A nail-biter in so many ways, the Cats never lost their cool when they would have in years past.
Playing from behind the entire match, Florida simply dominated the first period with exceptional positional play, but came up with nothing. Terrific opportunities by Nathan Horton, David Booth, and the entire third line of Radek Dvorak, Rusty Olesz, and Gregory Campbell all came up short. Chicago played tentatively, laying back and allowing the Pathers to force the game; only 'Hawks goaltender Cristobal Huet kept it close.
The second frame was an entirely different experience, as anyone who follows the Cats knows well: a step behind, fearful of getting involved in the play, spending a healthy portion of the period in their own zone. Tomas Vokoun, who would look so solid in minutes to come, began his "flopping" routine, though it never led to a goal by the opposition. Only Patrick Kane, with laser speed, was able to bring about a red light, zooming in on T-Vo directly out of the penalty box. Michael Frolik tied it up eight minutes later, and there the score remained through the second.
The third was a more balanced performance from both clubs, as everyone eventually gained their "legs". The teams exchanged goals, led by Chicago as it had been the entire day: Byfuglien, then Koistinen, then Sharp, and finished up by David Booth with a late tally to send the deal to overtime. There were moments it appeared the Cats wouldn't get that far. It was tenuous, but they kept a confident air and prevailed.
Overtime was a case of Don't Worry, Be Happy, as the Panthers simply attempted to escape, backed up formidably by Vokoun...who came to play, as it turned out.
The shootout allowed me to pose the question: does DeBoer utilize Koistinen? Indeed he did, and the right call it was: following Steven Reinprecht's goal (tying Jonathon Toew's effort), Koistinen sealed it for the Cats (drawing a huge reaction from his hometown crowd). Vokoun put the stops on Patrick Sharp. Game. Set. Two points.
NOTES: Dvorak looked positively posessed, though not reckless, in his leadership and effort. Kulikov is a keeper; plays like he's a 30 year-old veteran first-rounder. Voukoun is a flippin' and a floppin', but as scary as his style is, he makes it work (just looks terrifying). Nathan Horton had some nice opportunities, but little luck; never fear: his wrister is as wicked as ever. Hitting the post on a partial breakaway only inspired Booth, who had the final tying goal. Shawn Matthias: a work in progress. Michael Frolik finished with a goal and an assist (and is the answer to "who scored the Cats' first goal in 2009-10"?). Michal Repik, Jason Garrison, and Alex Salak were healthy scratches. Vokoun's pads look supreme. Olesz had a few moments of pro-style goodness, looking better than ever, but he's got to pick up his aggressiveness (though he led the club with five shots). Quickly. Lagging behind Dvorak and Campbell isn't going to earn him points. The Panthers fired 24 shots at Huet; Chicago only managed 55 against Vokoun (24 in the third!). New captain Bryan McCabe was quite vocal throughout the day. Defenseman Bryan Allen - he of a loooong recovery from knee surgery - appeared comfortable. And has anyone seen Stanley C. Panther?
We'll do it all again tomorrow, folks...this time with Florida as the "home" team. Live Blog once again at 11am.
Related: Second City Hockey, Blackhawks vs Panthers coverage