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Posted On Saturday, 03.03.2012 / 3:24 PM

By Alain Poupart -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Florida's Smithson excited to face former team

SUNRISE, Fla. — Jerred Smithson admitted he began thinking about Saturday's game almost immediately after being traded by Nashville to Florida eight days ago.

After spending 6-1/2 seasons with Nashville, Smithson was traded to the Panthers on Feb. 24 in exchange for a sixth-round pick in the 2012 NHL Draft, and he will face his former team for the first time Saturday night at the BankAtlantic Center.

"I looked right away, actually," Smithson said. "I knew we were coming to Florida fairly soon. That's kind of one game there I had circled in my head that I was looking forward to. Once I get that first shift out of the way, it'll feel a lot better and it's just a hockey game."

Smithson never recorded more than 16 points in a season after signing with Nashville in the first season after the lockout, but he was considered a big part of the Predators nonetheless because of his faceoff prowess, his work ethic and his locker-room presence.

Coach Barry Trotz thought enough of him that he called him after the trade.

"He was one of those guys who helped develop a pretty good culture," Trotz said Saturday. "He was a Predator. He was a guy who was discarded by L.A., signed by Nashville and sort of worked his way as an American League player to the NHL as a role player to a real diligent checker with our team, and he was a big part of the culture. He brings professional, he brings honesty to his game and a work ethic. Smitty made himself a player."

Smithson and Trotz chatted at the morning skate Saturday.

The 33-year-old center called Saturday's game "tough."

"At the end of the day, it's just a hockey game," he said. "They're all buddies over there, but they're going out there to win a hockey game, as are we. We'll go out there and play hard and do my usual thing and hopefully come out with two points."

Smithson is one of three former Nashville players on the Panthers along with Marcel Goc and Mike Santorelli.

His familiarity with the Predators came into play in preparation for this game.

"I've told them what I know and what I can help them out with," Smithson said. "At the end of the day, it's just us going out there and executing and going out there and working hard. We had a long day yesterday, so it's important for us to get a good stretch in and good sweat and just go out there and execute our game plan. That's going to be work ethic. It's going to be a tough game. Both teams can really wheel and deal and have a lot of speed, so it should be exciting."

In four games with the Panthers, Smithson has yet to record a point, but he's won 57.2 percent of his faceoffs. One of the few bright spots in Thursday's 7-0 loss at Winnipeg was Smithson's 7-for-9 performance on draws.

"Jerred Smithson has come in and done a good job for us," Florida coach Kevin Dineen said. "He's given us some great options."

Smithson didn't get the chance to visit with some of his former teammates Friday night because the Panthers didn't return from Winnipeg until close to midnight.

"I text the guys here and there, but I'm not quite sure on that end what's going on," he said. "I've gotten a lot of text messages and phone calls from the guys wishing me luck and thanking me and vice versa. They'll always be good friends and I'll stay in contact with them. Just another chapter."

Saturday night, though, it's all business.

Smithson did joke when he was asked whether there was any Nashville player in particular he wanted to hit.

"I'll just go out there and play hard, there's a few guys," he said. "No, I'm just kidding. It should be fun. I'm excited."
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Posted On Saturday, 03.03.2012 / 3:00 PM

By Alain Poupart -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Panthers insist travel issues home are no excuse

SUNRISE, Fla. — The Florida Panthers were back on their home ice Saturday morning, looking to put behind what became a nightmarish trip to Winnipeg.

As if their 7-0 loss Thursday night weren't bad enough, the Panthers then had to wait more than nine hours at the airport before they finally were able to fly home Friday night.

Coach Kevin Dineen, however, said the travel ordeal should have no effect on Saturday night's home game against the Nashville Predators.

"It makes for a little bit of a tougher today when you come off a pretty good beating in Winnipeg in more than one way," he said after the morning skate. "We had some travel issues as well. You know what? That's part of our business.

"That's an excuse. We haven't used excuses at all this year. We feel that the game is on schedule, it was a tough day for us getting home yesterday but that, by far, doesn't factor into today's game or tonight's performance."

The Panthers were stuck in Winnipeg because of plane issues.

After arriving at the airport around 8:30 a.m., they had to wait until about 6 p.m. before the flight departed. It landed in Fort Lauderdale around 11:15 p.m.

