The final two games of the preseason are right around the corner for the Florida Panthers, with the Panthers closing out their final two exhibition games in a home-and-home series against their cross-state rivals, the Tampa Bay Lightning, starting tomorrow night in Sunrise.
With the Panthers still searching for their first win of the preseason, it has been a period of experimentation and getting a feel for new strategies and ideas. F Brandon Pirri leads the Panthers in preseason goals, with two in his last three games, after a move to the wing. Playing most of his career as a Center, Pirri sees the move in position as a “learning process”, despite his individual success so far.
“Being versatile in the organization and in this league is a big thing”, said Pirri about his audition as a winger.
“I’m just trying to learn as quickly as possible, make an impression and be in the opening day lineup."
The Panthers fell to the Dallas Stars on Monday despite holding a 3-0 lead in the second period. F Rocco Grimaldi, F Scottie Upshall, F Quinton Howden and D Colby Robak scored for Florida before being bested by Dallas 5-4. After the loss, Coach Gerard Gallant spoke to his team and stressed the simplification of his team’s game.
“We had a tough game,"said Gallant.
“We played real well at times and then we give them three goals. The three goals they scored were off of mistakes we made. We let them back into the hockey game when we were up 3-0. I was real happy up until that point. But the thing is, we made those mistakes. We just have to continue to do the same things, simple plays. We don’t have to force pucks or force plays. I thought we forced some plays, and that’s what happens when you lose a lot of hockey games, you lose your confidence and make plays at the middle of the ice instead of doing the simple things, like we did in the first period.”
With the regular season creeping up on the Cats, the team will be looking to trim down it’s roster to the team that be the 2014-15 Panthers.
One of the players trying to make the team is 2014 First Overall pick, D Aaron Ekblad. Playing in his first NHL preseason contest against Nashville, Ekblad will get a look for the game tomorrow night against Tampa Bay. Training camp and preseason are both excellent chances for young Ekblad to prove to the coaching staff and himself that he is NHL ready.
“He’s 18. We know he’s going to be a great hockey player, but it’s a big step,” said Gallant.
“A lot of people can attest to, to play defense in the NHL at 18, you have to be a special player and he’s a special player. We’re going to let him play game by game and see how he gets along. Nobody’s going to rush anybody. If he’s ready he’s ready, if he’s not he’s not. It’s tough to play defense in the NHL.”
Throughout training camp, Ekblad’s defense partner has been D Willie Mitchell. The 37-year old veteran has been brought in to not only mentor young defensemen like Ekblad, but to be a voice of experience and wisdom in the locker room as well. After winning two Stanley Cups with the Los Angeles Kings, Mitchell has stressed the importance of being a tight-knit group to a team's overall success.
Drafted by the New Jersey Devils in the eighth round (199th overall) in 1996, Mitchell recalls being a young player with the Devils and being invited to dinner by RW Randy McKay, D Ken Daneyko and former Panther D Lyle Odelein. Laughing while claiming to “date himself” by dropping the names of these players, the message those veteran players sent with just a dinner invitation still resonates with Mitchell all these years later.
“It was good because it made you feel like a part of things,” said Mitchell.
“When you’re a young guy and you’re coming in, [to be invited out by the veterans] you feel like a part of it. When you feel like a part of it, you get your confidence, when you get your confidence; you’re the player that you want to be and are supposed to be.”
Following their last preseason game on Oct. 4 in Tampa Bay, the Panthers will head to West Point Military Academy where they will continue to practice and work on team-building heading into the regular season.
“I think it’ll be excellent,” said Mitchell.
“I’m looking forward to it, I think the guys are too and getting to know each other a little more and create that cohesiveness and group feel , is what you need to go bat for each other to win.”
The Panthers face off against the Lightning in their final preseason home game tomorrow, 7:30pm at BB&T Center.