Panthers goaltender Tomas Vokoun (29), blocks Toronto Maple Leafs' Jason Blake in the third period of an NHL hockey game in Sunrise, Fla., Thursday, March 19, 2009. The Panthers won 3-1. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)
By Dave Joseph for floridapanthers.com
CORAL SPRINGS – Just 12 hours after snapping a four-game losing streak, the Panthers got some more good news during Friday morning’s practice here at IncredibleIce.
Forward Nathan Horton, who has missed the past five games with a lacerated ring finger on his left hand, skated and took some shots before Friday’s practice and is hoping to be ready Monday evening when the Panthers play one of their biggest games of the year at BankAtlantic Center against the Carolina Hurricanes.
“I shot some pucks today and it felt all right,” said Horton, who has 19 goals (38 points). “(Saturday) I’ll try to do the same thing and skate with the team, then see the doctor in the afternoon and, hopefully, if everything goes well, I’ll be able to play on Monday, because it’s a big game.”
DeBoer said the Panthers have missed Horton’s presence in the lineup and up the middle. Horton says sitting on the sidelines has been tough.
“It’s definitely been tough,” he said. “We have a lot of guys who’ve stepped up on the team. But it will definitely be nice to be back and be part of the team and, hopefully, we can win some games and have a good stretch.”
Horton said he doesn’t have any soreness in his hand and can bend his finger, but will wear a splint inside his glove during games.
COLUMBUS FOLLOWS BIG WIN
The Panthers 3-1 victory Thursday over the Maple Leafs was a big step forward for the Panthers. Not only did they regain some confidence, but they played the style which brought them success throughout much of the year.
They hard-worked in the corners, got the puck deep, and were aggressive, especially in the second period when they won the game with goals from Richard Zednik and Ville Peltonen.
“We can take a deep breath,” said Panthers coach Peter DeBoer. “I don’t think there’s any doubt we were a little tight and playing a bit passive (before Thursday).”
DeBoer said he would likely keep the lines together for the start of Saturday’s game against Columbus that he ended Thursday’s game with. They included Kamil Kreps with Radek Dvorak and Ville Peltonen and Gregory Campbell centering Cory Stillman and Michael Frolik.
The Blue Jackets, fighting for the franchise’s first playoff appearance, are 14-17-4 on the road (5-4-1 in their last 10). They’re led by Rick Nash, who has 34 goals (five short-handed), R.J. Umberger (24 goals) and Kristian Huselius (20 goals).
MASON RACING TOWARD CALDER
If the Blue Jackets make the playoffs this spring for the first time in franchise history - and they’re currently sixth in the Western Conference and four points ahead of ninth-place Minnesota – they’ll owe a debt of gratitude to rookie goalie Steve Mason.
Mason, the Blue Jackets second-round draft pick (69th overall) in 2006, comes into Saturday’s game with a 29-17-3 record. He’s recorded a league-high nine shutouts, he’s second in the league in goals against (2.25) and ninth in save percentage (.918).
DeBoer knows all about Mason, who he coached in junior hockey with the Kitchener Rangers. The Rangers made a blockbuster deal to get Mason from the London Knights in 2007-08, and Mason didn’t disappoint. He went 13-3 under DeBoer and made 62 stops in a triple-overtime game against Sarnia before being forced to the sidelines during the Memorial Cup due to knee surgery.
“I was in junior hockey for 14 years and never been on the ice with a goalie that was as talented and had that kind of mental makeup, too,” DeBoer said. “He was an NHL goalie playing juniors.
“Hopefully, he’ll have a little soft spot for his ex-coach and give us a break.”
So what’s the trick to beat Mason?
“There’s things you can focus on,” said assistant coach/goaltending coach Pierre Groulx. “But the biggest thing we need to focus on is getting the puck to the net and having traffic in front. You just can’t be intimidated by his numbers, his shutout numbers. Like (Thursday), we had 42 shots. That’s the way we need to go.”
The 42 shots taken Thursday was the first time in 16 games the Panthers had taken more than 40 shots.
Several games tonight will impact the Panthers and their race to the playoffs. Begin with Carolina hosting the Islanders, Philadelphia at Buffalo, and the Penguins hosting the Kings.
THE FUTURE, ACCORDING TO HITCHCOCK
Blue Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock was recently asked by The Columbus Dispatch if tight playoff races would be the status quo in the NHL for the foreseeable future?
“This is the wave of the future,” he said. “This is it…I foresee a situation where you could have 15 teams going for eight spots and getting it down to seven or eight games, and all 15 teams are still in the mix. I see a day that’s gonna come.”
Blue Jackets Left winger Fredrik Modin hasn’t played since Feb. 14 due to a strained knee ligament…Left winger Jason Chimera has been out since Feb. 24 with groin-abdominal surgery…