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Flu bug gives Panthers kids a chance

by Shawn P. Roarke
HELSINKI  -- The Florida Panthers knew they would be a young team again this season. But come Friday's season opener here against the Chicago Blackhawks at Hartwall Arena (12 p.m. ET, TSN, VERSUS), the Panthers might be even younger than even they expected to be.
A perfect storm of minor injuries and a rampaging flu bug could see Florida coach Peter DeBoer turn to a two players yet to make their NHL debut in the opening game of the 2009 NHL Compuware Premiere Helsinki series. Another pair of players that have combined for 25 games of NHL experience will also be in Friday's roster mix.
Top forward Stephen Weiss and Keith Ballard are nursing minor groin injuries. Plus, each is being hammered by the flu, joined by Bryan Allen and Jordan Leopold.
The players who could make their NHL debut Friday are 18-year-old defenseman Dmitry Kulikov, the team's first-round pick this past spring, and 22-year-old Mike Duco, a banging, crashing forward. Shawn Matthias, all of 21, is the veteran of the group with 20 NHL games. Michal Repik, the fourth member of the quartet, is 20 and has just five NHL games on his resume.
All four players have been given a lot of responsibility in the preseason, including Wednesday night's final tuneup against Jokerit, a 4-2 win for the Panthers.
Matthias played regularly on Florida's top line against Jokerit and Kulikov was a regular in the six-man defensive rotation.
"I'm pushing our young players not to fall off," DeBoer said after a long practice. "There's a tendency when you get to this point to relax and say, 'I made the team.' We can't have that. We need these young guys. As a group, those guys we need to continue to push these guys to not only be here, but to contribute."
Amazingly, the youngest of the four, Kulikov, might contribute the most in the early going. The Russian has been a revelation in training camp, handling the jump from the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League to the NHL without too much effort.
There have been hiccups along the way, but DeBoer likes the way that Kulikov has moved on from his mistakes.
"For a young defenseman (it's) his confidence," DeBoer said. "He's not afraid to try things. He's not afraid to make a mistake. He'll go right back out and try it again. It doesn't seem to affect him.
"It's a great characteristic for a young defenseman to have stepping into the NHL because traditionally, what you fight with young players, especially defensemen, is a lack of confidence. They'll make a mistake or get beat and they'll take a step back and go into a shell. I don't see that as a problem with this guy. This guy is right back at it again."
Kulikov believes they he is ready to contribute and is eager to embrace this opportunity. He knows he won't likely repeat the 62-point year he had with Drummondville last season, but he believes he can do the things Florida will ask of him.
"I think I am ready," Kulikov told "I have chance tomorrow to prove to everyone that I am ready for NHL."
And what if he makes a mistake Friday when it counts and real points in the NHL standings are at stake?
"He doesn't play scared," fellow Florida defenseman Ville Koistinen told
"Once I am on the ice, I just do my job," Kulikov told "I'm not worried about making any mistakes. If I do, just forget about it. It's a new shift."
Thursday, DeBoer would not commit to playing Matthias on the top line if Weiss is a no-go Friday night.
"I prefer to be a glass-half-full kind of guy and think Weisser is going to be in there," DeBoer said.

"I had a comfort zone in Jersey, that's for sure. I'm out of that comfort zone now. Sometimes I feel like a rookie here. I'm learning a new system, new linemates, new everything for that matter. It's exciting. The young guys on the team keep it real exciting and it's a fun dressing room to be in."
-- Mike Duco

If not, there is a good chance Matthias, who has 20 NHL games under his belt during the past two seasons, will play on one of the top two lines, which is where the Panthers hope he will one day in the not too distant future will find a permanent home. 
Duco knows he doesn't have to worry about top-line minutes at this point. He just wants to see fourth-line time in his first NHL game on Friday.
"I see myself as an energy guy, a fourth-line guy," Duco told "I want to make that big hit, the big play, fight to get my team going if I need to. I'm here to make hits and get under people's skin."
No matter whom DeBoer ends up calling upon to dress Friday, the coach says they better be ready to contribute -- especially against this Chicago team that made it to the Western Conference Finals last season and beat Florida handily, 4-0, in the only regular-season meeting between the two teams.
"I remember they beat us, I think 4-0, in Florida and I don't think we touched the puck," DeBoer said Thursday. "They are a very good team,. They went to conference finals last year. They have a lot of skill, a lot of talent and it will be a great test for us."
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