NHL

Panthers' Garrison having breakout year

Hockey Primetime Erika Schnure
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Sometimes in the NHL all a slumping player needs is a move to a new team. With all the new players on their roster, that philosophy is paying off big time for the Florida Panthers.

The Panthers are 4-3-3 in their last 10 games and, although their recent numbers have dipped, their overall numbers are staggering. Leading the Southeast Division, the Panthers sit third in the Eastern Conference and ninth in the league with a 16-9-6 record.

The newcomers to Sunrise have been key. Kris Versteeg remains among the league leaders in goals and points, while defenseman Brian Campbell is tied for fourth in the league in assists. Versteeg, Stephen Weiss and Tomas Fleischmann are among the top 10 in plus/minus rating.

The Panthers' holdovers, however, also are pitching in, none more than 27-year-old defenseman Jason Garrison.

Throughout the 2010-2011 season, the Panthers struggled with their defensive corps, outscored by a cumulative 34 goals. The team allowed 2.71 goals against per game, which has improved to 2.45 per game this season, good for 10th in the NHL. Last season, only Mike Weaver finished with a positive plus/minus rating among Florida defensemen; Garrison finished minus-2 with 18 points.

In 31 games this season, Garrison is plus-11, with 14 points, including a career-high nine goals. He's on pace for 23 goals, 36 points and what could be an impressive plus-29. Yet he's remained defensively responsible, blocking 52 shots. With his play of late, Garrison has gone from a relative unknown to a fantasy team owner's dream.

Garrison has also seen his time on the Panthers' power play nearly double. The extra time on the man advantage suits Garrison — five of the nine goals he has scored this year have been on the power play.

Thanks partially to Garrison, the Panthers' power play is humming along at 19 percent — eighth in the NHL — compared to last year's league-worst 13.1 percent. In fact, Garrison has been spending more time on the ice overall with a nearly two-minute increase in his ice time per game.

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The majority of Garrison's goals this year have been one-timers from the blue line, a shot he's been working hard on his whole career that is now finding its mark.

"I definitely had the shot for a while now," Garrison told Yahoo.com's Puck Daddy blog. "Growing up, I was complimented about my slap shot and really developed it in junior. It took a little bit of time to get the timing down for a one-timer and the accuracy, but for the most part, the strength of it has always been there."

Garrison says his philosophy this season is simple: shoot the puck.

"The coaches have me a lot of opportunity to shoot the puck and that's pretty much what it is. They've told me to shoot pretty much every chance I get," Garrison told reporters. "I'm just trying to put myself in the position to shoot."

Garrison's one-timer hasn't escaped the notice of Campbell, who has assisted on all but one of Garrison's goals.

"I feel like he's got a heavy shot. I don't know how hard it is or what it is. It's heavy," Campbell told the Sun-Sentinel. "But the biggest thing is there are a lot of guys that have heavy shots, but where are you putting it, is it on net? He tends to hit the net quite a bit, which is great. He's finding the net."

With his goal total on the rise thanks to Campbell's helpers, Garrison has clearly benefited from the defensive pairing fashioned under coach Kevin Dineen.

But for Campbell, the feeling is mutual.

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"People don't see how he's always here, always preparing. He still has a lot to learn. And he has a lot of upside," Campbell told the Miami Herald. "He's easy to play with. That's the best compliment you can give another defenseman. I like what I see from him."

Southeast Division notes:

The Carolina Hurricanes' woes continue, as the team announced Wednesday that Jeff Skinner has been diagnosed with a concussion and will be sidelined indefinitely. It's a major blow to an already-struggling Carolina squad – Skinner is the team's leading scorer (24 points). It is believed that Skinner's injury occurred as a result of a hit from Edmonton Oiler Andy Sutton on Dec. 7. The hit on Skinner was legal, though Sutton was later handed an eight-game suspension for an illegal hit on Alexei Ponikarovsky in the same game. "It was a clean hit (on Skinner) but unfortunately a clean hit where the player gets hurt," GM Jim Rutherford said. ... Also out indefinitely with a concussion is D Joni Pitkanen, who leads Carolina defensemen in points (12). Pitkanen's injury was believed to occur Dec. 6 against Calgary. ... G Mike Murphy made his NHL debut for the Hurricanes in two relief performances on the road. Between the two games, he saw about 35 minutes of work and saved all nine shots faced. In the Hurricanes' 7-6 loss to the Calgary Flames, Murphy became an NHL record-holder: It was the first time a losing goaltender did not surrender a single goal against in a game. Murphy was sent back down to the Charlotte Checkers Wednesday. ... The Tampa Bay Lightning continue to struggle offensively, with a record of 4-7-0 in their last 11 games. Secondary scorers are going to have to step up immediately, as the Lightning lost top forward Martin St. Louis to injury on Dec. 8. During the Lightning's morning skate at Madison Square Garden prior to a game against the Rangers, a shot from Dominic Moore went wide of the net and struck St. Louis near his left eye. St. Louis temporarily lost vision in the eye, but it was later restored. However, with facial and nasal fractures, as well as some lingering impaired vision in the eye, St. Louis is going to be out of the Tampa lineup for an indeterminate amount of time. "It's looking good right now," he told reporters Monday. ... Perhaps the HBO cameras are just bad luck for the Washington Capitals. The Capitals' play during their losing streak last December, famously captured for 24/7, seemed to return Tuesday night when the Philadelphia Flyers – featured in this year's 24/7 – came to the Verizon Center. The Caps lost in an all-around poor effort. "We lost the game in the second period," Alex Ovechkin told reporters, referring to a three-goal period for the Flyers. The loss came on the heels of an impressive 4-2 win over Toronto on Friday. ... With Washington's loss on Tuesday, the Winnipeg Jets cruised to second place in the Southeast Division with 32 points but then slipped one point behind the Capitals with a 1-0 loss to them Thursday. In their last 11 games, they are 6-4-1. The stretch included a 2-1 win over league leader Minnesota Tuesday. With next year's re-alignment putting Minnesota and Winnipeg as division rivals to-be, Jets coach Claude Noel remarked that it felt "like a playoff game." Bryan Little told reporters that the Jets' confidence as a team is at an all-time high. "I think it proves to teams that we're up there, and we can play with the best teams in the League," Little said.

Tagged: Blackhawks, Hurricanes, Flyers, Lightning, Capitals, Panthers, Jets, Brian Campbell, Martin St. Louis, Bryan Little, Jason Garrison, Mike Murphy, Jeff Skinner

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