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Hitting The Halfway Mark

by Staff Writer / Florida Panthers
Free agent acquisition winger Cory Stillman (left) and center Stephen Weiss (center) have helped the Panthers to their best recrod at the halfway mark since 1999-2000, the last time the Panthers have made the playoffs.  (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Frank Gunn)
By Dave Joseph for floridapanthers.com


If songwriting legend Townes Van Zandt was correct and there is indeed no prettier sight than looking back on a town you’ve left behind, the Panthers were feeling pretty good Wednesday morning when their plane took off from Toronto to South Florida.

As they enter their 41st game of the season Thursday evening at BankAtlantic Center against Southeast Division-rival Carolina – as they enter the exact halfway mark of the season – the Panthers are in a place they haven’t been in nine years.

They will have more points through the halfway mark than they have since 1999-00.

They will have a defense that could score more goals this season than any Panther blue line in 11 years.

They will have role players stepping up to score goals (Gregory Campbell, Radek Dvorak, Ville Peltonen) and a rookie (Michael Frolik) improving with every game.

And, yes, they will be in a position where the playoffs are a realistic goal.

Think of this year’s Miami Dolphins. Think of the Year of the Rat. Two teams who succeeded thanks to a tenacious work ethic. The Panthers, who have much more skill than the ’96 Panthers, are looking to become the next Florida team to follow that recipe.

Consider: The Panthers are 11-5-5 in their last 21 games.

Before boarding the plane Wednesday morning in Toronto, GM Jacques Martin, who brought in key veterans over the off-season, admitted he’s seen improvement in this year’s model.

“I think the biggest difference has been our blue line,” he said. “Our D-line, with the exception of Bryan Allen, has been healthy and…I was just looking over their production. They have (25) goals. That’s quite an improvement over the past seasons.”

The Panthers core defense of Jay Bouwmeester, Ruslan Salei, Mike Van Ryn, Allen and Steve Montador had 27 goals all of last season. In 2005-06, the defense scored a combined 30 goals in 82 games.

 
At The Halfway Mark
2008-09
Games W L T OTL Pts
40
18
16
-
6
42
41
?
?
-
?
?
2007-08 
Games W L T OTL Pts
40
18
19
-
3
39
41
19
19
-
3
41
2006-07
Games W L T OTL Pts
40
14
19
-
7
35
41
15
19
-
7
37
2005-06
Games W L T OTL Pts
40
15
20
-
5
35
41
16
20
-
5
37
2003-04
Games W L T OTL Pts
40
12
17
9
2
35
41
13
17
9
2
37
2002-03
Games W L T OTL Pts
40
12
12
9
7
40
41
12
12
9
8
41
2001-02
Games W L T OTL Pts
40
13
21
3
3
32
41
13
22
3
3
32
2000-01
Games W L T OTL Pts
40
8
19
7
6
29
41
8
19
7
6
29
1999-2000
Games W L T OTL Pts
40
23
14
-
3
52
41
24
14
 -
3
54
 
Of the Panthers top six defensemen, three were brought in over the off-season by Martin. Bryan McCabe (seven goals, 19 points) was acquired along with a fourth-round selection in exchange for Van Ryn from the Maple Leafs, and Keith Ballard and Nick Boynton were brought in from Phoenix in exchange for Olli Jokinen.

Offensively, goals don’t come easy for a team whose leading scorer has 26 points. But David Booth, who scored 22 goals last season, is providing offense with a team-leading 16 goals. Leading scorer Stephen Weiss has 17 points in his last 20 games. The line of Campbell, Peltonen and Dvorak has been incredibly active on the forecheck and continually manufactures points. The team is 10-0-1 when Campbell scores, 8-3-2 when Peltonen scores and 6-2-4 when Dvorak scores.

And then there’s Frolik, who continues to show why he was the team’s first-round draft pick (10th overall) in the 2006 Entry Draft. He has 15 points (seven goals) in his last 18 games.

“Michael has been able to step into the top two lines and is getting better with every game,” Martin said. “I’m impressed by his speed, his vision and his smartness.”

It’s also helped that goalies Tomas Vokoun and Craig Anderson have taken turns stepping up when the team has needed them. Both have pitched three shutouts each. Anderson (9-4-5) is second in the league in save percentage while Vokoun earned his 200th career victory Tuesday in Toronto.

Despite all this good news, the Panthers realize that the next four weeks will be critical to their chances of making the playoffs.

“This month,” Martin said, “is going to be critical.”

The Panthers stumbled through January last season, going 4-7-2 and losing four home games. The Panthers are looking at the rest of this month, the rest of the season, with what Martin calls a “favorable schedule and not a lot of travel.”

“We got our west coast and California trips out of the way early,” he said. “And we have a good number of home games coming up.”

In fact, seven of the Panthers’ nine games through the remainder of January will be played at BankAtlantic Center, and one of the road games will be Jan. 17 and a short trip to Tampa.

The best news, however, for the Panthers? Twenty-five of their final 41 games will be at BankAtlantic Center, where the Panthers have an 8-5-3 record.

Martin, who along with bringing in veteran defensemen over the off-season signed forward Cory Stillman (eight goals, 17 points), said the Panthers are “working consistently to make the team better.”

“That never stops,” he added. “Center is still a bit of an issue we’d like to resolve a little down road.”

But for now – at least when they take the ice tonight against the Hurricanes – the Panthers are in the best position they’ve been in eight seasons.

And that’s a whole lot prettier than previous years.

PROGRESS IN ROCHESTER, BRODEUR AN ALL-STAR

After getting off to a dreadful start (2-16-0-1), the Panthers’ American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate in Rochester in beginning to make progress.

The Amerks are 9-6-2 in their last 17 games. The turn-around can be credited in part to goalie Mike Brodeur. Signed Dec. 4, Brodeur is 8-3-1 and leads the league in save percentage (.944) and goals against average (1.59).

On Wednesday, Brodeur was named to play for Canada in the AHL All-Star Classic Jan. 25-26 in Worcester, Ma.

“I spoke to (head coach Benoit Groulx) and things are coming around up there, especially with the new goalie,” Martin said. “And we’re pleased with the progress of our defense there with people like Keaton Ellerby and Michael Caruso.”

NOTES

The Panthers were scheduled to leave Toronto after Tuesday evening’s game against the Maple Leafs. They were delayed, however, due to mechanical problems and weather and departed Wednesday morning... The Panthers host Kids Day Saturday when they take on the Thrashers at BankAtlantic Center. Kids 12 years of age and under will get in for $10 and be treated to a number of activities and games…
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