CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. — The Florida Panthers returned from Christmas break looking a bit different.
On the ice for practice Friday were center Drew Shore and defenseman Alex Petrovic, called up from the San Antonio Rampage, Florida’s American Hockey League affiliate.
They’re expected to step in for winger Scottie Upshall (upper body) and defenseman Erik Gudbranson (orbital bone) when the Panthers begin a back-to-back series with the Detroit Red Wings and Montreal Canadiens this weekend.
For Shore, the call-up comes as a bit of relief. He failed to make the roster out of training camp and has struggled to score goals at the minor league level. But that has not concerned Panthers coach Peter Horachek, who says Shore is playing some of his best hockey at the moment.
He hasn’t scored a lot down there — he’s been snakebitten — but he’s been playing really good hockey,” Horachek said. ”He’s not worried about having that in the back of his mind. He’s just concentrating on playing solid hockey at both ends of the rink. He’s been their most consistent guy as of late.”
Shore welcomes the opportunity to break out and rekindle the success he had as a rookie last season.
”Any time you get sent down, it’s pretty disappointing,” Shore said. ”I took it hard probably the first 10 games I was down there. But as a player you have to stay confident and move on.
”It’s a little different this year than last year. Last year, obviously never having played an NHL game, you have no idea what to expect. So you’re kind of thrown into the fire, and that’s great, but this time there are a little more expectations on how things are and a little more of a comfort level. I think that will allow me to play with more confidence from the get-go.”
In San Antonio, the centerman registered 15 assists in 28 contests. Shore said he’s also seen improvement in his faceoffs, so while the goals have been few, he recognizes there are other ways to contribute.
”I’ve got to shoot the puck more,” Shore said. ”I pass the puck way too much, though.
”I feel like there is more emphasis even on (face-offs) now than a couple years ago. If you start with the puck and have the puck most of the game, normally you’re going to be successful. That’s something I’ve really worked on and I’ve done really well down there on them and hopefully I can keep that going here.”
For Petrovic, it is the second call-up in a week, although the back-and-forth between Florida and San Antonio had more to do with the holiday than anything else.
He appeared in Florida’s Dec. 23 game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, logging 15:35 in ice time and led the Panthers with eight hits.
Petrovic says he knows the key to sticking in Florida is to ”keep it simple and not try to do too much, play physical, move the puck up to the forwards, play good defense.”
”It’s unfortunate Guddy broke his orbital bone, but for me it is how the business is,” Petrovic said. ”You’ve got to take advantage of your opportunities. Whoever is playing well is going to stay.
Also back on the ice for Florida is goaltender Tim Thomas, who missed the last six games with a lower body injury. The Panthers activated the goaltender from injured reserve on Dec. 24 and he is expected to get the start Saturday night against Detroit.
”It’s nice to have him out there,” Horachek said. ”He gives us, as we’ve all been talking about for a long time, that confidence when he’s back there and something happens. It’s good to have him back out there.”
A couple weeks ago when the Panthers were in the midst of a slide, Brian Campbell, through gritted teeth, provided a grim assessment of Florida’s playoff chances. With the team having won seven of its last 10, the Panthers alternate captain says the mood has changed in the locker room.
”We’ve kind of turned it around. Guys are excited. Guys are happy to come to the rink,” Campbell said. ”Everybody is kind of fitting into their role and I feel they like their roles. Some guys maybe don’t love their role, but they’re accepting it. That’s been the biggest, strongest thing with our team now. People are accepting their roles and working hard for each other and sacrificing to get the job done.”
Florida is currently eight points behind the final wild card spot held by Toronto, and 14 behind third-place Montreal in the Atlantic. With 44 games left, the Panthers have not given up on the idea of getting back into the playoff race.
Campbell figures if Florida can consistently win two out of three games, they’ll be contenders.
”It’s going to be a challenge,” he said. ”There are some teams to leapfrog, but we have put ourselves in a position back where we were two weeks into the season.
”It makes it exciting for us. Why not us? Why not come back from kind of a disaster of a start to get back in?”
STARS OF CABLE
One advantage to Florida being in the Atlantic Division is that they’ve crossed paths quite a bit with the Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs, who are this year’s subject of HBO’s documentary series, ’24/7.’ ”
The Panthers have kind have stolen the show, however, winning twice against Detroit and once against Toronto.
So that must mean Horachek is looking forward to having the cameras back in town on Saturday, right?
”No,” he said. ”But I think it was good that we were on the winning side of (the Detroit) and the Toronto game.”
Florida resumes its five-game homestand this week. The Panthers will play back-to-back games against the Red Wings and Canadiens on Saturday and Sunday, respectively.
Florida will have a one-day break before hosting the New York Rangers in a New Year’s Eve late matinee. The Panthers will wrap up the homestand on Jan. 4 against the Nashville Predators.