Some players read, others spent time on their computers, others walked around the terminal.

"A lot of cards, a lot of talking," said defenseman Erik Gudbranson. "A couple of guys fell asleep on the plane and passed the time there. I watched a couple movies myself.

"I watched ‘Last King of Scotland,' ‘Defiance,'  what else did I watch? I watched another one, I forget what it was. Read a little bit, too. Passed the time well."

For new Panthers center Jerred Smithson, the long delay provided an opportunity to get better acquainted with some of his new teammates.

"Boy, what didn't I do?" said Smithson, acquired Feb. 24 in a trade with Nashville. "There's only so much you can do in the Winnipeg airport. You walk around, you go for lunch. It actually gave me a good chance to talk to some of the other guys that I haven't really talked to too much.

"Just tried to stay loose. It was such a long time, especially mentally, too. Physically, it was tough, but mentally you just wanted to get home and kind of relax. No big deal. It's part of the game, I guess. It doesn't happen every day, thank God."

Also on the agenda was a quick review of Thursday night's game, one which didn't feature many highlights for the Southeast Division-leading Panthers.

"Obviously we went over some video and some clips and we took the time necessary to review what happened and we thought about it, let it sink in," Gudbranson said. "But that's over with, we forget about it. Those games happen. It's happened a couple of times this year, not just us, to other teams. We know that and we're just going to continue."

Gudbranson, the Panthers' 20-year-old rookie, tried to put a positive spin on the long travel day.

"Those kind of events, as much as it (stunk) while we were doing it, that's the kind of stuff that brings a team together and we laugh about it later," he said. "We made our own fun and enjoyed ourselves as much as we could and ended up getting home safely."
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Posted On Saturday, 03.03.2012 / 2:41 PM

By Alain Poupart -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Gaustad to make Predators debut

SUNRISE, Fla. — After sitting out Wednesday's game at Carolina, Paul Gaustad will make his Nashville debut Saturday night at Florida.

"I'm excited," the 30-year-old center said. "I'm looking forward. It's been a good week trying to get adjusted and acclimated. Still got to be patient, a little trial-and-error, system-wise, but I'm excited to play tonight.

"I'm going to try to approach it as any other game. That's what's made me successful and that's what I'm going to try to do tonight."

Gaustad was acquired from Buffalo at the NHL Trade Deadline on Monday in exchange for a first-round pick in this year's NHL Draft. The Predators also got a 2013 fourth-round pick in the deal.

Coach Barry Trotz said he was looking forward to seeing first-hand what Gaustad could add to this team.

"He's a big body, he's a draw guy and gives us a little more weight on the puck and physicality," Trotz said. "It makes us real solid. We can move parts around to have four pretty good lines when we want to."

Gaustad, who had seven goals and 10 assists in 56 games with Buffalo this season, has spent the week trying to get acclimated to his new team.

He missed Wednesday's 4-3 loss at Carolina because of an upper-body injury.

"It was tough for me," Gaustad said. "I wanted to play. They were really good about giving me some rest to rest up a couple of injuries that I've been having. It's healed up nicely and everything is looking good."

PREDATORS

Forwards
Sergei Kostitsyn   --   Mike Fisher   --   Martin Erat
Andrei Kostitsyn  --  David Legwand  --  Patric Hornqvist
Colin Wilson  --  Nick Spaling  --  Jordin Tootoo
Gabriel Bourque  --  Paul Gaustad  --  Brandon Yip

Defensemen
Ryan Suter  --  Shea Weber
Roman Josi  --  Hal Gill
Francis Bouillon  --  Jack Hillen

Goalies
Pekka Rinne
Anders Lindback
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Posted On Saturday, 03.03.2012 / 2:37 PM

By Alain Poupart -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Jovanovski questionable for Predators game

SUNRISE, Fla. — Florida defenseman Ed Jovanovski is a question mark for Saturday night's game against Nashville after he sat out the morning skate and the Panthers called up Tyson Strachan from the American Hockey League.

Coach Kevin Dineen, however, didn't rule out Jonavovski playing against the Predators.

"He's got a maintenance day today," Dineen said. "We'll see how he feels as we get closer to tonight."

Strachan was recalled for the second time this season. He played 12 games after being called up on Jan. 23, scoring his first NHL goal Feb. 12 in a 4 - 1 victory against the New York Islanders.

