2010-11 NHL season preview: Florida Panthers

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Thumbnail image for daletallon1.jpgLast season: (32-37-13, 77 points, 5th in Southeast Division, 14th in Eastern Conference) The Panthers seem like they’re in a perpetual holding pattern. It was only fitting that the team was bad enough to earn the third pick in the draft, which fell just short of earning them a potential star such as Taylor Hall or Tyler Seguin.

Head coach: Peter DeBoer took advantage of the recent trend of AHL coaches gaining a promotion to the NHL. Who knows how patient the franchise is, but you almost feel like the 2010-11 season should be part of a grace period. The team is in a clear rebuilding stage.

Key departures: F Nathan Horton, F Gregory Campbell, D Keith Ballard. In the short term, the Panthers might actually take a step back. Horton is an injury-prone but talented forward who needed a change of scenery, but the team didn’t bring in an immediate replacement. Ballard is a solid if overpaid defenseman who might be missed a bit.

Key arrivals: D Dennis Wideman, F Steve Bernier, F Michael Grabner, F Chris Higgins, D Mike Weaver. Wideman is an up-and-down defenseman who can be leaky in his own end but also put up big numbers. Bernier and Higgins are frustrating players while Grabner might benefit from a great opportunity in Florida. First-round pick Erik Gudbranson might make a jump to the NHL right away.

Thumbnail image for vokounsquashed.jpgUnder pressure: Tomas Vokoun is in a contract year on a rebuilding team. If he can put together another impressive statistical season, he’ll either be rewarded by the Panthers or another team with a big deal.

Protecting the house: Vokoun is the starter and flash-in-the-pan backup Scott Clemmensen should stay in place, although super-prospect Jacob Markstrom might get some playing time if the team is far out of the playoff race. Goalies have been the strength of this team all the way back to Roberto Luongo’s time there (heck, some might say since the days of John Vanbiesbrouck) and that’s still the case.

The Panthers defense is a weird mix of damaged veterans (the much-maligned Bryan McCabe, Wideman and Bryan Allen) as well as young guys who might not be ready yet (Gudbranson and Dmitri Kulikov). Essentially exchanging Ballard for Wideman is a considerable downgrade for a decent-at-best group. On the bright side, the future looks pretty good for their blue line.

Top line we’d like to see: Cory Stillman-Stephen Weiss-David Booth. Stillman is a nice playmaker who is getting long in the tooth, Weiss has the two-way skills that make him a stat-blogger favorite and Booth is a power forward in the making if he can conquer his concussion issues. This line would have a little bit of everything, although it would be far from elite.

bryanmccabecaptain.jpgOh captain, my captain: I’ll admit, I had to look this up, but … McCabe? Really? Hahaha.

Street fighting man: The Panthers put up a lot of fights last season (50) compared to their division mates, but they no longer have their leading fighter Nick Tarnasky listed on their roster (he’s currently a free agent). Still, with new GM Dale Tallon, I imagine they’ll probably throw some punches. Bryan Allen had nine fights last season and Byron Bitz sounds like the kind of guy that might pick up the fighting mantle.

Best-case scenario: Well, I guess a dark horse run to a playoff spot would be the best-case scenario? Honestly, the team would be better off tanking for some blue chip talent.

Worst-case scenario: The Panthers seemingly always end up just short of a playoff berth which is a bad place to be in the current NHL. They don’t get the premium prospects that come with high picks or the prestige and gate revenue of a playoff run. Doing so again would make Tallon’s rebuild process go much slower.

Keeping it real: Tallon is doing a nice job, but there will be some growing pains. The team is better off being lousy this season as they amass young, talented through the draft and shrewd free agent moves. Aside from their goalie duo, the team really doesn’t have many strengths.

Stanley Cup chances: On a scale from 1-5, with one being the worst and five being the best, Florida rates a 1. Perhaps they could ride Vokoun’s talent (and the inspiration that comes with a contract year) into a stunning playoff run, but they’ll likely trade him in the middle of the season and truly commit to the rebuilding process.

Thompson nets 4 in 1st, 5 overall, as Buffalo tops Columbus

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COLUMBUS, Ohio — Tage Thompson matched an NHL record by scoring four times in the first period and finished with five goals and an assist as the Buffalo Sabres won their third straight road game, 9-4 over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday night.

Thompson is the second U.S.-born player to score five goals in a game. He is the fourth player in NHL history to record four goals in the first period of a regular-season game, joining Peter Bondra (1994), Grant Mulvey (1982) and Joe Malone (1921). He is also the fourth active player to score five goals in a game, joining Timo Meier (Jan. 17, 2022), Mika Zibanejad (March 5, 2020) and Patrik Laine (Nov. 24, 2018).

“It’s definitely a rewarding feeling,” Thompson said. “You’ve spent a lot of years working to get to this point and to be rewarded for it is a pretty good feeling and it just leaves you hungrier.”

Thompson’s outburst helped Buffalo score six times in the first 16:40.

“That was an amazing performance by Tage, and really, the whole group set the table,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “I thought the energy, the collective effort, the focus to start was really good and enabled that to happen.”

Alex Tuch had a goal and three assists, Dylan Cozens added a power-play goal and two assists and Rasmus Dahlin finished with a goal and two assists. Peyton Krebs also scored. Jeff Skinner picked up four assists and Jacob Bryson had two. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen stopped 20 shots.

Patrik Laine and Gustav Nyquist each scored twice for Columbus.

Joonas Korpisalo stopped two shots before being pulled in the first in favor of Elvis Merzlikins, who stopped 15 shots through the second period. Korpisalo returned in the third and finished with six saves.

Columbus has lost six straight home games and five of its last six overall.

