To help preview tonight's game between the Flyers and Panthers down in South Florida, we chatted with Kevin Kraczkowski from SB Nation's Panthers blog, Litter Box Cats, about the current state of our opponent. Enjoy, and head over to LBC for our answers to Kevin's questions and the full view of the Panthers.
BSH: Was last season a fluke? A lot of people see 18 overtime/shootout losses and think that charity point help can't be repeated...
LBC: Clearly, 18 "loser" points aren't ideal, but everybody plays by the same rules, Florida was just lucky enough to capitalize. As far as repeating, the Cats have looked downright downtrodden lately, and clearly something has to happen to shake the team up. Last season, after the team suffered consecutive shutout losses, the front office decided the time was right to pull the trigger on the David Booth to Vancouver deal. The 3-3 Panthers were soon 8-4-1 and on their way to a playoff appearance. Who's the sacrificial lamb this season? It would be unweiss of me to answer at this time, but stay tuned.
BSH: Where do you see the Panthers finishing in the Southeast, and why?
LBC: My answer to this question has changed since this season began. After defeating the Canes in the opener, me and the rest of the crew all thought the Cats were a lock for a repeat title. Two games and one goal later, not so much. Still, it's a long (short) season, and anything could happen. The Panthers will be in contention in a(nother) weak Southeast Divsion field until the final drop of the puck, making the postseason as a three or eight seed.
BSH: So, Alex Kovalev. Why?
Undeniably streaky, and well past his prime, Kovalev can occasionally level the playing field. Hardly the point per game player he was just five seasons ago, Panther's fans should expect feast or famine from the fading star. As to why? We were just a few pieces away last season - what Kovalev adds may equal what we lost when Mikael Samuellson joined the Wings. A good puck handling power play specialist with occasional magic in the offensive zone.
BSH: What are your hopes and expectations for Jonathan Huberdeau this season?
The kid is the real deal. Even though he's still a mite small for the big leagues, he can still produce big numbers for the Cats. The Panthers ranked 25th in the NHL in goals scored last season, with just less than 2.5 per contest. It isn't a stretch to expect him to lead the Panthers in scoring, and possibly contend for the NHL's Rookie of the Year Award. He'll definitely get the locals excited about hockey again, and the sky's the limit.
LBC: Biggest strength on the team this season? And biggest weakness?
After three games (four by the time this is published), the biggest strength the Panthers can boast is their goaltending. Far from needing prodigal son Roberto Luongo to come back and "rescue" the team, the increasingly geriatric tandem of Jose Theodore and Scott Clemmensen can more than hold their own. That and serious depth at the forward position in San Antonio.
The Cats biggest weakness - poor play with the man advantage. The Panthers are often hard pressed to keep the puck in the offensive zone, let alone set up for a shot on net. After going three-for-three on the power play in the first period of the season, Florida has succeeded in converting one of their last 14 opportunities. For some reason, the Panthers have also displayed a penchant for avoiding the boards - in fact they've downright ceded the boards to their last two opponents (resulting in a 4-0 loss to the Sens and a 4-1 setback in Montreal).