He was sent back down to San Antonio on Feb. 24 when Jason Garrison returned to the lineup.

Jovanovski played 17:11 in Thursday's 7 - 0 loss at Winnipeg and finished the game.

"As a precaution, we felt it was important to get Tyson in town just to make sure that we can fulfill a lineup tonight depending on Jovo's feeling," Dineen said.

The Panthers definitely will be without their leading scorer, Kris Versteeg, who will miss his third consecutive game with a lower - body injury. Dineen said Versteeg also will not play Sunday against Ottawa.

PANTHERS

Forwards
Sean Bergenheim - Stephen Weiss - Mikael Samuelsson
Tomas Fleischmann - Marcel Goc - Wojtek Wolski
Tomas Kopecky - Shawn Matthias - Jack Skille
Marco Sturm - Jerred Smithson - Mike Santorelli

Defensemen
Jason Garrison - Mike Weaver
Brian Campbell - Erik Gudbranson
Keaton Ellerby - Tyson Strachan

Goalies
Jose Theodore
Scott Clemmensen
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Posted On Thursday, 02.23.2012 / 3:44 PM

By Alain Poupart -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Panthers activate Jovanovski; Garrison nears return

SUNRISE, Fla. -- The Florida Panthers' defensive corps is finally getting healthy.

Veteran Ed Jovanovski was taken off the injury list on Thursday and he's expected to be in the lineup when the Panthers face the Minnesota Wild at the BankAtlantic Center.

Jason Garrison, who leads all NHL defensemen with 13 goals, took part in Thursday's optional skate after participating in his first practice the day before. He's not going to play against Minnesota, but could make his return this weekend, either Saturday at Carolina or Sunday at home against Montreal.

The third injured Florida defenseman, Dmitry Kulikov, is expected to miss a couple more weeks after undergoing knee surgery in late January.

Jovanovski has been out since Jan. 16 when he broke his hand while fighting Boston's Daniel Paille.

"If there's one thing that anybody that's been around or has seen Eddie play, whether it was here as an 18-year-old or this year, our fan base knows that he brings a high level of intensity," coach Kevin Dineen said. "He's a player. He comes to play and he'll be a great benefit for us."

Jovanovski has missed the Panthers' last 14 games and has watched the team drop its last three, all at home.

"It's never fun watching," Jovanovski said. "The team is facing a little adversity right now and it's tough not being a part of it. But it's good to be back with the guys."

Jovanovski's return not only figures to help the Panthers on the ice, but his leadership should help a team in the heat of a battle for its first playoff berth since 2000.

"I'm excited, I think the whole team is," said rookie Erik Gudbranson, Jovanovski's defense partner. "He's a huge piece of the package we have here. He's very good in the room. That's excluding what he does on the ice. He's a veteran leader and we need him back, that's for sure."

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Posted On Thursday, 02.23.2012 / 3:02 PM

By Alain Poupart -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Front end of back-to-backs has stymied Wild

SUNRISE, Fla. -- Playing back-to-back games is a tough challenge, but it's usually the second game coaches worry about.

For the Minnesota Wild, it's the front end that's been a nightmare.

When they take on the Florida Panthers on Thursday night before playing at Dallas on Friday, the Wild will be looking for their first victory in the first game of back-to-back sets.

Minnesota is 0-6-1 in such games, the only point coming in a 2-1 shootout los at Nashville on Dec. 28.

The six losses came at the Islanders (2-1), at Los Angeles (5-2), against Calgary (5-2), at Winnipeg (2-1), at Vancouver (4-0) and at St. Louis (4-0).

Coach Mike Yeo brought up the unusual streak when he was asked about the possibility of goalie Matt Hackett starting at Dallas.

"There is a chance, but the one thing about that is I don't want to answer any questions about tomorrow," Yeo said. "We're a team that's 0-7 -- I just realized this -- on the first night of back-to-backs. There's a very good chance that's because we're maybe looking forward or don't quite have our sights set on the game that we're playing that day.

"This would be a game that it would be very easy for us to look beyond and look towards that Dallas game. This game for me is all about making sure that we're in this moment and understanding that there's nothing more important than this game right now."

