Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Hockey Orphan: Whale4Ever from Litter Box Cats on the Florida Panthers

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(There aren't a ton of Florida Panthers blogs out there, but that doesn't take away from Litter Box Cats at all. Part of Mirtle's League of Bloggerly Gentlemen at SB Nation, Whale4Ever provides great coverage of those plucky rats. Make sure to follow his stuff. Thanks W4E!)

The setup: Imagine that scene from The Jerk where the disgruntled Dickey Dunn lookalike with anger issues and a hunting rifle chooses a random target for his rage from the local white pages, only modernized: "Panthers, Florida." he grumbles, removing his finger from the NHL's media guide.

"Sounds like a typical Bettman sunbelt trainwreck."

Ah, the Panthers. Sunrise, eh? Sounds tropical, which must be pretty sweet come November, but can't be much of a hockey town way down there: beaches, cold drinks, spring break, the Dolphins..'s a football area. Even the big league baseball team can't attract over a thousand some nights. I'm gonna pull up roots and hand my allegiance to a club teetering on invisibility?

Well, wait...I'll give it a looksie.

Hmmm. "Winningest first-year club" in 1993-94. That's promising. Says here they made the Stanley Cup finals in their third season. Swept out by Quebec, er Colorado, but still. And this "rat" thing appeared to be popular with the locals. What a blueprint for success they laid. Must have been smooth sailing after that.
Oooh. That's fascinating: other than a habitual 50-goal scorer who came and went (is that pronounced Beeyoor? I'm no good with Irish names) lots of fluff between 1996 and 2006, when some big-time goaltender got shipped out. Guy named "Keenan" - appears he couldn't make up his mind whether he liked Sunrise or not - seems to have taken some slack for that one. I'm sure he landed on his feet. Sure had a crush on that scowling Bertolli dude.

Let's see...Jacques Martin, head coach. Became GM. And coach. Don't see that too often. Power trip? Perhaps. Does he have a plan? Maybe. Before this season, doesn't look as if he had too much success. That would explain his forced-resignation from the coaching end a year ago.

So of course he hired a proven NHL bench boss to replace him, right? Ummm, what's a Kitchener? Signed Peter Deboer on his 40th birthday. Dicey? Certainly, but bold. Looks as if the "kid movement" is on around a number of league benches. Maybe that Martin is on to something.

Yowza...traded the best offensive player, who'd been there a loooong time, for two defensemen? Not shaping up too well. This team had massive trouble scoring goals before losing that Joking guy. Cory Stillman to the rescue? Yeah...he's on the upside of his career.

Nosedive right out of the gate to open the year? Check. The annual rush to the IR? Check. Western road trip soon after, featuring loss after loss to bury the team even further in the standings? Wait a collapse? Campell, Peltonen, and Dvorak leading the charge? Stephen Weiss with multiple game-winners? ON THE ROAD? Jeez...even local sports radio is beginning to pay some attention.

Does this indicate "heart"? That's a new one. Perhaps there's something to it...

Club goes on a tear through January and February. Cool. Good stuff there. Richard Zednik - he's the guy with the gruesome injury that I saw on ESPN (in fact it's the ONLY hockey I saw on ESPN last year) - what a trooper. Came right back and ready for Day One of training camp. Lot to be said for that.

March. Hmmm. Bit of a tough time. Beating the likes of the Flyers, but bending over for also-rans. What's the story there? DeBoer lost his grip on the team? Oh, that's it.. GM decides to hold on to the prized UFA for the stretch run. Why in tarnation didn't that turn out? Not looking good. No sweet deals at the team store, so they're obviously planning on a long playoff run. With all of these losses? Who's steering this ship? This here internet site says has-beens Carolina and Pittsburgh pulled a 180 and now threaten the number four spot in the conference. Why not Florida? On that note, there sure have been a lot more people at the BankAtlantic Center over the past eight weeks.

Sweet. April is here. Gonna put all that losing behind us. DeBoer promised, after all. Maybe... Starting goaltender Tomas Vo-something isn't getting the job done; going with backup Craig Anderson. Until he loses.

And lose he did, but not until the fourth game of his regime, and he can't score goals. Back to that Vokoun guy, against the Penguins. Good team, that Crosby-led bunch. What a turnaround. Finally at a game in person. Is it typical to have a forward upended? Or have the same player's center retaliate on what most are calling a clean hit? Got a lot to learn, obviously. But the home team won. Why am I being hounded by friends about Florida's playoff chances? Where were you mopes last year?

Three games remain for both the Panthers of Sunrise and the Rangers of, well, New York. Got to admire this Florida club's spirit. Who anywhere thought they would be The Ones to drag a playoff race down to the final days of the schedule?

Win or lose, playoffs or not, there's room for quite an encore come October.

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