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Standing Their Ground

by Staff Writer / Florida Panthers
Tomas Vokoun will start in net for the Panthers against the Maple Leafs Tuesday. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
By Dave Joseph for floridapanthers.com


SUNRISE – It’s no secret the Panthers have earned their points this season by playing an aggressive and gritty style of hockey. Chase the puck, battle in the corners, and stand your ground down low.

Pretty it hasn’t always been.

So what happens when they don’t play that way? Please refer to Saturday’s 3-1 loss in Washington. While Alex Ovechkin was snapping off 12 shots – count ‘em, 12 - on Panther goalie Tomas Vokoun, the Panthers failed to sustain any consistent pressure in the Washington zone and were beaten in a number of battles down low.

Even during a five minute power play to end the game, the best the Panthers could do was muster two shots on Capitals netminder Jose Theodore.

Obviously, that will have to change Tuesday evening when the Panthers return to BankAtlantic Center and play host to the Toronto Maple Leafs, who come into South Florida off a 5-2 victory Saturday over Montreal and a 3-1-1 record in their last five games.

“They’re a dangerous team,” said Panther coach Peter DeBoer after putting his team through a tough 1:15 practice Monday at IncredibleIce. “They were phenomenal the other night in Montreal.”

The Panthers in Washington? Not so much despite trailing by only a goal before Mike Green scored into an empty net with 1:13 remaining in regulation.

“We were too easy to play against offensively in Washington,” said DeBoer, who watched his team take 21 shots on Theodore. “We didn’t win enough battles in the offensive zone. I thought their defense really smothered us in the corners and in front of the net in any offensive situation.

“We’ve taken a lot of pride this year in being a team that’s tenacious on pucks and hard to play against down low, and we were too easy to play against offensively.”

Center Stephen Weiss, who along with Nathan Horton couldn’t get any shots on Theodore, agreed with DeBoer.

“We talked about that today,” Weiss said. “A lot of times we got (the puck) in there and tried to make a play, or make a move on a guy, and they got their stick on the puck and back they came the other way.

“We didn’t get a lot of sustained pressure in their zone and, credit them, they did a good job in their ‘D’ zone. We have to be better in terms of keeping the puck down there and making it harder on the defense.”

DeBoer said his skilled lines – Weiss, Cory Stillman and Michael Frolik and Nathan Horton, David Booth and Richard Zednik “didn’t battle hard enough in the tough areas in the offensive zone to create” chances.

The Panthers and Leafs face-off for the second time in a week. Florida came back from a 3-1 deficit in the third period to win 4-3 in overtime as Bryan McCabe netted the game winner. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Chris Young)
DeBoer, whose club is in the middle of the playoff race and 9-3-3 since Jan. 3, says his players realize what went wrong in Washington and what they have to do heading into Tuesday’s game against the Maple Leafs.

“We’re at a point in the season where we know what we have to do to be successful and what doesn’t work for us,” he said. “When we stray from those areas, we get in trouble. Having said that, we had a chance to come out of that game with points or even win. And that was with, I thought, not one of our best efforts offensively.

“There’s good signs there…that we can still compete and not bring our ‘A’ game in some areas.”

The Panthers lack of offense, DeBoer said, also carried into their power play, especially at the end of the game when Shaone Morrisonn took a five-minute penalty for banging Stillman into the boards. Ironically, it was Stillman who had the best shot of scoring during the power play. But the puck hopped over his stick at the side of the net.

“The week before that goes in,” said DeBoer of the lost opportunity. “That’s how those opportunities go.”

The Maple Leafs, who practiced Monday morning at BankAtlantic Center, will come into Tuesday’s game a little beat-up on the blue line, having lost three defensemen the past 10 days.

Tomas Kaberle is out with a broken hand, Staffan Kronwall was claimed off waivers by the Capitals, and former Panther defenseman Mike Van Ryn could be out with a lower body injury suffered Saturday in Montreal. On Monday, the Maple Leafs called up Jamie Sifers from the Toronto Marlies of the American Hockey League. Sifers has two assists in 14 games with the Maple Leafs this season.

The last meeting between the two teams, just a week ago in Toronto, was a memorable one when former Leaf Bryan McCabe scored at 3:30 of overtime to give the Panthers a 4-3 victory. The Panthers entered the third period down 3-1.

Although the Maple Leafs are 11th in the Eastern Conference, 10 points behind Carolina and the eighth playoff spot, DeBoer knows not to take them lightly.

“I know they got some defensemen down, but that’s one team with some depth on defense,” he said. “They’ve got, I think, eight of nine NHL defensemen, so I’m not sure it hurts them that much. In Toronto last week, through two periods until we got it going in the third, I thought they looked good. It’s going to be a good test for us.”

SPRUKTS HELPS LATVIA TO OLYMPICS

Panther prospect Janis Sprukts had three assists Sunday to help Latvia to a 4-1 victory over Italy and earn a berth in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

Sprukts, who was called up earlier this year by the Panthers for one game from the team’s American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate in Rochester, N.Y., was an eighth-round pick (234th overall) in the 2000 Entry Draft. He played 13 games for the Panthers in 2006-07, scoring a goal and two assists.

Sprukts was given permission to play for Latvia by the Panthers and Rochester Americans. He’s due back Tuesday in Rochester.

NOTES

Radek Dvorak did not skate Monday morning after “tweaking” his knee in Washington. “I’m sure he’ll play (Tuesday) unless he has a set back tonight or (Tuesday) morning.”…Toronto comes to town boasting the league’s 11th best power play (ninth on the road). Their penalty killing, however, is ranked 30th…The Panthers power play is ranked 25th while their penalty killing unit is 15th…Leafs’ forward Jason Blake is on a tear lately, scoring eight points (four goals) in his last five games. He leads the team in goals (19) and points (40). Nik Antropov has 38 points (16 goals) and is tied for the team lead in power plays goals (5) with Matt Stajan…Two teams the Panthers are battling with for a playoff spot made news over the weekend. The Sabres, seventh in the Eastern Conference, lost leading goal scorer Thomas Vanek for three-to-four weeks with a fractured jaw after getting struck in the face by a shot from Ottawa’s Anton Volchenkov. Meanwhile, Carolina, currently eighth in the East, added depth up front by acquiring Jussi Jokinen from Tampa…
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