SUNRISE – Keith Ballard remembers the first time he played against Radek Dvorak. Ballard was a rookie with the Coyotes and Dvorak a 10-year veteran wearing the jersey of the Oilers.
“I had no idea about him,” recalled Ballard late Friday evening. “But he absolutely blew by me and scored. After that, I kind of asked around and everyone said, ‘This guy can skate and he’s fast,’ so I made sure if he was out there I was backing up a little earlier.”
Speed has been Dvorak’s calling card since he arrived in the NHL back in 1995 with the Panthers. Fourteen years later, as he closes in on 1,000th NHL game, that speed, coupled with his instincts, have made Dvorak one of the Panthers most valuable players.
Dvorak showed his versatility again Friday evening at BankAtlantic Center when he scored his second short-handed goal of the season (second in two games to be exact) and the game-winner in the Panthers 4-2 victory over the Flyers.
That’s now 21 short-handed goals in Dvorak’s career, and a franchise-record 14 for the Panthers. And it really couldn’t have come at a better time. Trying to snap a four-game losing streak, and with the Panthers short-handed early in the third period, Dvorak jumped on a loose puck at the blue line that got by Chris Pronger and raced down the ice with Simon Gagne in hot pursuit. Dvorak cut to the front of the net, switched from his backhand to the forehand, and lifted the puck over goalie Ray Emery’s stick to give the Panthers their first lead of the night 3-2 and the monkey off their back.
“He’s so fast and so smart and knows when to take a chance,” said Stephen Weiss
of Dvorak. “If the puck bounces, he’s on top of you and ready to pounce. His speed is lethal.”
Coach Peter DeBoer called Dvorak’s goal a “huge lift from a character guy” that had missed a day of practice earlier in the week with the flu.
“He’s one of those energy guys, consummate pros that show up to the rink every day and does his job,” DeBoer added. “When a guy like that gets a goal like that, it lifts the whole bench.”
There were many big plays and players on Friday night. Scott Clemmensen
, playing his first game in a Panther uniform, made some huge saves. He stopped Jeff Carter with a sliding pad save in the second period and then again in the waning moments of the game. The Panthers top line of Stephen Weiss
, Nathan Horton and David Booth had their strongest game, scoring two goals, including Horton’s to tie the game in the final minute of the second period. And Gregory Campbell and Bryan Allen infused some life in the team by dropping the gloves during a sluggish first period.
But for Dvorak, Friday wasn’t about another short-handed goal. Rather it was about winning and getting back to Panther hockey.
“We played a solid game (Monday) in Tampa and came up short,” Dvorak said. “Tonight we didn’t come out strong in the first period, but after that we took the game over. We played hard; we were crashing the net…something we didn’t do in the first four or five games. That’s Panthers hockey; be good on the forecheck and be strong on the puck. That’s our game and that’s how we have to play from now on.”
After a dismal start to the season, Dvorak and the Panthers offered hope Friday evening against what many consider a contender for the Stanley Cup. They had solid play from their blue line, their top forwards played as such, and Dvorak did exactly what you would expect from a 14-year veteran; scoring a big goal at a big time.
When reminded of his 21 short-handed goals, Dvorak unlaced his skates and said, “Oh, that’s nice.”
“Not bad. I need more.”