As the Miami Heat rolled along at 24 wins and counting heading into their game against the Detroit Pistons on Friday night, and the Hurricanes cruised to their first ACC hoops title and the second seed in the NCAA Tournament's East Regional, another streak was creating decidedly less buzz in South Florida. The Panthers, basement dwellers in the Eastern Conference, won their second straight game by beating the disappointing New York Rangers, 3-1, at Madison Square Garden on Thursday. Sure, a pair of victories isn't much, but for a team that has been struggling so mightily, it was a rare bright spot, only the second time that the Panthers have enjoyed consecutive wins -- they've endured three losing streaks of at least five games -- during this truncated season that has been most unkind.
Southeast Division-winners a year ago, Florida has been ravaged by injuries to key players. Two of its top three scorers from 2011-12, Stephen Weiss (wrist surgery) and Kris Versteeg (knee injury), are essentially done for the season, and 17-year veteran defenseman Ed Jovanovski (lower body) is out indefinitely. The Panthers have been allowing the most goals per game (3.55), they rank 24th in offense (2.45), and they have an abysmal penalty kill (74.2 percent). At eight points out of a playoff sport, and with only 17 games left to play, nothing short of a miraculous turnaround will get this team into the postseason.
But the clouds in Florida still carry their silver lining. And for the Panthers, in the midst of their dismal year, it's not hard to see it, that sliver of hope, when Jonathan Huberdeau is on the ice.
Drafted third overall in 2011, the winger leads all NHL rookies with 12 goals and is averaging nearly 17 minutes of ice time per game, tops among first-year forwards. He's stepped into the NHL with relative ease after spending the lockout dominating the QMJHL with his junior team, the Saint John Sea Dogs. Huberdeau was St. John's leading scorer (45 points) at season's end despite playing in only 30 games, less than half the schedule. In January, he represented Canada at the World Juniors, where he got a taste of playing with and against NHL-caliber talent and finished the tournament as his team's second-leading scorer (nine points), behind only Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, a Calder Trophy finalist last year.
In his NHL debut, the rookie from St. Jerome, Quebec, made an emphatic statement by scoring on his second professional shift (and with his first shot) and picking up a pair of assists in Florida's 5-1 win over Carolina.
"He earned a trust, not only from us as a coaching staff, but his teammates," says Panthers coach Kevin Dineen. And though Huberdeau may have flown under the radar while flashy scorers like Vladimir Tarasenko of the Blues and Nail Yakupov of the Oilers made the early highlight segments, by midseason Huberdeau had catapulted into the Calder conversation. He's now established himself as a favorite to win the trophy.
STAFF CRYSTAL BALL: Award winners, playoff field, more
"Offensively, he's a very smart player," says linemate Drew Shore, another rookie who went from call-up to regular by impressing his coaches and showing some chemistry with Huberdeau. "He sees the ice well and puts you in positions where you can score... And obviously, his hands. You can see what he can do with the puck in shootouts."
With speed, Huberdeau has incredible control of the puck and his dekes can send a goalie flying the wrong way. Last season, he led the Panthers in preseason scoring before being sent back to Saint John for another year of seasoning. It wasn't that the coaching staff believed that his skill set wasn't up to NHL standards; that's never been much of a question for Huberdeau. Says Dineen: "For me, you saw him in the locker room without his shirt on and you go, 'Oh boy.' This isn't a shot, but he looked like a kid compared to other guys."
Only 19 years old, Huberdeau is just a kid, but at 6'-1" he has put on some 10 pounds since he was drafted. (He's up to 177.) There's still more room to fill out his frame, and when he does bulk up, he'll possess that elusive and impressive combination of soft hands and size.
But for now, his Calder-worthy season is enough to help the Panthers look forward to days when the gloom hanging over them will clear.