The Panthers not only closed out 2013 against the New York Rangers on New Year’s Eve, the game also marked the halfway point of the season.
While the 2-1 shootout loss was disappointing — it marked the first time all season the Panthers had lost after leading after two periods — it didn’t erase what the Panthers accomplished in December when they tied a franchise record for most points in that month with 17.
The Panthers went 8-5-1 in December as they continued their turnaround after a disappointing start to the regular season. This clearly is a team on the upswing a couple of days before the start of the second half Saturday against the Nashville Predators at the BB&T Center in the last game of a five-game homestand.
From a team standpoint, the highlights included the home-opening victory against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the victory against the Anaheim Ducks, the back-to-back victories at Colorado and Vancouver, and the five-game winning streak in mid-December.
There were plenty of individual highlights as well:
• Of course, we have to start with the play of rookie Aleksander Barkov, the second overall pick in the 2013 NHL draft. The kid has just been ridiculously impressive from the start of the season. The Panthers young gun has been putting up numbers recently, with nine points in the past 10 games, but stats don’t do justice to his all-around game. Just in the last game against the Rangers, he broke up a 2-on-1 with a strong back check.
There are a lot of impressive rookies in the NHL this season, but Barkov is as good as any of them. Here’s hoping Calder voters don’t judge him solely by his stats.
• It’s impossible to talk about Barkov without mentioning fellow young gun Nick Bjugstad, the Panthers’ other big, talented, young center. His playing time increased after Peter Horachek took over as head coach, and he has responded in a big way.
• Tim Thomas was signed in the hope he could recapture his Stanley Cup-winning form and he has been as good as advertised. The game against the Rangers was the latest example. It was a big downer that Thomas had to miss games three different times and there seems little doubt the Panthers would have a better record if not for Thomas being sidelined.
• Scott Clemmensen took a while to regain his form after undergoing knee surgery before the start of the season, but he has come on recently and played really well during Thomas’ latest absence. It’s comforting for the Panthers to know their goaltending situation appears in good shape heading into the second half of the season.
• Horachek made defenseman Dmitry Kulikov a healthy scratch in early December with the hope of turning his game around, and that’s exactly what happened. Kulikov has been playing very good hockey lately and getting a lot of ice time as a result.
• The play of Dylan Olsen also has been encouraging. He paid very quick dividends after arriving from Chicago in the Kris Versteeg trade, a trade that already looks pretty good.
• The signing of Brad Boyes after a tryout was overshadowed by that of Thomas, but he has given the Panthers some much-needed offensive production. Not only does he lead the team with 10 goals, he’s also been practically automatic in the shootout with a 5-for-7 showing.
• It took a long time for Sean Bergenheim to return to the Panthers lineup and even then he still needed some time to get his game back in full form. But “Bergy” has really stepped it up recently with five goals in the past seven games. He’s looking these days like the player who was so effective in the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
• Scottie Upshall took his game to another level after Horachek took over as head coach and he was playing easily his best hockey since joining the Panthers when he sustained an upper-body injury against Tampa Bay on Dec. 23. The sooner he can return to the lineup, the better.
• The same goes for young defenseman Erik Gudbranson, who also was playing impressive hockey before he was sidelined by an injury. Gudbranson was the most physically imposing defenseman on the team in the first half of the season. His play was another of the bright spots of the first half of the season.