“We didn’t have an answer for that one line,” Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen said. “Tage Thompson just tore us up tonight.”

Buffalo dominated from the puck drop, scoring four goals on its first six shots.

Cozens put the Sabres on the board at 3:21 of the first, 53 seconds into a Blue Jackets penalty, and Thompson made it 2-0 just 2:09 later. Dahlin scored Buffalo’s third goal at 7:28 of the first, driving Korpisalo from the net in favor of Merzlikins, who gave up Buffalo goal No. 4 to Thompson 32 seconds later.

Thompson’s third career hat trick and second of the season came on a power-play goal at 12:22 of the first. He followed with his fourth goal, also on the power play, at 16:40.

Columbus scored two goals in just over a minute, with Laine at 10:49 and Nyquist at 12:04, before Buffalo reeled off three straight in just over three minutes to end the period, including Thompson’s fifth, and goals by Krebs and Tuch.

Laine and Nyquist scored in the third period for Columbus.

STREAKING

Cozens has 12 points in his last five games and is riding a career-best, five-game point streak. Thompson has eight goals and five assists in his last five games and 10 multi-point games. Dahlin has a five-game point and assist streak, and Gaudreau stretched his points streak to six games.

NOTES: The Sabres joined the Kraken as the second team this season to score nine goals in a game. … Thompson is the second player in Buffalo history to have five goals in a game, joining Dave Andreychuk, who had five goals and an assist on Feb. 6, 1986.

UP NEXT

Buffalo: Hosts Pittsburgh on Friday.

Columbus: Hosts Calgary on Friday.

Ovechkin, Strome lead Capitals past struggling Flyers 4-1

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PHILADELPHIA — Alex Ovechkin scored two empty-net goals, Dylan Strome had a goal and an assist and the Washington Capitals defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 4-1 on Wednesday night.

T.J. Oshie also scored for the Capitals, who finished 3-3 on a six-game trip. Charlie Lindgren made 29 saves.

Kevin Hayes scored for Philadelphia, which has lost 13 of 15 games. Carter Hart made 23 stops.

Strome broke a 1-all tie with 10:41 remaining when he deflected John Carlson‘s shot from long range past Hart.

Hayes had a golden opportunity to tie it on a Philadelphia power play, but Lindgren made a great right pad save on a try from close range with 8:20 remaining.

Ovechkin iced it, scoring into an empty net with 1:35 left and adding another empty-netter with 8.2 seconds left for his 15th of the season. Ovechkin has 795 career goals, good for third all-time. He is six goals away from tying Gordie Howe for second place. Wayne Gretzky, with 894 goals, tops the list.

Hayes scored his ninth goal of the season for his team-leading 28th point with 4:14 left in the first period to give the Flyers a 1-0 lead. Hayes rushed to the bench after breaking his stick on a slap shot attempt, and scored on a wrist shot from the high slot with his new stick.

The Flyers had a power-play goal for the third straight game and have four overall in that stretch. Philadelphia, which began play ranked 30th in the NHL in scoring on the man advantage, now has converted 16.7% (14 of 84) of its chances.

Oshie tied it 3:51 into the second on the Capitals’ fourth power play as the Flyers continued to take sloppy penalties. This time, James van Riemsdyk committed Philadelphia’s third tripping minor of the game. Oshie made them pay with his fifth goal of the season when he finished a nifty passing sequence with Strome and Evgeny Kuznetsov with a perfectly placed one-timer over Hart’s left shoulder.

NOTES: Van Riemsdyk returned after missing the last 20 games due to a broken right index finger. . Flyers forward Tanner Laczynski was placed on injured reserve after departing midway through the third period of Monday’s 5-3 win over Colorado with what looked like an injury to his left leg. . Washington was without several injured players, including starting goalie Darcy Kuemper (upper body). Kuemper was with the team, but missed his second in a row. . Carlson had two assists. . Philadelphia’s Cam Atkinson, out all season with an upper body injury, has been practicing and is close to returning.

UP NEXT

Capitals: Host Seattle on Friday night.

Flyers: Open four-game trip at Vegas on Friday night.

Penguins prospect Sam Poulin taking leave of absence

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PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins forward prospect Sam Poulin is taking a leave of absence from the club’s American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

Penguins general manager Ron Hextall announced on Wednesday that the 21-year-old Poulin, Pittsburgh’s first-round pick in the 2019 draft, is stepping away due to “personal reasons.”

“The Penguins support Sam’s decision to take time away from hockey to focus on himself,” Hextall said in a release. “As with all of our players, our priority is them as individuals first. We look forward to having him back with the team when he is ready.”

Hextall said Poulin will return home to Quebec and continue to work out on his own.

Poulin made his NHL debut in October and had one assist in three games before heading back to the AHL. Poulin had four goals in 13 games for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton at the time of his decision.

Nathan MacKinnon sidelined about a month with upper-body injury

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DENVER — The injury-riddled Colorado Avalanche will be without leading scorer Nathan MacKinnon for about a month after he suffered an upper-body injury in a loss to Philadelphia.

The team announced the news on social media.

MacKinnon has eight goals and 26 assists for a team-best 34 points this season for the defending Stanley Cup champions. He joins a long list of banged-up players, including Valeri Nichushkin, Evan Rodrigues, Bowen Byram, Kurtis MacDermid, Josh Manson, Darren Helm and captain Gabriel Landeskog. Forward Artturi Lehkonen also missed the game in Philadelphia.

The 27-year-old MacKinnon signed an eight-year extension in August. He was coming off a postseason in which he tied for the league lead with 13 goals, helping the Avalanche raise their third Stanley Cup in franchise history.