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What to Watch For: Pens vs. Panthers

by Wes Crosby / Pittsburgh Penguins

PENGUINS (11-6-0) vs. PANTHERS (5-7-4)
WHEN: February 22, 2013 - 7:00 p.m.  |  WHERE: CONSOL Energy Center
WATCH: ROOT SPORTS  |  LISTEN: Penguins Radio 24/7, 105.9 FM

Coming off of a Southeast Division title and a playoff berth last season, the Florida Panthers have stumbled out of the gate and are trying to claw their way out of the Eastern Conference’s basement.

Florida got a big 5-2 win on Thursday in Philadelphia, breaking a five-game winless streak. Entering the game, the Panthers had dropped six of their last seven contests. And through 16 games, the Panthers have already had two losing streaks of at least five games – one game longer than any such stretch they had last season.

The Panthers have had a tough time keeping the puck out of their net, giving up 58 goals against for an average of 3.62 goals per game – the league’s worst. Overall, veteran netminder Jose Theodore has had a rough go of it starting 12 of the Panthers’ first 16 contests, holding a 3.37 GAA and .893 save percentage on his way to a 4-6-2 record. Scott Clemmenson hasn’t fared much better, and for that reason Panthers general manager recalled future franchise goalie Jacob Markstrom from the American Hockey League on Wednesday.

Markstrom, who was drafted in the second round (31st overall) in 2008, stands a formidable 6-foot-6, has been playing great in the AHL – winning eight of his last 12 starts for the San Antonio Rampage. Clemmenson got the start Thursday in Philadelphia, but there is a chance Markstrom could play Friday in Pittsburgh.

"We've got to start to put him into the system, see if he can play some games and get some experience,” Tallon told the Sun Sentinel on Wednesday. "Also, we have to stem the tide. I'm not happy. It's a critical part of the season and every game is important. We need to cut our goals-against down. He's played great down there. It's his third season as a pro and time to see what he can do. I'm not going to sit still and allow this to continue.'”

To be fair, the goaltenders haven’t received much help in front as the Panthers defense has struggled without Ed Jovanovski, who has sat out the past 11 games with a knee injury. During that stretch, the Panthers have allowed at least five goals four times and at least three goals eight times. They’ll need All-Star and power-play specialist Brian Campbell, who logs huge minutes on the backend, to steady the corps.

The best chance the Panthers have of limiting their opponents’ scoring chances is playing a more disciplined style of play and reducing their time spent on the penalty kill. The Panthers leave gaping holes in their end while a man down, producing the league’s third-worst penalty killing unit.

In five of their past six games, the Panthers have netted five goals twice just to give up six in return, while they couldn’t score anything in the other three. If there is anything that is for sure about the Panthers at this point, it is that nothing is for sure.

On any given night Florida can explode for several goals or fail to light the lamps at all. But one aspect that has been undeniable this season is that Florida pairs one of the league’s lowest ranked defenses with an offense that hasn’t been much better.

While most of the Cats’ forwards have been sluggish, rookie center Jonathan Huberdeau might be providing a glimpse at Florida’s future. The No. 3 overall pick of the 2011 NHL Draft, a junior teammate and close friend of Penguins defenseman Simon Despres, leads the Panthers with eight goals in his first 16 NHL games and scored five of those in his last five contests.

Huberdeau has settled in on the second line, playing alongside fellow rookie Drew Shore and Peter Mueller. The young forward has some bulking up to do as he stands at a slim 6-foot-1, 177 pounds, but employs a powerful wrist shot he used to power two one-timers past Capitals goalie Braden Holtby in a Feb. 12 contest.

Tomas Fleischmann, the only Panther who has earned at least 10 points, has been Florida’s other true offensive threat thus far with four goals and six assists. The nine-year NHL veteran is coming off of a career year with Florida when he played a full 82 games for the first time and earned 61 points (27G-34A).

(Getty Images)

The veteran winger will make his return to the city where he spent five seasons in the late 1990s as one of the Pens’ more productive forwards, earning at least 60 points four times. After a year in the Kontinental Hockey League, Kovalev has had a quietly effective start for the Panthers, earning five points (2G-3A) in 13 games. He has just two less points than he had in his last stint with Pittsburgh, where he played 20 games after coming to the club around the trade deadline in 2011.

Neal has been on fire and has continued to be one of the league’s most dangerous goal scorers. He has netted 12 goals, tied with Buffalo’s Thomas Vanek for the league lead. With the Panthers struggling to protect their net while on the penalty kill, look for Neal, who leads the league with eight power-play goals, to try to fill the net every time the Penguins have the man advantage.


LW Sean Bergenheim, lower body
D Michael Caruso, upper body
D Ed Jovanovski, lower body
LW Scottie Upshall, lower body
RW Kris Versteeg, upper body

Author: Wes Crosby
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