The Florida Panthers went into last night sitting second-to-last in the Eastern Conference standings. Florida had not won a game in nine straight games and had their work cut out for them when the league’s best, the Anaheim Ducks, came to town. Both teams celebrate their 20th Anniversary this year. While both may share the same age, they sit on complete opposite sides of the NHL spectrum. Florida went into the game with a 3-11-4 record, while Anaheim sat atop the league with a 15-4-1 record. The dreaded possibility of a 10th straight loss loomed heavily over a Panthers team looking for their first win since Oct. 19. New Florida Head Coach Peter Horachek (0-2-0) entered the contest still searching for his first win since joining the team last weekend.
Panthers’ goaltender Tim Thomas played his third straight game for the Panthers and was matched up again the Danish rookie sensation, Frederik Andersen who boasted a 6-0-0 record and only had allowed more than one goal twice in those six games. The odds were heavily in favor of the Ducks. Anaheim wasted no time to take advantage of the struggling Panthers, as Ducks forward Andrew Cogliano lit the lamp 40 seconds into the first period after finding himself wide open after a defensive lapse by the Panthers. Past the midway point of the first, Anaheim rookie defenseman, Hampus Lindholm roofed a wrister over the glove of Thomas to give the Ducks a 2-0 lead. Things looked like business as usual for Florida.
Florida regrouped in the second period after forward Shawn Matthias netted his second goal of the year on a spin-o-rama backhand in front of Andersen to put the Panthers on the board. One minute and 10 seconds later, Scottie Upshall proved that being in position and shooting the puck can lead to good things. Florida defenseman Erik Gudbranson pinched in, and Upshall covered the d-man’s spot at the point, found the puck and just fired it. The puck took a few strange bounces before floating over the head of Andersen and into the net, evening up the score 2-2.
The third period saw the Panthers pot their third unanswered goal after more hard work by Upshall gave the Panthers a 3-2 lead. Upshall found a loose puck, was fought off the puck, but fired a shot low, leaving a rebound for a crashing Brad Boyes to tuck in on a backhand. Thomas stood on his head to preserve the lead for Florida, making 32 saves in the victory.
The Panthers played a very good 40 minutes after a rough first period. While playing a complete game is still an issue for them, the Panthers are able to find their confidence again after dethroning the NHL’s best. The Panthers scored two goals in places that they need to go to more. Two of the three were scored in front of the net. The Panthers lack the raw talent to make pretty plays. They have to grind their way to the net and wreak havoc. Big bodies like Matthias, Nick Bjugstad and Tomas Kopecky will find opportunities there by creating traffic.
Since coming to Florida and signing a four-year $3.5 million contract, Upshall has played in 53 games recording a total of 10 points (6-4-10). Upshall now has seven points (3-4-7) this season, four of those points (3-1-4) in his last five. It is time for Upshall to show his worth. He may never be quite the value his contract reads, but could be a serviceable player if he stays healthy. He has played well in the last seven games and has been given a lot of ice time by Horachek, who is familiar with Upshall from their days in with the Nashville Predators.
With this win the Panthers will hit the road on a very difficult five game road trip to the West. The first team they will face will be the last team they beat before Anaheim, the Minnesota Wild. Florida needs to play with the mentality that they can beat any team, especially after beating Anaheim. That was the attitude that got them to the playoffs two years ago and that is the attitude they need moving forward.