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Encouraging Signs Early On

by Alain Poupart / Florida Panthers
Florida Panthers forward Tomas Fleischmann takes a shot on Steve Mason on Tuesday night in Philadelphia (Getty Images)

The final score didn’t show it, but the Panthers outplayed the Philadelphia Flyers Tuesday night — and by a pretty good margin. This isn’t a Panthers fan talking, it’s fact.

Philadelphia’s two goals came after unusual bounces off the end boards, the second goal happening only because goalie Tim Thomas sustained a lower-body injury on the play. At the other end, Flyers goalie Steve Mason was nothing short of spectacular.

In his postgame comments, Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said it best when he remarked, “We’re not displeased with the way we played.”

Then he added, “It’s a little early for moral victories; we’re looking for points and make sure we're headed in the right direction.”

Based on the game Tuesday and what we’ve seen from the Panthers over the first three games of the 2013-14 regular season, it most definitely appears they’re headed in the right direction.

Sure, the loss at St. Louis on Saturday night was a clunker, but every team will have those during the course of the season (see New York Rangers at San Jose, Tuesday night). Besides, the Panthers trailed only 1-0 midway through the second period before the game got out of hand.

Against the Dallas Stars in the regular season opener and against the Flyers, the Panthers played solid games and showed off what should be the key to whatever success they can achieve — balance.

I spoke to Kris Versteeg before the start of the regular season, but after the Panthers had officially signed a quartet of established veterans — Thomas, wing Brad Boyes, and defensemen Tom Gilbert and Ryan Whitney. Versteeg said he enters every season full of optimism but was especially excited about this one because of all the additions.

Versteeg then suggested this year’s Panthers have built up more depth than the team that won the Southeast Division title two seasons ago.

He’s right.

What the Panthers have now is a team with four solid lines anchored by four quality centers — Marcel Goc, Aleksander Barkov, Shawn Matthias and Scott Gomez. As proof of the balance, three of the four lines contributed at least one goal in the 4-2 season-opening victory at Dallas.

That depth will only increase once captain Ed Jovanovski and left wing Sean Bergenheim come off injured reserve, which could happen before too long.

Another difference between this year’s team and the 2012 edition is the presence of the two highly skilled young forwards — Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau. We already knew coming into this season about Huberdeau’s playmaking brilliance, but Barkov also has made a quick impression with his passing and his strength. Even though he just turned 18, Barkov has shown to be very difficult to knock off the puck and his decision-making also looks good.

As coaches like to say, the game doesn’t seem too big for him.

The Panthers were given a difficult assignment of opening the season with four consecutive road games, and they still can salvage a .500 trip with a victory against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday night.

Aside from the defensive collapse against St. Louis, the biggest issue early on has been the power play, which has yet to produce a goal. But even then there were some encouraging signs against Philadelphia because the Panthers produced some quality chances with the man advantage.

The bottom line is that the Panthers easily could be — probably should be — 2-1 after their first three games. More importantly, though, they’ve shown very early on that they have the makings of a pretty solid team.

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