Panthers start 2011-12 off right; Gritty, Fast and In-Tune

For only the second time in 5 years (the other being Ville Koistinen heroics in the lame-o NHL Premiere Helsinki game), the Florida Panthers are on the right track after walking away from Nassau Coliseum with two points last night. After an abysmal preseason and a week of practice, could this win feel any better? Here's how we stand: 2 points, 1st in the Southeast division, one shutout accredited to the brilliant play of Jose Theodore and a whole lot of nay-sayers quieted (for now). The fact is, as first games go a 2-0 shutout against the much improved Islanders club is a huge shot of confidence into a club looking to gain traction as soon as possible. The good out numbered the bad last night, and while some aspects of the Panthers play need to be refined; the excitement has never been higher. The big guns came out flying, the muckers and grinders excelled and a quite a few players made their names stand out. More after the jump.

For those who watched the game, the difference was pronounced: this is not the same Florida Panthers club we saw fail last season. This doesn't mean there won't be bumps along the road, but this team will have something special at the end of the season. Kevin Dineen, Gord Murphy and Craig Ramsay all coached 'a perfect game' despite a lackluster final score, something we rarely saw from old friends Peter DeBoer and Jim Hulton. The goaltending was perfect, the defense was effective and the offense got the job done. Now just repeat for the next 81 games.

Some scattered thoughts from the game:

  • The Panthers didn't need any motivation to come out flying, shift after shift every player pulled out all stops and left everything on the ice. We knew Dale Tallon wanted a faster team, and did it ever show. Let me reintroduce you to an equation we may have forgotten after the last few years of slow, lead-footed teams: speed = scoring chances. In the first period alone there were multiple rushes, breakaways and opportunities that resulted from the team's combined speed. It didn't lead to any goals, but it certainly will in the future.
  • Though the top line stole the show, all four lines played tremendously. The first line brought the offense, the second line brought the speed, 3rd brought size and the 4th brought toughness. If you aren't thrilled by the depth the Panthers' lineup exhibited, you should be. Don't forget Evgeni Dadonov was a healthy scratch either, he's a scoring threat as well.
  • Though I'm not really into fighting, it was nice to see Scottie Upshall defend his team mate Tomas Kopecky after Travis Hamonic punched him in the head. It was unfortunate Upshall decided he was too cool to snap on his fight strap, otherwise Upy would have only sat for 5 instead of the whole game. I guarantee you that wont happen again.
  • Give a hand to Tomas Kopecky. Every time he was on the ice Kopecky had a target on his back. Though I can't justify his huge contract I can say that he will put up big numbers should he keep up his hard work. Kopecky went to the net, got in the shooting lanes, backchecked, forechecked and played the pest role the Panthers sorely need. He's no Tomas Holmstrom, but he's making his presence known.
  • Along those same lines, Jack Skille could have very easily sat back and soaked in the benefits of his one way contract. He certainly didn't last night. Maybe it was the guilt of being 'Tallon's boy' while guys like Matthias, Dadonov and Tim Kennedy fought for Skille's spot, or maybe he and Kevin Dineen had a little one-on-one time, but whatever his motivation Skille looked like a different player. Skille took the puck coast to coast on several occasions, drove the net and made all the right moves. Now you only have to wonder if he can keep up the pace.
  • For the love of puppies and kittens reunite Jason Garrison and Mike Weaver! Garrison had a goal and looked great with Brian Campbell(who doesn't?) but you could tell Weaver was a bit lost during those first shifts. Weaver had a few turnovers in the first minutes but broke up the subsequent Islanders rushes, that's fine and dandy since Theodore was on top of his game but I can't help but think splitting up Garrison-Weaver will not work out in the long run.
  • Just like the competition in the forward lines and defensive pairings, it looks like Jacob Markstrom will have to be pretty sharp to unseat Jose Theodore as starter. If one game is and indication, Theodore should be on top of the world entering Tuesdays game. Perhaps he isn't ready to roll over quite yet.
  • One thing that absolutely must change immediately is the amount of penalties taken out of laziness. No, 8 minutes in the box isn't bad but Carter's penalty was unnecessary and Sean Bergenheim got caught twice. Chalk it up to a rookie coach in his first game still trying to settle everyone down, but I wouldn't want to give the opponent any more time on the PP with Theodore in net than is absolutely necessary.
  • The powerplay went 1 for 5 last night, a mighty step up from last year but wont cut it in the long run. Fear not, the season is young and there's plenty of time to get the ball rolling.
  • Didn't see much dump-n-chase last night did you? That's right, Kevin Dineen isn't going to try and force that system on the team. I wish time of possession was an official stat kept by the NHL, because the results of Dineen's coaching style need to be quantified somehow. Dale Tallon drafts like the Red Wings, Kevin Dineen coaches like Mike Babcock, now isn't that something to try and digest?
  • Al Montoya only let in 2 goals and played quite well, but he gave up big rebounds and sprawled on the ice outside of the crease making toe saves on the Panthers all night. Gotta bury those in the future.
  • Will Florida ever score on the empty net?
  • Other NHL happenings: Peter DeBoer wasn't so hot in his Devils debut as New Jersey lost 3-0. All eyes are on you, Pete. Also last night was the retirement of Peter Forsberg's number in Denver. Give the guy a hand, he was a tremendous player we may never see the likeness of again.

So, that said the Panthers next opponent is the always dangerous Pittsburgh Penguins. Though Crosby-less, the Penguins are always tough to beat at home and always come out flying. A win at Consol would be a huge boost of confidence before returning home for a matchup with the Lightning. Though the Panthers had some notable chemistry against the Islanders it will take a solid performance out of the offense, defense and goaltending to fly back with another two points. The Panthers need to finish their checks, cash in on the rebounds and safeguard Theodore if another win is in their sights.