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Panthers wrestling with Bouwmeester's future

by Mike G. Morreale
With the trade deadline less than a month away, the rumors surrounding the ultimate destination of Florida Panthers defenseman Jay Bouwmeester continue to heat up.

While the pending unrestricted free agent hasn't given any verbal assurance that he'd like to remain in Florida, his play this season has been a big reason the Panthers are close to qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since the 1999-2000 season.

Entering the weekend, Bouwmeester led the League in ice time per game (27:16) while posting 12 goals, 7 power-play goals and 28 points in 51 games. Panthers General Manager Jacques Martin has done a good job finding players that not only would assist the team in its own end, but enhance Bouwmeester's play this season.

The shuffling began at the 2008 Entry Draft, when he dealt Olli Jokinen to Phoenix for defensemen Keith Ballard and Nick Boynton. Martin's acquisition of 33-year-old defenseman Bryan McCabe and a fourth-round draft pick in 2010 in exchange for 29-year-old defenseman Mike Van Ryn in September has worked out pretty well, also. The club currently ranks seventh in the League with a 2.69 goals-against average.

On top of that, Florida possesses one of the League's top goalie tandems in Tomas Vokoun and Craig Anderson.

To his credit, Bouwmeester hasn't concerned himself with trade rumors. Instead, he's focused on playing hockey and getting Florida back to the postseason.

"You kind of know it's out there (trade rumors)," Bouwmeester told, "but I don't really fret over it or worry about it too much. One way or another it's kind of out of my hands a little bit and I guess it works both ways. Honestly, people ask the questions and stuff, but it is what it is. I'm not losing sleep over it, that's for sure."

Panthers coach Peter DeBoer, whose team entered the weekend eighth in the Eastern Conference with 58 points, obviously would like to see Bouwmeester remain in Florida.

"I don't dumb it down to where we have to make the playoffs to keep Bow," DeBoer said. "From Day 1 of training camp, I wanted to sell Jay on the idea there is light at the end of tunnel here, that we've got the program headed in the right direction. Hopefully that results in the playoffs. I hope he sees if it's not the playoffs now, it's playoffs in the near future. I think it will be more about his feel on the direction of the club and where we're heading."

Fehr-ing well --
With Washington Capitals captain Chris Clark missing the rest of the season following wrist surgery, fourth-year forward Eric Fehr realizes it's time to pick up the slack.

The 23-year-old has done just that, almost doubling his career totals entering the season with 5 goals and 13 points in his first 32 games this season. He entered the season with 3 goals and 9 points in 48 NHL games spread over the three previous seasons.

"You kind of have to look at it as an opportunity, though I feel bad for Clarkie," Fehr told "He was just starting to get back from his groin injury but that wrist has been bugging him all year so he had to shut it down. But at times like that, it's a team game and you have to have someone step up and hopefully I'll be able to do that."

Fehr, who recently has played on a line with Tomas Fleischmann and Michael Nylander, is confident.

"I feel a lot stronger on the ice and more confident with the puck," he said. "The last couple of games I've been playing with some good linemates who have been setting me up. Hopefully I'll be able to keep contributing."

Reigning NHL MVP Alex Ovechkin feels Fehr has great potential.

"I think ‘Fehrsie’ is a great player, but he has to shoot the puck more," Ovechkin said. "When he was young he was a good scoring leader and right now he has to do the same."

Fehr finished his Western Hockey League career with back-to-back 50-goal seasons with the Brandon Wheat Kings, in 2003-04 and 2004-05, then had consecutive 20-goal seasons with the Capitals' American Hockey League affiliate, the Hershey Bears.

Smith sidelined -- Tampa Bay goalie Mike Smith, who has been splendid this season for the Lightning, missed two games last week with an upper-body injury.

Tampa General Manager Brian Lawton and interim coach Rich Tocchet confirmed Wednesday that the injury wasn't a result of Smith's uncharacteristic outburst Jan. 30, when he was pulled in a loss to Philadelphia with over six minutes remaining after allowing six goals on 30 shots.

After allowing the final goal, Smith took his frustrations out by swinging his stick and hitting the water bottle on top of his net three times. After skating to the bench, he slammed his stick on the ground several times before using it to knock over a cart that rests behind the bench.

Lawton was confident Smith, who was put on injured reserve retroactive to Jan. 30, would return to practice Monday and be back in the lineup soon after.

"He's progressing nicely," Lawton said.

In 41 appearances this season, Smith is 14-18-9 with a 2.62 goals-against average and .916 save percentage.