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Posted On Thursday, 02.23.2012 / 2:37 PM

By Alain Poupart -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Return of Peters only lineup change for Wild

SUNRISE, Fla. -- After their big 2-0 victory over Boston on Sunday, the Minnesota Wild not surprisingly will be going almost with the same lineup Thursday night against the Florida Panthers.

The only change will be the return of forward Warren Peters, who sat out the Boston game because of a suspension. He will replace Jeff Taffe, who was reassigned to Houston after Sunday's game.

On defense, that means that rookie defenseman Justin Falk again will be scratched. Coach Mike Yeo, though, is quite to point out that's not an indictment on Falk's play.

"I think our defense has played well lately," he said after Thursday's morning skate. "Certainly I would not be afraid one bit of putting him back in the lineup soon here. It's tough to sit a guy like that for sure because I know that when he's playing well he can add something to our group, but having said that, with the exception of the St. Louis game I've been pleased with the way our defense has been playing."

One defenseman who stood out in the victory over Boston, which snapped a seven-game losing streak, was Marco Scandella.

He logged 22:09 of ice time and finished with a plus-1 rating.

"He's funny, his best games have been against the Boston Bruins or when he's going out against Taylor Hall," Yeo said. "He seems to get this matchup, this role in his head of, 'OK, I've got to be good tonight,' and he looks forward to that challenge. He seems to be more aggressive, more assertive and just plays really well in those situations. It's something that maybe we have to going forward give him a specific role or assign him a task for that game to give him something to focus on and let that play out that way."

The Wild again will be without captain Mikko Koivu against Florida. He has missed the last two games with an undisclosed injury and did not accompany the Wild on their two-game road trip.

Goalie Josh Harding also didn't make the trip. He was injured at practice Wednesday, but was set to make the trip anyway before he became ill. After an MRI came back negative, the plan was to have Harding join the team for Friday's game at Dallas, but he was still feeling sick on Thursday, so the plan was scrapped.

Here is Minnesota’s projected lineup:

Dany Heatley - Kyle Brodziak - Devin Setoguchi
Darroll Powe - Matt Cullen - Nick Johnson
Erik Christensen - Chad Rau - Cal Clutterbuck
Matt Kassian - Warren Peters - Jed Ortmeyer

Nick Schultz - Nate Prosser
Greg Zanon - Marek Zidlicky
Marco Scandella - Jared Spurgeon

Niklas Backstrom
Matt Hackett
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Posted On Thursday, 02.23.2012 / 2:18 PM

By Alain Poupart -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Cullen laments missed opportunity to face brother

SUNRISE, Fla. -- Even though it's been eight years since he played for the Florida Panthers, Matt Cullen still enjoys coming to the BankAtlantic Center.

This trip, however, could have been really special.

Playing an NHL game against his brother Mark would have made it the perfect homecoming.

Unfortunately for both Cullens, Mark is back in the AHL, where he has spent the better part of the last 10 years. Mark Cullen got a shot with the Panthers earlier this season when he played an NHL game for the first time since November of 2006 and was back for another stint in December.

Matt said he and his brother talked about the possibility of facing each other during Mark's stint with the Panthers.

But when Matt plays at the BankAtlantic Center Thursday night, Mark will be preparing for a game at Peoria on Friday.

"I was disappointed for him," Matt said after Thursday's morning skate. "I know he was disappointed and he really liked it here. He's worked so hard and he's battled through so much to get an opportunity. I've always thought he's an NHL-caliber player, but that's the business. He loves it here, I know that."

Mark Cullen appeared in six games for the Panthers during his two call-ups and recorded an assist, against Toronto on Dec. 27.

Matt Cullen has 30 points in 58 games for the Wild in his 14th season. On Jan. 10, he played in his 1,000th NHL game against San Jose, and he marked the milestone by scoring in regulation and then scoring the shootout winner in a 5-4 victory.

Cullen spent parts of two seasons with the Panthers, who acquired him in a trade with Anaheim in January of 2003. After the 2003-04 season, Cullen signed as a free agent with Carolina.

"I still have some close friends in the area," Cullen said. "A lot's changed, it's been a long time. They've had a lot of turnover here since then, but definitely a place I'm still very fond of and like coming back to."

