Let's hope the Panthers gave goaltender Roberto Luongo a nice day at the spa on Wednesday, as the Cats are going to need him again tonight as they head to the desert to face off against the Phoenix Coyotes. Luongo was the unquestioned star of the night when the Cats visited San Jose, stealing two points for the Panthers and posting a ridiculous 0.96 save percentage while facing an also-ridiculous 54 shots. Luongo was traded for because he's still considered a top-end netminder, and that game was proof that he is still exactly that.
Also surprising was the continued points streaks for many of the young Panther players whom no one really expected much from to close out this season. Quinton Howden scored his third goal in four games, Brandon Pirri has seven points in his last five games, and Jimmy Hayes has been playing at a point-per-game pace over the last nine contests. This line is providing some consistency in scoring, something that none of the other lines seems to be doing (although Scottie Upshall is on a little goal scoring tear as of late). Whether this is just a flash in the pan remains to be seen, but it's a good sign regardless. If this trio can continue to finish the season strong, and Vincent Trocheck can continue to play a solid game, the young guys on this team are setting themselves up well to inherit spots on the big club next season.
If not, there's always free agency again, right?
Players to Watch
Tom Gilbert - He's not flashy, but he's getting the job done defensively. The Cats had significantly more shots against when Gilbert was not on the ice in the San Jose game. His pairing with Brian Campbell is the most steady defensively for the Panthers and Gilbert is probably the biggest reason why. They also have some tough zone start figures, further cementing that this pairing is the top defensive choice for head coach Peter Horacek. Many hope the Panthers retain Gilbert after this season, as he's set to become a UFA when the season ends.
Joey Crabb - Crabb's not going to light the lamp much, but he's due. He's been playing some hard-nosed, workman-like hockey since he was called up, doing the dirty work in the corners and taking hits to make a play. He plays a pretty simple, smart game, similar to Jesse Winchester. It'd be nice to see Crabb get rewarded with a goal for all his hard work.
Oliver Ekman-Larsson - Last game against Phoenix, I wrote about Keith Yandle being a top-tier defenseman for the Coyotes. In my opinion, the better of the two is Ekman-Larsson, who is only 22 and looks like a shadow of Niklas Lidstrom at times. His defensive play is incredibly consistent, his offensive abilities continue to bloom, and he's as smart a player as you're going to find on the blue line. Phoenix has drafted defensemen very well over the last several years and it's really starting to pay off as Yandle, Ekman-Larsson, and newcomers Connor Murphy and Brandon Gormley, both first-round selections, are on the rise.
Shane Doan - At 37, Doan is still getting it done. He's only one goal away from scoring 20 goals in a season for the eleventh time in his career. He's the face of the Phoenix Coyotes and he's pretty much everything a team could want in a captain. The Panthers are going to have to limit his chances and keep the forecheck from Doan's line from becoming a factor, as the Panthers defense is known for turnovers under pressure.