The Panthers packed their bags Tuesday and started the new year on the road.
They carried a .500 record with them to New Jersey and, hopefully, a desire to establish themselves as more than a borderline playoff team.
For the Panthers, this is tricky territory. For only the third time in eight years, they’re .500 at this point in the season. And they’re within two points of Carolina for the Southeast Division lead.
But, really, these are small victories. As they start 2008 with games on the road in New Jersey, Long Island and Pittsburgh, the Panthers need to solve two major problems – they’re inconsistency and their lack of offensive production.
And, yes, one is connected to the other.
With a few exceptions, the Panthers have been offensively challenged this season. They have the fourth fewest goals in the Eastern Conference and are tied for the sixth fewest in the NHL.
“That’s been our issue all year,” said Olli Jokinen after the Panthers were shutout 1-0 Sunday by the Flyers. “We just have to find a way to put it in and score.” Stephen Weiss
blamed the power play for Sunday’s loss. The Panthers, whose power play was solid earlier in the year, has now scored only two goals in their last 35 chances.
“We’ve got to find a way to score or we’re not going to win, especially with the power plays we’ve had,” Weiss said.
GM and coach Jacques Martin mused Sunday evening that “certain players have more ability to finish than others.” And one of the problems is those players have been cold the past six weeks.
In fact, when you consider how cold Nathan Horton, Richard Zednik and Jozef Stumpel have been, it’s incredible the Panthers have managed to hover around .500.
Think about it: Stumpel, who scored 23 goals last season, has two goals the past 21 games. Horton, who had 31 goals last season, has three goals the past 18 games and Zednik, who the Panthers were counting on to score around 25, has two in his last 19 games.
Yes, they’ve all contributed in other areas. But if the Panthers are going to catch Carolina – if they’re going to make the playoffs – they have to get production from what Martin and the organization believes are their goal scorers.
And the Panthers have to help themselves to score more goals by doing what they didn’t do Sunday against the Flyers. They have to drive to the net, they have to get pucks behind the net, they have to create traffic and be in position to get rebounds.
When the Panthers were driving up the standings before the holiday break – when they rolled through a four-game winning streak in November and collected points in eight of nine games last month – the Panthers, collectively, seemed to buy into Martin’s assertion that they could win by getting down and dirty.
But in losses to Detroit and Philadelphia, the Panthers seemed to suffer from short-term memory loss. They were never in position to get rebounds, they never created enough traffic in front of the goal, and, despite throwing lots of pucks at Flyer goalie Antero Niittymaki, he wasn’t tested as much as he needed to be.
“He’s a good goalie,” said Weiss of Niittymaki, “but I don’t think he saw anything spectacular.”
The Panthers have put themselves in a position to be a major player come the second half of the season and to bring Panther fans something they haven’t seen in seven years – playoff hockey.
Now they just have to finish.
SENDING A MESSAGE
Martin sent a strong message to the team Sunday evening that he won’t tolerate lackadaisical play when he benched defenseman Branislav Mezei after a poor performance against Detroit.
“I think he has to improve his game,” said Martin of Mezei, who was replaced in lineup by Martin Lojek
, who was called up from the team’s American Hockey League affiliate in Rochester, N.Y.
“He’s a minus 10,” Martin continued. “He probably struggled the last game. He’s got to give us more. He’s a veteran guy who has more experience and he’s got to play more physical and be in the game.”
LOTS OF PUCKS FOR VOKOUN
Goalie Tomas Vokoun is the league’s only goalie to have faced 1,000 or more shots. Vokoun has faced 1,096 shots in 35 games. Martin Biron has faced 962 shots in 30 games for the Flyers while Evgeni Nabokov of San Jose has faced 947 shots in 39 games.
The Panthers pull into New Jersey having won seven of their last eight road games. This will be their first game at the Devils new home, the Prudential Center… A win against the Devils would give Martin his 498th, passing Glen Sather for 10th place on the NHL’s all-time wins list…