By Stu Hackel
If the Avs are the NHL's big early season surprise team, the two Florida clubs also have to rank as surprising, but for different reasons.
Like Colorado, the Panthers missed the playoffs last season -- well, they miss the playoffs every year -- but at 3-1 they now appear to be stronger, thanks to the kind of thorough roster overhaul that only fantasy hockey GMs usually undertake. Importing a slew of proven veterans -- and forking out lots of owner Cliff Viner's money to do it -- Panthers GM Dale Tallon and Assistant GM Michael Santos churned through at least a dozen players, hired a new head coach in Kevin Dineen, and even brought back the team's red jerseys. When the Panthers go into Washington tonight to face the 4-0 Capitals, they'll be only two points behind for the top spot in the Southeast Conference.
That's the spot a lot of people thought the Tampa Bay Lightning would occupy but, so far at least, the Bolts have only one victory and two more points from regulation ties out of a possible 12. They've failed to get any or the maximum points in five straight games. The Panthers ripped up Tampa Bay 7-4 on Monday night, taking four points from the home-and-home series while their cross-state rivals came away with only one.
It was an embarrassing defeat for Tampa Bay, coming as it did in their home opener. The team wore their new old-school uniforms and their arena has been renovated. Lightning owner Jeff Winik spent money this offseason as well, $40 million to upgrade his building, which he doesn't even own. The improvements include some man-made lightning for goal celebrations (although that doesn't seem ready to roll just yet) and a terrific pipe organ along the lines of the one from the old Chicago Stadium. Hearing it thunder through the "Star Spangled Banner" last night made one wonder why any team would want anything else.
Unfortunately, the home side couldn't match their new environs. Tampa Bay is without defenseman Mattias Ohlund (knee, 4-6 weeks) and lost blueliners Mike Lundin (to the Wild) and Randy Jones (Jets) in the offseason, as well as forwards Simon Gagne (Kings) and Sean Bergenheim (Panthers). So the Bolts have undergone something of a renovation as well.
Until this game, the Lightning's problems this season had come at full strength. They may have plugged that hole, but their special teams game sprung a leak. "Right now, it's not that we do everything bad," coach Guy Boucher said after the game (quoted by John Romano of The St. Petersburg Times). "It's that we have trouble getting it all together in the same game."
On Monday, Boucher's team allowed five Panthers power play goals and surrendered an important, and perhaps most galling, shorthanded goal by Bergenheim, one of Tampa Bay's playoff heroes last season.
That was the third straight goal scored by Florida and it gave them a two-goal lead that proved insurmountable. Last season, the Lightning's special teams -- ranked sixth on the power play in the regular season, third in the playoffs; eighth on the P.K., second in the playoffs -- helped propel Tampa Bay to its best season since its Stanley Cup campaign of 2003-04. The Bolts had a problem allowing shorthanded goals last season, too (their 16 was worst in the league), but it was lack of discipline and their play while a man down that concerned the coach.
“We lost this game on the penalty kill,” Boucher said. “We took way too many penalties. We scored four goals. That should be enough to win at home.” It wasn't and he'll go to work figuring out how to make repairs.
The repairs the Panthers have made, meanwhile, have been most impressive. Besides Bergenheim, Kris Versteeg scored twice and added a pair of assists. Brian Campbell set up four goals. Prodigal son Ed Jovanovski returned from his travels around the NHL and chipped in two assists. And Stephen Weiss (who along with David Booth are the only two Panthers still around from pre-lockout days) also contributed two goals and two assists. The nicest play might have been the pass made by another newcomer, Tomas Fleischmann, setting up Weiss for a goal while falling to the ice.
Fleischmann, Matt Bradley (who has apologized for his Summertime comments about Alexander Semin in this season of apologies) and new goalie Jose Theodore will likely get some extra attention from the media and fans tonight in Washington, both being former Capitals. Theo's predecessor, Tomas Vokoun, faces his old Florida team, but he told reporters Monday, “It’s not the team I played for. There’s only a few guys left. It’s a divisional game and it’s two points. Like I said, from coaches to players, there’s not really a lot of people left on the team I played for."
The Panthers have so many new faces from so many different places that almost every road game will mean a return visit for one of their players. But this is one science experiment where the disparate parts seem to have come together nicely.
Here's where Ol' Flatop came from: