SUNRISE, Fla. — The heart of the Florida Panthers has been playing with a heavy one.
Stephen Weiss, the longest tenured Panther, returned to the team Thursday after attending his grandmother’s funeral in Toronto.
This season has been a rough one for Weiss, both on and off the ice, and Sunday may have been its lowest point. After failing to click on the top line with Jonathan Huberdeau and Peter Mueller, Weiss found himself benched by coach Kevin Dineen for most of the third period in Florida’s 4-1 loss to the Boston Bruins. Not long after the contest, Weiss learned of his grandmother’s passing.
“I didn’t know until after the Boston game,” Weiss said. “I talked to my dad and he let me know she passed that morning. I knew she was not in the best shape over the past year, the quality of life was a little bit low. But certainly over the past couple days before the Boston game, she wasn’t doing too well.”
Weiss is the type of player who refuses to make excuses for his on-ice struggles, although anyone who has experienced his situation can sympathize.
At no point did Weiss, who teammates say does not bring distractions to the rink, suggest he was carrying such worry and weight.
“He’s a guy who is a pro’s pro,” Kris Versteeg said. “You obviously try to be there for a guy who needs it. He’s a private guy. He goes about his business like a professional every day. He doesn’t let anything involve outside.”
Weiss didn’t put up the numbers to indicate it, but 2011-12 may have been the best campaign of his career. He centered a potent top line with Versteeg and Tomas Fleischmann. His two-way play and face-off success led to early whispers of being a Selke Trophy candidate.
Weiss always stepped up as the unofficial face of the franchise as his teammates rallied to get the center his first taste of playoff action. And being one of just two dozen players who have played at least 10 seasons all with the franchise that drafted them, endeared Weiss to fans.
This year, though, it has been the reverse for Weiss. Through 15 games, he has a single goal and three assists. His minus-11 rating is tied for the team low. At times he has struggled in the face-off circle.
His rare presence in the Panthers’ locker room left some wondering what happened to the player who only six weeks earlier was one of Dineen’s finalists to assume the role of team captain.
But Sunday’s events offer a valid explanation as to why Weiss, who is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in July, has not performed well.
“The hockey season is really condensed this year, and a lot of things are coming at us at once. But that doesn’t stop life,” Dineen said. “These things are always hard to deal with when you have a family loss. We always feel its important as an organization to be with your family if possible.”
Returning to Toronto for a few days gave Weiss the opportunity to be with family and clear his mind of his troubles at the rink. He instead reflected on the role his paternal grandmother, Elizabeth, played in his life.
“It was definitely nice to go back home and see the family,” Weiss said. “Any time something like that happens, it focuses you.”
It is that focus both Weiss and the Panthers hope lead to brighter days ahead.
The NHL named Jonathan Huberdeau its rookie of the month for February. Huberdeau earned the honor with six goals and nine points in 13 games.
The 19-year-old recorded a career-high four-point effort in Florida’s 5-2 win over Philadelphia on Feb. 21. In that contest, he netted the game winner with a highlight-reel move called the “Huber-deke” on a penalty shot. He became the third Panthers rookie to record four points in a game, the others being Jesse Belanger and Mark Parrish.
“I just want to help the team win some games,” Huberdeau said. “I haven’t gotten a lot of points in the last few games. I think I’ve had some good chances.”
Florida’s first-round pick in 2011, Huberdeau barely beat out teammate Drew Shore for the honor. Shore finished the month with 10 points — two goals, eight assists — most among rookies.
That, of course, led to some back-and-forth chatter between the two before Huberdeau gave a sincere nod to his linemate.
“Drew could have had it, too,” Huberdeau said. “He had a good month. He’s starting to score some goals, so it’s good for him.”
The Panthers are getting the best netminding out of whichever goaltender does not start on a given night.
Jose Theodore started Florida’s 6-4 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday, but he was pulled by Dineen after allowing four goals on 19 shots during the first two periods. Scott Clemmensen came in to finish, stopping all 15 shots faced.
Rewarded for his effort, Clemmensen started the Panthers’ 4-3 shootout loss to the Buffalo Sabres. He lasted just 17 minutes, though, surrendering three goals on 10 shots. Theodore shut down the Sabres, turning aside 15 shots in regulation and overtime.
The erratic play has puzzled Dineen, who has had to keep his goalies on a “very long leash.”
“I’ve had two quality veterans that understand the game and know when to step it up,” Dineen said. “That’s not happening for us right now.”
— Tomas Kopecky registered his first career hat trick in Tuesday’s 6-4
win over the Penguins, but not without taking some punches. On his
second goal, Kopecky crashed the net and got tied up with friend and
former teammate Tomas Vokoun. The collision set off a scrum. “I bumped
into Vokie, and all of a sudden I saw Vokie’s blocker in my face,
punching me,” Kopecky said. “I always say I am going to take the shots,
but I’m not going to take the cheap shots.”
— Alexei Kovalev’s time with the Panthers may be over. Dineen indicated
Friday the 39-year-old is “exploring his options.” Signed following a
tryout at training camp, Kovalev has been a healthy scratch in four of
Florida’s past five games. Since recording a goal and two assists on
Jan. 19, the Russian had just one goal and one assist in his past 13
— The Panthers will be without Mike Weaver for an extended period of
time, according to Dineen. Weaver suffered a lower-body injury during
the first period of Thursday’s contest against Buffalo when he got
tangled with a Sabres player. Weaver laid on the ice for a couple
moments before hobbling back to the bench. Colby Robak is expected to
fill the defenseman’s spot in the lineup.
— Florida could get wingers Scottie Upshall and Kris Versteeg back in
the lineup as early as this weekend in its home-and-home series with
Carolina. Both players are traveling with the team for Saturday’s game.
— Scott Timmins made his season debut against the Penguins. Timmins, who
appeared in 19 games with the Panthers in 2010-11 but saw no action
last season, recorded a shot in 11:35 of ice time.
Florida faces its toughest stretch of the season with five games in seven days, all against Southeast Division opponents. The Panthers open with a back-to-back, home-and-home series against Carolina on Saturday and Sunday, before facing the Winnipeg Jets in Sunrise on Tuesday. Florida travels to Washington for a contest against the Capitals Thursday, then returns home to face the Jets again the next day.
With the Panthers trailing the division-leading Hurricanes and Jets by four points, wins over the weekend could completely shift the standings. Despite its early struggles, Florida still sees itself within reach of the division lead.
“There’s a lot of games ahead, a lot of divisional games ahead,” defenseman Brian Campbell said. “It’s going to be important to keep getting points. There’s a goal there. We can obtain that goal. It will be a lot of fun doing it.”