It must be a pretty frustrating thing to be the head coach and/or general manager of the Florida Panthers. Night in and night out, you have almost no idea what team you're going to see. It might be the team that rolls four solid lines, forechecks like crazy and causes tons of turnovers, and plays solid defensive hockey with superb goaltending to back it up. The next game, it might be a team of 20-plus guys who have never seen each other before and not one of them speaks the same language. Oh, and they're all jet-lagged and have the flu, so they skate like both ankles are broken. It's mind-boggling and infuriating, but it can also be inspiring and fun... depending on the night, of course.
Last night we saw what the Panthers can be as they smashed the Pittsburgh Penguins 5-1 on the road. There was solid play for the majority of the game at both ends of the ice, and aside from a few bad turnovers in their own zone, the Cats managed to smack the Pens despite being outshot. Yes, the unbelievably bad power play still hasn't clicked, but the Cats scored another shorthanded goal and didn't allow a power-play goal to the league's best power play, so there's at least some special teams stuff that's positive. The Panthers turned in a pretty complete effort against what looked to be a mostly disinterested Pittsburgh team and the score reflected that.
Will the Panthers ever learn to keep their foot on the gas, and continue to press that pedal down further as they gain momentum? If this team could just play solid, 60-minute games every single night, throughout the whole lineup, they have enough talent now to overcome some mistakes. They'll have to do it again tonight against the Buffalo Sabres, losers of their last three and in the midst of a three-game homestand. Buffalo has beaten the Panthers once already this year and nearly did the last time the two teams met, with the Cats narrowly escaping with a 2-1 shootout victory. The Panthers can't let their eye-opening win against the Penguins go anywhere but into the past, as no one cares about what they did, but rather what they'll be doing next. Let's hope that next thing is continuing to play a full 60-minute effort, resulting in two more points in the standings.
It'll be warm and toasty in the LBC GameThread tonight, so no need for toques, eh? Die by the Blade has your Sabres coverage, as well as some glamour shots of John Scott in the penalty box, if you're into that kind of thing.
Players to Watch
Cody Hodgson - He returned to the Buffalo lineup on January 12, and has had a point in every game since (2G, 3A). Hodgson is the closest thing the Sabres have right now to a true top-line centerman, and he's been steadily producing regardless of the opponent. The Sabres have Hodgson locked up to a long-term deal through 2019, so the organization and fans want to see that kind of production out of the young center. The Cats will have to keep Hodgson out of the equation by keeping him out of high-traffic areas in front and pressuring him behind the net, where he's dangerous with time and space.
Jesse Winchester - Welcome back, Mr. Winchester. He returned to the lineup against the Penguins after missing almost a full month with a hand injury. The Panthers immediately benefitted from having him back in the lineup and playing that pesky, persistent forechecking role he's embraced this season, and as a result he posted three helpers en route to the win. He's a welcome addition back to the lineup and his work ethic and wrecking-ball style of play is something several other players on the roster could learn from.
Tyler Myers - The tall, lanky defenseman has regressed in recent seasons from his excellent rookie season, but he's still a force for the Sabres and has hit a bit of a scoring streak as of late, potting two goals in the Sabres last loss against Columbus, and scoring four points in his last four games. The Panthers will have to stay aware of Myers jumping up into the play and his booming shot from the point while on the man advantage, as he scored one of his two goals against the Blue Jackets in the same fashion.
Jimmy Hayes - Acquired from Chicago in the Kris Versteeg deal, Hayes hasn't shown up much lately and has made almost no impact while skating on the fourth line alongside Drew Shore and Shawn Matthias. He's only seeing a little over nine minutes of ice time a game, but a man with his size should be registering on the physical side of things. Hayes seems reticent to throw the body around and cause havoc, something the fourth line should be doing every shift. There's a reason Krys Barch keeps getting inserted in place of Hayes, and it's because he's at least lining the opposition up and finishing checks when he's out there. Hayes, however, has a bigger upside offensively and the Cats would like to see him doing both more regularly.