The halfway point of the season has come and gone, and the Panthers decided to ring in the second half with a home victory, topping the Vancouver Canucks 2-1 in a close game. In yeoman fashion, the Panthers outworked the Vancouver players for large stretches of the game, and especially in the second period, when the Panthers scored two goals and held the Canucks without a shot for much of the period. This was the kind of complete effort that fans haven't seen much of lately from the Panthers, and despite the low score, the Cats got what they needed out of this game: two points, a five day rest, and the confidence that comes from beating one of the best teams in the NHL. Let's hope that confidence continues to carry over that five day break, as the Panthers have a very tough schedule for the remainder of the month.
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Florida came out peppering the Vancouver net with shots, and Roberto Luongo left several juicy rebounds laying around but the Cats couldn't convert. Not much later, Florida would let up an odd-man rush and Vancouver's Dale Wiese would score on their first shot of the game as Erik Gudbranson misplayed the puck up high in the offensive zone. After the effort by the Panthers in the first three minutes, you really felt for them giving up another early goal like that, and you got the feeling this might be a long night. Michael Repik took a pretty questionable penalty about a minute later, but so did two Canucks, giving Florida a powerplay. The Cats wouldn't score though, and gave up a little shorthanded odd-man rush as well. Vancouver would start to wake up a bit and spend some time in the Florida zone, but couldn't generate much in the way of chances. The Panthers would take another penalty as former Panther Chris Higgins was tripped up by Kris Versteeg, and the top-ranked powerplay in the NHL would take the ice. Fortunately Florida was able to kill off the penalty and only let up a single shot to the Canucks. After the penalty, the Canucks started to take control of the game, holding the puck in the Florida zone for what felt like minutes at a time. Florida did a pretty good job of keeping Vancouver to the perimeter, and despite one or two decent chances for the Canucks, the Panthers managed to get out of the period down only a goal.
Head coach Kevin Dineen may have had a few words with the players after the first, because they came out and controlled majority of the first five minutes. They would eventually be rewarded as Dmitry Kulikov would rip home a slapper from the boards, beating Luongo high and tying things up at one apiece. Kulikov's exuberance would carry over into his own zone, however, and would turn into a hooking call against him, giving the Canucks their second man advantage of the evening. The Panthers would have a great PK though and kill it off with not too much trouble. Florida would then get their own powerplay as Wiese interfered with Kulikov, and would convert this time as Marcel Goc would sneak the puck past Luongo after a crazy flurry of pressure in front of the Vancouver crease. Both teams would trade chances after the goal, but Florida would shut down Vancouver for the last 13:30 of the period, not allowing a single shot. The Cats would get a few more decent chances on Luongo before the period would end, but couldn't put another one by Luongo and would go into the second intermission up by a goal.
The Cats came out with an early penalty as Mikael Samuelsson got caught tripping, so the Panthers had to kill off a third penalty to start the third. The Panthers successfully killed it off, and both teams started a big of end to end action. Both teams were sloppy, turning the puck over at their own bluelines and causing problems for themselves because of it, but both Scott Clemmensen and Luongo were up to the task. The Canucks dominated the Cats in regards to shots in the third and the Panthers had to withstand constant pressure from Vancouver. The Panthers would slowly start to morph into Defensive Kitty (I CAN HAZ CLEAR?), weathering the Canucks attack through the final 10 minutes of the period. Their level of competitiveness was clearly there, and they would hold on with a one goal lead until less than a minute remaining, when Vancouver would take a penalty. That would seal the deal and the Panthers would win, gaining a much needed two points against one of the best teams in the NHL. Huge.
- Mucho love to Clemmer, who was excellent against Vancouver. There have been times this year he's looked shaky, and his numbers echo that sentiment, but hopefully Clemmer gets hot and leads this team to some big January wins. At least until Jose Theodore and Jacob Markstrom are healthy. No offense to Brian Foster, the backup in this game, but a combo of Theo/Clemmer or Clemmer/Marky is what we want to see in the second half of the season.
- Tons of sterling defensive plays by the Panthers tonight. A great sweep of the stick by Brian Campbell saved a sure goal, and Jason Garrison, Stephen Weiss, Matt Bradley, Tomas Kopecky and several others played some great defensive hockey in this game. Again, John Madden looks like the defensive pest of yesteryear.
- Another rookie mistake by Gudbranson on the first Vancouver goal. It sucks, but it's tough for a 20-year old defenseman to be perfect in his first season. Gotta live with the growing pains because Gudbranson is going to be worth waiting for. He's a smart kid and is learning from these mistakes. He made up for it a bit with some solid physical play later in the game.
- I saw ads for American Idol tonight. Please Jeebus, let it stop.
- The Panthers are a fast team and a solid transition team, but they don't seem to be playing that way lately. They weren't able to get speed out of their own end much, mostly due to bad passing and Vancouver pressuring at the blue line. Dumping and chasing doesn't suit most of the players in the lineup for a full 60 minutes, so they need to find a way to get back to breaking out with speed and accuracy, and do it for 60 minutes.
- The Cats don't seem to be following up shots very hard on a consistent basis. There's a lot of guys standing around and watching or skating around the perimeter instead of crashing the crease and fighting in the low slot to generate traffic. Against the top goalies that Florida will be playing in the month of January, no traffic means lots of saves. The Panthers second goal was a prime example of how to crash, but there needs to be more of that from the forwards at even strength.
- No David Booth for the Canucks tonight as he recovers from a knee injury. Shame though, would've liked to see him play. Best of luck to Booth, except against his former team.
- Kulikov had a bit of a breakout game tonight. He's been too quiet in the last dozen or so games and had both a goal and some great hits tonight, as well as being one of those puck possession blueliners that are required in Dineen's system.
- Tonight's Drink of the Night is called Between the Sheets (ooooh, so suggestive): 1 oz. Brandy, 1 oz. light rum, 1 oz. triple sec, 3/4 oz. fresh lemon juice. Shaken and served in a chilled glass. Yum.
This was a huge win, one that helps the Cats not only keep themselves afloat in the division, but gives them a lot of confidence that they can indeed overcome this rough stretch and keep their winning ways. We'll find out if they can do so against a hard-working yet injury-riddled Pittsburgh Penguins team on Friday. The Pens are without leading goal scorer James Neal and excellent two-way centerman Jordan Staal, but still have the ever dangerous Evgeni Malkin, and you can never count a Dan Bylsma coached team out of a game until you have them beat. Should be a good test for the Panthers, and we'll see how they respond. In the remaining FIVE FRIGGIN DAYS until that game, enjoy this victory folks.