Lehtonen lauded -- In addition to helping his team snap a four-game losing streak with a 2-1 shootout decision against the Rangers Tuesday, Thrashers goalie Kari Lehtonen also exacted a measure of revenge.

"Our team and me needed a win, no matter where we got it," Lehtonen said. "But this was an especially nice place (Madison Square Garden). I can finally put 7-0 in the playoffs that one year behind me. I was able to play solid and help the team win."

Lehtonen was referring to his team's 7-0 loss to the Rangers at MSG during the 2007 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Lehtonen would not be denied this time, despite the fact the Rangers knotted the game, 1-1, with just 10.7 seconds remaining in the third.

He made 39 saves in regulation and overtime before denying Nikolai Zherdev and Fredrik Sjostrom in the shootout to clinch the victory and end a five-game losing streak at MSG that included two games during the '07 playoffs.

"When our goaltender's playing like that, we're going to be a tough team to beat," Thrashers coach John Anderson said.

While Lehtonen remained confident heading into the overtime, he also felt a bit snake-bitten.

"First, of course, I thought, 'Here we go again,'" Lehtonen said. "We haven't won here in a long, long time. But there's a good break after the third period and before the overtime, so that was time for me to regroup and go at it again."

"When our goaltender's playing like that, we're going to be a tough team to beat."
-- Atlanta Thrashers coach John Anderson on goalie Kari Lehtonen's overtime win against the New York Rangers

Lehtonen had lost three of last four starts and been pulled from another entering the game. The 25-year-old Finn went into the weekend 9-15-2 with a 3.13 GAA and .908 save percentage this season.

Fine debut -- Carolina's Jakub Petruzalek made a successful NHL debut Thursday in a 4-3 shootout victory over the Western Conference-leading San Jose Sharks.

The Czech rookie assisted on a goal by Sergei Samsonov, who tipped home Petruzalek's shot with 5:10 remaining in the second period. The goal pulled Carolina within 3-2 before Ray Whitney evened the score 7:30 into the third.

The 23-year-old Petruzalek, who finished with a plus-1 rating, had two takeaways, one hit and saw 10:39 of ice time against the Sharks. He had been recalled from Albany of the American Hockey League to fill captain Rod Brind'Amour's spot in the lineup. Brind'Amour, who missed his first game of the season after being sent back to Raleigh with a lower-body injury, remains day-to-day.

Petruzalek ranked second in Albany in scoring this season with 12 goals and 34 points in 47 games. Drafted by the New York Rangers in the ninth round (No. 266) of the 2004 Entry Draft, Petruzalek had 36 goals and 109 points in 185 AHL games with Hartford and Albany. He was acquired by Carolina in 2006 in exchange for forward Brad Isbister.

Ice chips -- Florida Panthers defenseman Bryan McCabe scored the game-winning goal 3:30 into overtime against his former teammates in Toronto in a 4-3 victory Tuesday. "I'm not going to lie to you, that one felt good," McCabe said. "I have a lot of great memories in this rink, had a fond eight years I'll never forget. To get a goal like that against my old team means a lot." Said Florida goalie Craig Anderson: "He took a lot of boos (from Leafs fans), but he was the one with the last laugh."... Entering the weekend, the Thrashers were the only NHL team that hadn't lost in a shootout this season. Kari Lehtonen, who has been in goal for all three shootout victories in 2008-09, now has 19 shootout wins in his career, fifth-best among active goalies. The Thrashers' shooters have 6 goals in nine shootout attempts this season (67 percent). ... Cam Ward had his streak of 17 straight starts ended Thursday when backup Michael Leighton got the nod in a victory against the San Jose Sharks. Ward went 9-8-0 with a 2.47 GAA and two shutouts during his streak. ... The consecutive-games streak by Tampa defenseman Andrej Meszaros came to an end Saturday against the Islanders. Meszaros, who had started 298 straight games, was forced to the dressing room after sustaining an upper-body injury in the second period against the Penguins on Wednesday. Meszaros hasn't missed a game in his NHL career before Saturday. ... Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin scored his 200th career goal and League-leading 37th of the season in a 5-4 setback to the Los Angeles Kings on Thursday. He became only the fourth player in NHL history to score 200 goals in his first four NHL seasons, joining Wayne Gretzky, Mike Bossy and Mario Lemieux. ... Hurricanes forward Eric Staal left Thursday's game against San Jose before the third period because of a lower-body injury. Coach Paul Maurice said the injury wasn't serious and that he expects the three-time All-Star to make his 308th straight start Saturday against the Coyotes.

Contact Mike Morreale at
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