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Posted On Thursday, 02.23.2012 / 2:02 PM

By Alain Poupart -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Panthers call up pair of forwards

SUNRISE, Fla. -- The Florida Panthers will have some different faces up front Thursday night when they face the Minnesota Wild, but coach Kevin Dineen was very cryptic after the optional skate.

Jon Matsumoto and Michal Repik were called up from San Antonio on Thursday, but the Panthers were only one forward short -- the result of Matt Bradley sustaining an upper-body injury in Sunday’s 2-0 loss against Anaheim.

Asked why two forwards were called up with only one spot open, Dineen said: "Our feeling was that there's always options as far as how you're going to put a lineup on the ice. For us, both Jonathan and Michal were both playing well in San Antonio and now that gives us a little bit of depth at forward."

By all indications, center Marcel Goc could be another scratch for the Panthers. He left Wednesday's practice early, didn't take part in the optional skate and his spot in the locker room was gone on Thursday.

Goc has been centering a line between Sean Bergenheim and Mikael Samuelsson, which has cooled off after a hot stretch.

In practice this week, the Panthers also had a different top line, with Tomas Kopecky replacing Tomas Fleischmann alongside Stephen Weiss and Kris Versteeg.

Fleischmann worked on a line with Shawn Matthias and Mike Santorelli.

Veteran John Madden, who has missed the last two games with a lower-body injury, skated on Thursday but Dineen said he would not play against Minnesota.

Here is the Panthers' projected lineup:

Tomas Kopecky - Stephen Weiss - Kris Versteeg
Sean Bergenheim - Michal Repik - Mikael Samuelsson
Tomas Fleischmann - Shawn Matthias - Mike Santorelli
Krystofer Barch - Jon Matsumoto - Jack Skille

Brian Campbell - Mike Weaver
Ed Jovanovski - Erik Gudbranson
Keaton Ellerby - Tyson Strachan

Jose Theodore
Scott Clemmensen
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Posted On Thursday, 02.23.2012 / 1:35 PM

By Alain Poupart -  NHL.com Correspondent /NHL.com - At the Rink blog

Sturggling Panthers searching for offense

SUNRISE, Fla. — Goals have been hard to come by for the Florida Panthers during their disappointing homestand. They’re hoping things will change in the finale Thursday against Minnesota.

In losing in regulation to Ottawa, Washington and Anaheim over the past week, the Panthers scored only three goals. It’s their lowest-scoring three-game stretch of the season.

The reasons for the scoring woes include a struggling power play, the absence of three regular defensemen and some occasional overpassing.

Coach Kevin Dineen also believes his team has to stop letting the opponent dictate the pace of the game.

“For us, our speed game needs to first and foremost come as a factor in every game,” he said after Thursday’s optional morning skate. “A lot of times we’re starting in our own zone and we feel that if we can play solid defense it can transition into good offense. If we get our speed going, that opens up the opportunities in the other zone.”

The Panthers, who will go into Thursday’s game tied with Winnipeg atop the Southeast Division with 65 games but with four games in hand, are coming off a 2-0 loss to Anaheim on Sunday.

Florida outshot the Ducks 31-27 but had few quality scoring chances.

The power play didn’t help, going 0-for-4. In a 2-1 loss Friday to Washington, the Panthers were 0-for-3 with the man advantage.

“It obviously becomes an issue when you’re in tight-checking, tight-scoring games,” Dineen said. “When you get a man advantage, you have to take advantage of it. We’re certainly aware that our power play needs to produce. Sometimes it might not be goals on the board, but it’s walking out of there with what I call feel good, that you walk out it’s up-tempo, opportunities present themselves, and the game carries on from there. But it would certainly be nice to score more consistently on the power play like we did earlier in the year.”

Kris Versteeg, who leads the team in scoring with 48 points, says low-scoring games are to be expected at this time of year.

“I guess you just keep the pedal to the metal is one thing you’re going to do,” Versteeg said. “The power play has got to get us some goals here now. We’ve also got to work hard to draw some penalties to get us on the power play. It comes hand in hand. We’re just going to keep doing what we do. We’ve been throwing a lot of pucks at the net.”
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Quote of the Day

I remember the first time at Wrigley Field all of us had the long johns, the turtlenecks and the extra equipment because we were afraid of being cold. Halfway through the first period everybody's ripping everything off and we just ended up wearing what we would normally wear for a game at the United Center.

— Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp on the 2009 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic