Cat Bites: Facing past champs gives Panthers confidence

There has to be relief in the Florida Panthers locker room now that one of their toughest stretches of the season is in the books.

Florida opened the year with a four-game road trip, then returned home to face the past four Stanley Cup Champions — the Pittsburgh Penguins, Los Angeles Kings, Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks — in a span of 11 days.

“It’s a great test for us,” right wing Tomas Kopecky said. “We always play good when we play against the top teams.”

For the most part.

Florida ended the stretch against former champs with just three points out of eight. But excluding their 3-0 loss to the Kings, the Panthers showed the ability to keep pace with the league’s elite.

Florida defeated Pittsburgh 6-3, came within a minute of grabbing a point against Boston in a 3-2 loss, and stole one from Chicago in a 3-2 shootout loss.

In both the Boston and Chicago contests, Florida rallied from 2-0 deficits.

“Sometimes as a coach you don’t always judge it on the final outcome,” Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said following the contest against the Blackhawks. “I think there’s a tuckered out bunch in there. They worked their tails off.”

Even the players expressed pride in snagging the much-needed point from Chicago.

“For the morale of the team, going against a former Stanley Cup champions, to come out with that effort, that 60-minute effort was absolutely huge,” defenseman Erik Gudbranson said. “We felt really confident in that game. We tested them. We put them on their heels. We feel they were lucky to come out with that win.”

“I think we’re getting there,” center Jonathan Huberdeau added. “We got a point, that’s pretty good. We’d like to have the two points. I think we worked hard.”

Prior to Thursday’s games, Florida is 3-6-1 sits three points out of a tie for a wild card, and five from a top-three slot in the Atlantic Division. It is not a position the Panthers like at the moment, but they recognize even a small streak can shake up the standings.

“We’re a win away from being in the middle of the pack,” Dineen said.

And so far, they’ve survived a daunting test that may have prepared them better than anything else for such a move.

Huber-deke denied

Huberdeau may have to tap into the creative juices his teammates and coaches rave about.

The reigning Calder Trophy winner was stopped twice by Chicago’s Corey Crawford in on one-on-one chances on Tuesday.

Huberdeau attempted his ‘Huber-deke’ a fake forehand, backhand, forehand move during a penalty shot, but couldn’t get it past the goaltender’s pad. It was nearly identical to the shootout move he performed in Florida’s 2-1 win over Minnesota three days earlier.

“It worked on Saturday,” Huberdeau said. “So I tried to do it today. It didn’t work.”

In the shootout, he attempted another familiar move, charging toward the crease pulling up short to make the goaltender shift and firing a wrist shot. Crawford stopped that, too.

Huberdeau, who became the first rookie two score two penalty shot goals in the same year since 2000 and went 2-for-4 in the shootout last season, seemed bummed by the results.

Dineen is not concerned, though, noting noting teams have likely scouted the sophomore’s moves by now.

“The nice thing about Johnny Huberdeau is that he’s such a creative player that he’s got a few more tricks in his sleeve than one,” Dineen said. “I have complete confidence I’ll be tapping him on the shoulder as we move forward.”

Barkov’s bite

Those who have watched Aleksander Barkov play are seeing why general manager Dale Tallon and the Panthers scouting staff were so high on drafting the somewhat under-the-radar Finn in June.

The 18-year-old, who ranks second on the team in scoring with seven points in 10 games, has started to develop an almost mythical reputation.

Barkov’s high hockey IQ has shown through, whether he’s netting goals off opponents’ shin pads or setting up his scoring chances with amazing vision. And being 6-foot-3, 209 pounds — again, he is only 18 — has made it somewhat comical to watch defenders attempt to knock Barkov of the puck, only to find themselves on the ice.

But the latest moment of awe came versus Chicago, when broadcasters pointed out Barkov took a pop in the mouth, lost a tooth and kept on playing. Or so everyone thought.

Barkov said he did get smacked in the face, but no teeth went missing. The gap in his grin everyone noticed on television? He lost that tooth two years ago in Finland.

Teammate Brad Boyes, who sits next to the rookie in the locker room said tooth or no tooth, it doesn’t matter.

“They’re probably baby teeth,” the winger joked.

Feeling better

Brian Campbell, who was a member of the Blackhawks Stanley Cup run in 2009-10, admitted feeling extra excitement to face his former team.

Although he played against his old mates in 2012, the last meeting was not exactly a memorable event for the defenseman.

“I was throwing up most of the game, wasn’t feeling too good from sickness,” Campbell said.

On top of that, the Panthers players had to navigate through a January blizzard to get to the United Center.

“It wasn’t fun last time,” he said. “A snowstorm and that. It was definitely a game to forget.”

Quote of the week

“We had a little trouble finding our range. We need to bring the shotguns out. We were spraying them all over the place.” — Dineen on the Panthers inability to put shots on net against Chicago.

When counting shots, attempts blocked and pucks that went astray, Florida pulled the trigger 53 times. Only 22 (41 percent) ended up on net.

Looking ahead

Florida concludes its six-game homestand with a three of games this coming week. The Panthers face the struggling Buffalo Sabres for the first time this season on Friday evening.

On Sunday, the Panthers play host to their intrastate rival, the Tampa Bay Lightning, in a late afternoon contest. In the first meeting between the teams, the Bolts defeated Florida 7-2.

The Panthers will get a much-needed four-day break before taking on the St. Louis Blues for the final time this season on Nov. 1. The Blues routed Florida 7-0 on Oct. 5.