Florida Panthers Find Their Game Against Colorado Avalanche

By Mike Lewis
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The Florida Panthers finally played a full 60 minutes, and grabbed a win over Patrick Roy‘s  Colorado Avalanche because of it. Florida has been criticized by both former head coach Kevin Dineen and the current interim head coach Peter Horachek for not playing a full game, just putting forth 40 or so minutes of effort. Most of the Panthers’ struggles have stemmed from coming out of the gate flat and giving up leads in the first period. Florida was able to get on the board 12:40 into the first period, thanks to a Brad Boyes goal set up by Scottie Upshall and Tom Gilbert.

In the second period, the Panthers 30th ranked power play finally clicked, as Brian Campbell wired home a top corner slap shot past Colorado goalie, Semyon Varlamov. Gilbert and Upshall would again get assists. Colorado forward Ryan O’Reilly got a little puck luck after pushing the puck towards a teammate on the rush. The puck banked off of Gilbert’s skate and past Florida goaltender Tim Thomas. Florida was quick to respond after Tomas Kopecky put a little deke on Varlamov, slipping it between his legs for a 3-1 lead. Gilbert again grabbed an assist, while Thomas ended up on the scoresheet with a helper as well.

Colorado worked hard in the third, outshooting Florida 14-5, but Thomas made some stellar saves for the Panthers to keep them alive. Jonathan Huberdeau iced the Panthers’ victory with his fifth goal of the season, assisted by Nick Bjugstad and Campbell. The Panthers walked out of Denver with their heads held high, two points in hand, and a final score of 4-1.

Colorado and Florida were the Eastern and Western conference’s worst teams last season. Though Florida had the worst record, Colorado was able to steal the No. 1 selection of the 2013 NHL Entry Draft away from the Panthers in the lottery. The Avalanche selected Nathan MacKinnon and the Panthers selected Aleksander Barkov. Going into this game, the story line was the top two picks finally matching up. Barkov went with an 82 percent  success rate in the faceoff circle last night (winning 9-of-11), and finished the game with a strong defensive showing, ending up plus one with two hits, one blocked shot and a takeaway. Barkov was the reason the Panthers power play goal was possible. The young center made a great play to keep the puck in Florida’s possession, setting up the sequence for the goal. MacKinnon, who has been praised for his offensive skill, had seven shots, but ended up minus one, winning 2-of-2 faceoffs and having three hits.

Florida has looked much more confident since Horachek has taken over. Huberdeau and Kopecky, who were both jonesing for a goal, have now gotten two each in their last two games. A big story for Florida has been the emergence of Upshall, who was rewarded with an “A” on the front of his sweater last night. Upshall has been one of the most consistent players for the Panthers since Horachek’s hiring. Under Horachek, and also thanks to good health so far this season, Upshall now has nine points (3-6-9) in 18 games for Florida, a career-high for him since coming to the Sunshine State two seasons ago.

Aside from Thomas stopping 32-of-33 shots in the contest, Florida found success from Gilbert for the first time this season. Gilbert, who has been known through his career as an offensive defenseman, had three assists and was the game’s first star. Gilbert was plus two with two shots, one hit, one takeaway and one blocked shot. Gilbert and Campbell, who have been a No. 1 pairing for Florida, finally clicked as a No. 1 unit. Every player for Florida played well in this game; it was a team effort for the first time all year. Even Dmitry Kulikov, who has been skewered by fans recently for his poor play, played well and had a highlight reel hip check at center ice on MacKinnon.

Florida continues their road trip to western Canada to take on the Vancouver Canucks on Tuesday, where Thomas will face off against former Panther and 2011 Stanley Cup rival, Roberto Luongo. It will be Thomas’ first game in Vancouver since backstopping the Boston Bruins to a Game 7 Cup victory three seasons ago.

Mike Lewis is a Florida Panthers writer for RantSports.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLewsy11, “Like” him on Facebook or add him to your network on Google.

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