one for the veterans. Kopecky pocketed four points on the night while Campbell and Fleischmann collected two. It was nice to see the guys who were integral in last season’s success have a break out night. While the play of the young guys has been encouraging in terms of the future, if this team is to have a present, it needs those guys to start playing at a high level (save for Kopecky, who has been solid all season). If Kris Versteeg can return and play like he can and Stephen Weiss can pick up his play, things in the Southeast Division get interesting, to say the least. This win puts the Panthers three points out of first place in the division, an amazing feat (and a commentary on how down the division is so far this season) considering, they’ve yet to play their best hockey. With a winnable game against the struggling Buffalo Sabres up next to close out the home stand, the Panthers have a chance to get themselves on a roll and make some noise in the playoff picture.
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