By Joseph Beguiristain, University of Miami
The Florida Panthers kicked off the 2011 Rookie Tournament with a 4-2 win on Sunday night in front of a capacity crowd of 2,000 fans at Saveology.com Iceplex. The game featured highly touted rookies such as Jonathan Huberdeau for the Panthers and Vladislav Namestinkov for the Lightning. The crowd was pumped and involved for this contest and the players didn't disappoint.
Both teams started off a bit shaky in the beginning of the first period. Missed opportunities were abound on both sides. Tampa Bay had a lot of shots on goal from the onset but they just couldn't finish. The Panthers on the other hand could barely get a shot off.
Panthers center Scott Timmins started off the game right and got the crowd going with a nice check. Throughout the game, play was physical as the rookies were all looking to get recognized. Panthers winger Justin Vaive hit Tampa defenseman Radko Gudas and the two had to be separated to prevent a fight.
The Panthers drew first blood on a goal by Timmins, who was celebrating his celebrating his birthday. as he put in a rebound in front of the net. The goal was assisted by Logan Shaw and Alexander Petrovic 15:20 into the first period. At the end of the period, Panthers right winger Jonathan Hazen had a breakaway for the net after a nice defensive play, but he just missed it.
"It’s always nice to score on your birthday and it was kind of similar to my first one in Montreal but it’s just nice to be back out there playing the game again," said Timmins. "It was a nice rebound and I was in the right spot at the right time you know, anyone could have scored that but it was a good shot and a good rebound for me."
After both teams shook off the nerves, the game really started to heat up. 1:59 into the second period, left wing Cory Conacher made a spectacular goal with a defender draped all over him. The Lightning came out the second period aggressive, and Namestinkov was called for high sticking 5:03 into the second period.
The Panthers took advantage of the power play as Huberdeau scored 6:49 into the second period. Timmins posted his second point of the game, picking up the assist on the play.
"I tried to pass to Timmins and he missed and tried to feed it back to me," said Huberdeau. "I saw it wiggle in front of the net so I just went to the front of the net and put it 5-hole.
"It was great with the first time we played all together. The next game we have to work hard and prove something else, and work a little more."
The physical play ensued as Timmins got a penalty for boarding shortly thereafter. Down a man, the Panthers played great defense and center John McFarland scored a shorthanded goal with 10:52 gone in the second period. The Lightning came right back as Lightning left winger Ondrej Palat scored an excellent goal with the assist by defenseman Mark Barberio 17:25 into the second period.
With only 3:39 gone in the third period, Panthers left winger Corey Durocher scored to put the Cats up 4-2. The goal was assisted by Vaive. The Panthers were “seeing red” as they were still playing as aggressive as they had all game, looking to put away their opponent.
"It was very crisp what we were doing out there and we were making great tape to tape passes," said Panthers first round pick in the 2010 NHL Draft Erik Gudbranson. "And being pretty creative so it was definitely a good sign."
After the goal by Durocher, the Lightning never got close. Head Coach Chuck Weber liked how his young players Vaive and Durocher performed.
“I thought Vaive was great, Doty was great there, I thought Corey’s goal, Durocher there the forehand backhand move to make it 4-2 was huge,” said Weber.
Jonathan Hazen had a chance to give the Panthers a three-goal cushion as he deked his defender, much to the delight of the crowd, but couldn't finish the play. Gudbranson, playing very physical throughout the game, but most notably in the third period as he got a penalty for roughing 5:45 into the third and squared off with Lightning right winger Carter Ashton in a fight. Gudbranson slammed Ashton to the ground in the end. The crowd thoroughly enjoyed it as chants of “Lets Go Panthers” resonated throughout the Iceplex.
Weber liked how his team continued to fight and not become complacent despite being up most of the game.
“You know, they took that responsibility,” said Weber. “They set the tone for the Florida Panthers and I thought they did a great job representing the red and the cat very well.”
"Our team played well for sixty minutes," said Gudbranson. "We played hard and battled through some ups and downs throughout the game. We were; obviously, it’s the first time we’ve played together and we were a little bit off but we really worked hard and played well."
Following the play on the ice, the crowd was treated to a five-man shootout, won by the Panthers 2-0 with goals by Hazen and Durocher.
Watch Rampage Coach Chuck Weber's remarks after the game in a post-game interview below: