After a very entertaining and rousing Olympic hockey tournament, those of us who are Panthers fans are going to be brought right back to hockey oblivion as the Cats return to the ice tonight. Florida comes back from the Olympic break sitting at 51 points, tied for third worst in the NHL. It's been a season of inconsistency, and the Panthers have 24 games left to show some signs of life that may indicate the start of a brighter future next season.
Of course, half of this team may not be here next season. With 13 players on the active roster in the final year of their current contracts, the Panthers are set to undergo yet another round of major turnover in the offseason. The trade deadline is looming and GM Dale Tallon will be working the phones to try and move the meager assets the Panthers do have in exchange for, well... who knows. Prospects and draft picks are always good, but this team needs to start winning now, and despite the commitment to spending in the summer, there simply isn't a lot out there that looks worth the money come July.
All of that aside, guys should be playing for jobs and for pride, and it's up to head coach Peter Horacek to get the squad to finish out the season on a strong note, even without rookie center Aleksander Barkov and veteran Tomas Kopecky, both out with injury from the Olympics. There will be some call-ups (Drew Shore is already back up with the Cats) and some lineup shuffling (Nick Bjugstad will be centering the top line), but regardless of all the adversity, this team needs to put out a complete effort every game for the rest of the season.
Players to Watch
Alex Ovechkin - After an incredibly disappointing finish for Russia in the Olympic tourney, Ovechkin looked distant and distraught all at once. His performance in the Olympics was a stark contrast to his offensive assault during the first two-thirds of the NHL season, and it will be interesting to see how he returns to the Capitals lineup after such a huge letdown. Ovechkin has proven that mindset does affect his play, so we'll see if he is more motivated, or dejected and apathetic.
Shawn Matthias - Matty has had some flashes of great play this season, when he's skating hard and using his body. He's just got the same problem the rest of the team does: consistency. He'll go stretches in a game, or even several games, playing perimeter hockey and not using the skills that give him a chance to be an NHL player. He has to assert himself more on the ice and use that speed and size to create chances. The best defense is a good offense and Matthias is capable of controlling the puck through the neutral zone and deep in the offensive zone. He's just gotta do it every game, and every shift.
Marcel Goc - He's been a very serviceable player and one of the Panthers' best face-off guys, but methinks Goc is on his way out. He's one of those excellent depth players on most other teams and a solid two-way forward with some offensive abilities. He's likely going to be moved before the deadline and he will be missed, but the Panthers have way too many third-line type guys similar to Goc on the roster. Hopefully he can contribute before he's dealt, and hopefully he lands in a good place.
Joel Ward - Who is second on the Capitals in goals scored? Yep, Joel Ward, with 17 tallies, tied for his career high. He's set to finish this season with more goals and points than he ever had before, and has turned in a great campaign for the Caps after scoring only 38 points in the previous 112 games in a Washington sweater. Many wondered why GM the GM gave Ward $3 million a year to chip in 20 points a season, but he's proving some critics wrong this year, and maybe next, as his contract ends next season.