The Florida Panthers spent the past two seasons in the basement of the Southeast Division and were the league’s worst team a year ago. Nearly a quarter of the way through the 2011-12 season, the Panthers are only a few points behind the league leaders.
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Individual players are excelling and the team is working as one to put together wins. After a 4-1 loss in St. Louis on Thursday, defenseman Brian Campbell was third in the league with 16 assists while wing Tomas Fleischmann was in the top 10 in plus/minus. Wing Kris Versteeg is one of 14 players with at least 20 points.
Much of the newfound defensive scoring is a result of Campbell’s arrival. Campbell is tied for second in scoring among defensemen and the Panthers’ defense as a whole has contributed more than 50 points this season. Panthers defensemen consider Campbell the trailblazer for the increased offense from the blue line.
"We were urged in the past to get up ice," Jason Garrison told the Sun-Sentinel. "But obviously, with (Campbell) coming in here and kind of leading the charge a little bit . . . now we’re looking to create offense."
In addition to the scoring from the defensive corps, part of the Panthers’ success can also be credited to their improved play on the road — they are 7-4-0 away from home, and that is the best road start in team history. Their latest road win was a 6-0 victory at Dallas, where 11 players registered at least one point.
Before the season, new coach Kevin Dineen wanted to make winning on the road a priority. "We talked about how you can identify the character of a team on how they play on the road,” Dineen told the Miami Herald. "We take a lot of pride in playing solid hockey on (the) road. It’s important for us to now reciprocate at home."
Once the Panthers succeed at home (where they have a 2-2-3 record), the team will be a threat in the league. Center Stephen Weiss believes that they are on their way to more home wins.
"For whatever reason we’re more relaxed on the road and play too cute at home," Weiss told reporters. "Maybe it’s because we have a lot of new guys and want to put on a show for the fans. We have the best intentions, but sometimes, you have to keep it simple and do what works. We just have to find this formula at home."
Struggling to find that formula has resulted in blowing a three-goal lead Sunday against Tampa Bay and allowing the tying goal in the final minute of regulation to Winnipeg on Oct. 31. Those collapses account for two of Florida’s three shootout defeats on home ice.
Can the Panthers keep it going? The team is banged up right now, with injuries to wings Matt Bradley (upper body), Scottie Upshall (hip), Mikael Samuelsson (sports hernia) and Jack Skille (groin).
Florida’s AHL affiliate, San Antonio, is so depleted from NHL call-ups that it’s at the bottom of the AHL’s Western Conference. If injuries keep piling up, it could become a big problem for the Panthers.
For now, the injuries don’t seem to impede the Panthers’ progress. On Tuesday, the Panthers won their fourth straight road game and moved into a share of first place in the Southeast Division with the Washington Capitals.
Dineen is happy with the team’s development, but he doesn’t want them to get too far ahead of themselves.
"It’s a little too early in the season to be watching the standings,” Dineen told the Herald. "We’re just going about our business. We’re not looking too far ahead. But it is nice to see that our hard work is paying off."
Southeast Division notes
C Cody Eakin remains with the Washington Capitals after his call-up earlier this month. In seven games, he has one goal and three assists. He is traveling with the team to his hometown of Winnipeg to play the Jets on Thursday and hopes be in the lineup to play in front of friends and family. "Every day I kind of check to see if I have a jersey in my stall," Eakin told the media. "I’m enjoying every second, but no day is guaranteed, so you need to work hard." . . . After a 3-0 loss to St. Louis on Saturday, Tampa Bay Lightning coach Guy Boucher gave his players a day off for "self-assessment." He ran a hard morning skate Monday, but that night, the Lightning fell behind by three goals in a 5-2 loss against Winnipeg. After the game, the players shut themselves in the locker room to conduct a 30-minute "players-only" meeting to discuss what was going on. "Something needed to be addressed and we took it upon ourselves. That’s a good thing. It brings teams together. People step up, we say the right things and we follow," C Steven Stamkos told reporters. The Lightning rebounded nicely with a 4-1 win over Pittsburgh — their sixth straight home win. . . . The Jets broke out of a five-game losing streak Monday in a 5-2 win over the Lightning. Five different players scored goals after Winnipeg coach Claude Noel juggled line combinations. It seemed to pay off as 10 players got at least one point. The Jets followed that with a 4-1 win over the Capitals as Evander Kane scored twice. . . . RW Eric Fehr is getting closer to returning to the lineup — rather, entering it for the first time. Fehr has been cleared for contact after offseason right shoulder surgery and has been participating in team practices. Noel says Fehr could see his first action of the season next week. . . . The Hurricanes have six regulation losses in their past seven games after a 4-0 loss to the Montreal Canadiens on Wednesday. In those defeats, Carolina has been outscored by a 32-10 margin. "We didn’t play really. We didn’t show up, we didn’t play and got what we deserved," captain Eric Staal told reporters after the loss. The Hurricanes are definitely in trouble, and management could be making drastic changes soon. "We’ve got to figure it out. It’s on us," C Jeff Skinner said to reporters. "We can’t be sort of hoping and looking for help outside the locker room."