Things starting to click for Panthers’ Scottie Upshall

Scottie Upshall cannot pinpoint the difference maker.

Newfound health? New linemates? A new coach with a familiar system? 

It may be a combination of the three, but the winger discovered something within and turned into one of the Florida Panthers’ most consistent players.

“There’s a lot of factors that play into it,” Upshall said before his team embarked on its current five-game roadtrip. “I definitely think right now there is new light. There is new opportunity. I think it all just starts by looking in the mirror and being better. I’m expecting more out of myself on a daily basis.”

So far this month he’s contributed four goals and five assists. His 11 points in 20 games this season have surpassed his output of the previous two regular seasons combined.

More importantly, his on-ice performance is translating into points for Florida. 

In the 10 games when the Panthers have recorded at least one point in the standings, the veteran has appeared on the scoresheet in seven of those. In four of those, he provided a goal or assist that led to a win or tied the game in regulation as part of a Florida comeback.

“I’ve been waiting for an opportunity to come out and be better,” Upshall said. “I just think right now there are some things that are working. I’m getting some bounces. I’m playing hard and just trying to do the right things.”

Though he celebrated his 30th birthday in October, the gritty winger has rekindled a more fine-tuned style of play from his junior days that convinced the Nashville Predators to select him sixth overall in 2002. 

He’s been playing bigger than his 6-foot, 200-pound frame, creating scoring chances and protecting his own end. Upshall has been used in all situations — from mundane and crucial situations to the power play and penalty kill.
“When he was drafted in the first round in Nashville, that’s when I was there,” Panthers coach Peter Horachek said. “I saw a kid with a lot of skill, a lot of energy, could really skate. He had to take parts of his game and he had to mature those things.”

Upshall’s best campaign came in 2010-11 when he split a career-high 82 games with the Phoenix Coyotes and Columbus Blue Jackets. He scored a personal-best 22 goals and matched his career high of 34 points. The effort earned him a four-year, $14 million deal with the Panthers as a free agent that offseason.

Since joining Florida, there’s been much talk of Upshall’s capabilities as a tenacious, physical forward. But on ice, the Panthers and their fans have only seen glimpses of his energetic game. In the winger’s first two seasons, he accumulated only 13 points in a combined 60 regular-season and playoff games.

And earlier this year, it looked as if the frustration would continue for the Alberta native.

In Upshall’s first 10 games, he registered just two assists and a minus-four rating. Then-coach Kevin Dineen relegated the winger to the press box three times during that stretch. It took the underperformance of Upshall’s teammates for him to get another chance.

That’s when everything started to click.

On Nov. 2 in his first game back, Upshall picked up an assist in Florida’s 3-2 overtime loss to the Washington Capitals. Three nights later against the Edmonton Oilers, he scored two third-period goals, including the game-tying tally with 58 seconds left in regulation, to force overtime.

But Upshall, a player with a reputation for drawing penalties for his team, committed an infraction during the extra period that aided the Oilers in a 4-3 victory.

Playing under Horachek’s system, which he learned during his minor-league stint with the American Hockey League’s Milwaukee Admirals and later in Nashville, has only led to more frequent contributions.

Upshall scored the tying goal and set up Brad Boyes’ game-winner in Florida’s 3-2 comeback win over the league-leading Anaheim Ducks on Nov. 12. In the team’s 4-1 triumph over the Colorado Avalanche on Nov. 16, he assisted on a pair of goals. He picked up another assist on Tuesday when the Panthers earned their 3-2 win over the Vancouver Canucks, the team’s first since 1994. Upshall extended his points streak to three games with a goal in Florida’s 4-1 loss to Edmonton on Thursday. 

“He’s playing with a lot of energy, a lot of gumption,” Horachek said. “He’s acting and preparing himself. It matters for him. When it matters, those are the guys I want to play more. The more they want to care, the more they want to push forward, I think I am finding more and more guys who are buying into the idea.”

Upshall recognizes the need to not only keep appearing on the scoresheet, but accepting larger duties on the ice and in the locker room as well. He sees himself as a factor in getting his teammates to buy into Horachek’s game plan.

“I feel there’s a responsibility on me to help our group understand where Peter is coming from,” Upshall said. “There is definitely familiarity amongst that system there and what he’s trying to show us here.”

Since the game in Colorado, Upshall has served as one of the team’s three alternate captains. The move comes as little surprise, though. After the win over Anaheim, Horachek said he wanted to see his protégé “become one of the better players, the leader players.”

Upshall, in every way, is living up to the request.

You can follow Erin Brown on Twitter @rinkside.