PITTSBURGH PENGUINS: 17-9-1 (35 PTS.) vs. FLORIDA PANTHERS: 7-14-5 (19 PTS).
GAME DAY SONG: Out In The Street. Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band
Since Kevin Dineen was fired back on November 8th, the Florida Panthers have gone 4-5-1 in the 9 games that interim coach Peter Horachek has coached. The worst loss of those games came Wednesday night, a game before Thanksgiving, and it looked as though the Panthers had turkey on their minds from the puck drop. The game besides being a dull, boring affair, proved that the Panthers still have some work to do in spite of some recent success. Let’s not forget that Florida has the second fewest wins in the NHL, and their overall record is third worst in the league.
Yet it’s not all doom and gloom, as Florida has come a long way since the coaching move, as two other changes that took place may have sent a strong message to the team. Goaltender Jacob Markstrom was sent to San Antonio to work on his consistency. Not at all a bad idea for a goaltender who seemed to be fighting some sort of demon this season. The second move was the trade of forward Kris Versteeg back to the Chicago Blackhawks for defenceman Dylan Olsen and forward Jimmy Hayes. A move that Versteeg may have played himself into, but on the bright side, the chemistry that Olsen and defensive partner Erik Gudbranson seem to have is uncanny. Gudbranson looks like a new player, and has played with more confidence and intelligence. This could be a result of the coaching change as well, but regardless, the Panthers need their defence to tighten up, and for the most part they seem as though they have.
Tim Thomas who has been a workhorse since returning from injury has been one of the most consistent players on the team this year. Despite his record of 6-8-1, it’s Thomas who has kept the games closer than they should have been. A familiar story over the past few seasons here in Florida, where goaltending has usually been better than predicted, yet something that can’t be relied on 100%. Scoring remains to be an issue as the Panthers have scored only 58 goals in 26 games. Not nearly enough, and that has to improve.
Playing the Penguins tonight, Florida can reflect on a 6-3 victory the last time these two teams met here in Sunrise. It was their best performance of the season at that time under Kevin Dineen. Nevermind it was against goaltender Jeff Zatkoff who was making his NHL debut. Zatkoff who relieved Marc-Andre Fleury on Wednesday, could be in the nets again for this one. In that previous game rookie Aleksander Barkov had his only multi-point game of the season when he scored a goal and added two assists.
The Panthers will need to play a smart game and be aware of all the offensive firepower that the Penguins have. Sidney Crosby is tied on the Penguins in goals with 13 and leads the league in points with 36. However there’s also Evgeni Malkin (31 points), Chris Kunitz (26 points), James Neal and Jussi Jokinen to keep their eyes on.
While the Panthers now play a more uptempo game, it’s going to be important not to get into a run and gun game with Pittsburgh. The Penguins have too many weapons offensively, and Florida can’t afford to be caught with more than a hand full of odd man rushes against, as well as do their best to stay out of the penalty box. Mistakes must also be kept to a minimum, and those have been coming from the defence all season. Since Horachek took over, there have been less, but they are still evident.
This will be game three of the five game homestand, and a victory would certainly put a different outlook on things as the Cats continue to turn this season around.
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