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Tom Rowe pleased by start with Panthers

New coach likes effort in shootout loss to Blackhawks in his NHL debut

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

CHICAGO -- Tom Rowe walked into the locker room. A moment later, he walked out. The new coach had but a brief message for the Florida Panthers after a 2-1 shootout loss to the Chicago Blackhawks at United Center on Tuesday.

"He just kind of told us that if we play like that, we'll be on the other end, the winning side, more often than not," defenseman Keith Yandle said.

After all the negativity over the previous 48 hours following the firing of coach Gerard Gallant, this was a time to accentuate the positives: The Panthers played hard. They tied the game in the third period on a power-play goal by Jaromir Jagr. They finished with 39 shots on goal, tying for their second-highest total of the season. They earned a point. Had Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford not been First Star, they might have earned two.

 

Recap: Panthers lose in shootout in Rowe coaching debut

 

Moral victory?

"Definitely," Rowe said after his first game as an NHL coach. "Really proud of the guys. The effort was incredible."

This was not a time to expect too much.

Video: FLA@CHI: Rowe discusses Jagr, getting point on road

The Panthers made an urgent, dramatic move Sunday. They felt the need to fire Gallant after a 3-2 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes at PNC Arena, the first of a six-game road trip, sending him home while the team headed to Chicago and beyond.

When they made the official announcement Monday, owner Vincent Viola said in the statement: "In seeking to earn a second consecutive playoff berth and bring a Stanley Cup to South Florida, we believe that new leadership is required immediately."

But this was not a crisis situation. The Panthers were not melting down; they were 11-10-1 and two points out of a wild-card spot into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Eastern Conference despite an overhauled defense and significant injuries. The players had not tuned out or turned on their coach; they liked Gallant.

Rowe, the general manager, took over as coach mainly because of big-picture philosophical differences between the front office and Gallant. He also didn't have a chance to hold a practice before his first game, just a morning skate.

And so there weren't urgent, dramatic changes, and the results didn't come immediately. Rowe tweaked the forward lines, his most significant move promoting Seth Griffith from the fourth line to the third. He adjusted the defensive-zone coverage, basically going from man-on-man to zone, believing it would be easier to read and more efficient. He asked the players to push the pace and put more pucks on net. That's about it.

Video: FLA@CHI: Jagr pounces on loose puck for a PPG

This is going to be a process, and for the most part, it's going to be subtle.

"We're going to definitely implement things slowly," Rowe said after the morning skate. "The biggest thing was [defensive-zone] coverage today. I like our systems. What we need to do, though, is we just need to get a lot more structured, a lot more detailed, within the finer points of them."

No matter who is behind the bench, the Panthers are due to improve. They were in worse shape at this point last season, and they ended up setting team records for wins (47) and points (103). The more time the newcomers have to get comfortable, the better. Key players Nick Bjustad and Jussi Jokinen each has returned from injury.

This should have been a playoff team under Gallant -- and might have been had he remained -- and it should be a playoff team under Rowe. But Rowe has to smooth over a tough situation, win over his players and refine their game. Ultimately, he has to take them further.

"He's a hard-nosed, old-school kind of guy," said forward Vincent Trocheck, one of a few Panthers who played for Rowe when he coached San Antonio and Portland of the American Hockey League. "He gets the most out of his players by getting them to work hard and make sure everybody's playing the right way."

In that sense, this game was a good start. Never mind that the Blackhawks were coming off a 13-night, seven-game road trip and missing captain Jonathan Toews. Never mind that the Panthers gave up 33 shots and their goaltender, Roberto Luongo, had to be excellent too.

Video: FLA@CHI: Luongo dives for dazzling glove save

"I think the main thing is, we worked really hard," Yandle said. "Our forwards did a great job of getting to the front of the net. Obviously, their goalie played great. I thought we did a good job in all three zones with working hard and using our speed the right way.

"I thought we did a lot of good things. We skated hard, and we skated smart. I thought we did a good job of using that to our advantage."

So did Rowe.

"Specifically, the [defensive-zone] coverage, I thought we attacked," Rowe said. "We pressured the puck a lot faster. We didn't get running around. They had some zone time. What I liked about it was, we bent a little bit, but we didn't break, which is really good. The guys were really cool when the pressure was on. That was a real positive.

"And then the other thing was, we threw a lot more pucks at the net. We had guys attacking the net. We had a lot more confusion at their crease."

Eventually, that won't be enough. But under the circumstances, it was on Tuesday. Rowe said the Panthers had a lot to build upon. Now they have to build upon it.

Video: Crawford, Panik power Hawks to 2-1 shootout win

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