CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. — Practice. The Florida Panthers are happy to be talking about practice.
On the tail end of a stretch which has the Panthers playing five games in eight days, Florida finally had the opportunity to hit the reset button amid a three-game slide.
The Panthers met Friday for a video review and team meeting, then spent their on-ice session working on the basics: Getting the puck in deep, battling along the boards, shooting to score and producing secondary chances in front of the net.
“We didn’t go out there long, but everything we did had a purpose today,” Florida coach Kevin Dineen said. “There’s areas we have to address every day. The good thing is the players are very aware. They’re on board and they want to stop the flow of blood here.”
Friday marked the first practice for Florida since Jan. 20, a day prior to the team’s Canadian road trip. Dineen rested his players on Wednesday after the team arrived back in Florida at 4 a.m.
Morning skates, which take on a more relaxed atmosphere during a typical regular season, have been the only opportunity thus far for the Panthers to address their flaws. Rather than work on the little aspects of the game as they did Friday, Florida has needed its game day sessions to work on special teams, for instance.
But the Panthers’ on-the-fly tweaks have not settled in. Florida has not scored an even-strength goal in its past three games and managed just two power play goals in that span. On defense, they’ve allowed at least three goals in each of their past three contests.
“I think doing too much and not going anywhere has kind of been the story of what’s been going on,” defenseman Ed Jovanovski said. “Less is more.”
Getting back to fundamentals was a welcome change for the Panthers, who like many other teams are just trying to get settled after a short training camp. And more importantly, the sense of productivity has given those in the locker room a morale boost.
“For the first four games, it’s almost that you fight cobwebs,” left winger Scottie Upshall said. “You fight what it is you’re trying to get out of your system. You get your hands back, you get your legs going. Mentally, maybe you’re not there as you are at the middle of the season. All these things combined, you’ve got to practice, work hard to do the little things and do them right.”
The necessity of executing the fundamentals and game plan Saturday night against the Philadelphia Flyers becomes even more crucial for the Panthers, who could be without their top line of Kris Versteeg, Stephen Weiss and Tomas Fleischmann.
Versteeg hasn’t played a game this season due to a lower-body injury suffered the day before opening night. Weiss, also dinged up with a lower-body ailment, was scratched just prior to Thursday’s game against Ottawa. And Fleischmann, who found himself double-shifted and skated 23 minutes against the Senators, discovered a cut on the top of his left foot after the game.
But for a team that dealt with more than 300-man games lost to injury last season, having to deal with adversity is not rattling the Panthers.
“It’s a ‘no excuse policy’ around here,” Jovanovski said. “Cards were dealt, and we’ve got to find ways to overcome adversity. At some point, every team goes through it. Hopefully we can weather the storm here and get everyone healthy.”
Alexei Kovalev is regarded as one of the game’s premier talents when it comes to stickhandling. His Florida teammates are getting an up-close example of exactly how highly skilled the 39-year-old winger is.
“He’s something special when it comes to doing little trick things,” Upshall said. “Up until the last couple weeks that I’ve been able to play with him, I’ve heard stories that he can do some magical things with the puck in practice and in games.”
During Friday’s practice, Kovalev flaunted his ability to score on one-handed backhands, hitting several in a row into the top, nearside corner. Upshall, who called the feat “impossible,” gave it a try and barely got the puck off the ice.
Kovalev also has landed saucer passes from the blue line on top of the net, scored top shelf while stickhandling between his legs and shown highlight-reel dekes.
Upshall also had a first-hand encounter with Kovalev’s abilities during a shift on Thursday. As the Panthers rushed up ice, Kovalev held onto the puck, drawing two Senators players and goaltender Craig Anderson to the left side of the net. At the last moment, he dished the puck to Upshall, who was unable to connect on the pass.
“I had never played with a guy that can do something like that,” Upshall said. “I was always waiting, knowing that he’s seen me and at the last second, I thought, ‘I’m just going to the net, there’s no way he can get this puck to me.’ Sure enough, it came back at that split second.
“He’s a magical player when he’s going.”
Shore makes debut
Drew Shore became the third Panthers prospect to make his NHL debut this season. Called up on Jan. 22, Shore skated in Florida’s 4-1 loss to the Montreal Canadiens at the Bell Centre.
“There’s so much history there,” said Shore, Florida’s second-round pick in 2009. “It was a pretty cool environment for my first game. I just wish it was a better result.”
Shore, who netted 10 goals and 20 assists in 41 games for the San Antonio Rampage, was selected to represent the team at the American Hockey League All-Star Game this coming Monday.
Dineen hinted the Panthers’ forward might participate in the event, but said it would largely depend on Florida’s injury situation.
Registering three consecutive regulation losses is a rare occurrance under the Dineen-led Panthers. Florida suffered such a skid just once all of last season … Rookie defenseman Mike Caruso suffered a broken wrist during Tuesday’s loss to Montreal. He is expected to miss 4-6 weeks. “I thought [Caruso] had a couple really good shifts to start the game in Montreal,” Dineen said. “It’s very unfortunate for him.” … Marcel Goc and Erik Gudbranson continue to train with the Panthers, but they are both a ways from rejoining the lineup. The timetable for the return of winger Sean Bergenheim, who suffered a groin injury while playing in Finland during the lockout, remains unknown.
Florida gets a much needed break this week following Saturday’s home game against the Philadelphia Flyers. The Panthers have a short trip Tuesday to face the Tampa Bay Lightning before returning home to host the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday. Florida will have five days split over next week to rest and practice before embarking on a four-game road trip Feb. 3-9.