Better late than never or too little, too late? Over the next few weeks, the Florida Panthers will find out which of these clichés ends up being best to describe their season.
Given up for dead as the All-Star Game approached, Florida has dramatically turned things around over the past six weeks, going 12-5-3 to climb back into the Eastern Conference playoff race. After a near-sellout crowd saw them beat Southeast Division co-leader and rival Atlanta on Saturday for the first time in seven tries, the Panthers find themselves just five points shy of the eighth and final postseason seed with 13 games remaining.
|Captain Olli Jokinen says he doesn't believe the Panthers waved a white flag at the trade deadline. (Getty Images)|
It just might not be enough for the Panthers, who had a similar, though unsuccessful late charge toward the playoffs last year. The team is playing effective hockey at both ends of the ice these days, yet despite its reversal of fortune, still must climb over four teams in order to reach the Stanley Cup tournament for the first time since 2000.
"We dug ourselves a pretty big hole," conceded defenseman Jay Bouwmeester.
Blame that on the effects of a slow start to a season which began under a cloud thanks to the controversial offseason trade of franchise goalie Roberto Luongo and the sudden resignation of former general manager Mike Keenan on the eve of training camp. Luongo has become an MVP candidate in Vancouver, while Todd Bertuzzi, the key player Florida secured in return, played only seven games before requiring back surgery and ended up getting traded to Detroit at the deadline for a junior player and draft picks.
In the interim, future Hall of Fame center Joe Nieuwendyk announced his retirement. Then veterans Gary Roberts and sparingly-used Joel Kwiatkowski were shipped off to Pittsburgh for prospects on the last day of trading, moves that suggested Florida might be ready to mail it in the rest of the way. Not so, said captain Olli Jokinen.
"Basically we didn't lose anybody from our lineup," said Jokinen, who has 31 goals this season, including seven in his past seven games. "Roberts played the first 40 games and after that he was in and out of lineup and Bertuzzi was out most of year, but we were playing pretty good at the time."
Since then, however, the Panthers have turned into one of the league's hottest teams.
"There are a lot of new faces on this team and it takes a while to gel and to figure out what everybody's best traits are out there," said goaltender Ed Belfour. "Once you do that, you get on a bit of a roll and you do all the good things. That's what we've been doing lately."
Belfour, the 41-year-old two-time Vezina winner with a history of back problems, has been the key. He was signed as a free agent over the summer essentially to back up Alex Auld, who came from Vancouver along with Bertuzzi, but instead has become a workhorse for the Panthers, starting 20 consecutive games and triggering the turnaround with his play.
For the season, Belfour is 22-14-8 with a 2.68 goals-against average and a .905 save percentage, but he is 9-2-2 over his past 13 games and has won six of his past seven.
"He's been outstanding for us," coach and GM Jacques Martin said. "Certainly there's been a better level of urgency and execution lately, but our goaltending has been real big."
So has the offense that was firing blanks for much of the first half. The Panthers suffered because Bertuzzi was counted on to give that part of their game a big lift. Over the past few weeks the goals have been coming with increasing frequency and timeliness, led mainly by Jokinen and the recently created line of Horton, Stephen Weiss and Martin Gelinas. That combo has combined for 14 goals and 30 points while posting a plus-11 rating over the past 10 games.
And that has given Florida at least a glimmer of hope. On Tuesday, the Panthers visit the defending and struggling Stanley Cup champion Carolina Hurricanes, one of the teams they are chasing, then finish with seven of their final 12 at home, where they have gone 12-3-3 since Dec. 21.
"The schedule is pretty good for us because we play only three games a week the rest of the way and a lot of it is in our own building," Jokinen said. "It's not going to get any easier, but there's still a lot of points available and at least we have something to play for now."