Determined Panthers host Habs


With reports swirling that GM Pierre Gauthier had lost his authority — and then those reports firmly denied (here and here) — the Habs waited in Florida to take on the Panthers.

It’s an unsettling time around the Canadiens and the curious item on Gauthier unnecessarily added to the turmoil. Team president Geoff Molson subsequently told TSN’s Bob McKenzie the Habs were operating now the same way they had all season and, as The Gazette’s Dave Stubbs tweeted, “I’d have to think Geoff Molson has veto power on EVERY #Habs decision. He signs cheques on behalf of himself & his partners.”

Now, when it comes to rumours, perhaps the best remedy is to pull out a copy of the great Marvin Gaye singing “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” and embrace the lyric, “People say believe half of what you see, and none of what you hear.”

The trade rumours surrounding both Andrei Kostitsyn and Chris Campoli could mean they won’t be dressed for this game, although rumours being what they are, these two could just as easily remain Habs. One lineup change is certain, however: Peter Budaj will be in goal.

The Panthers don’t get anywhere near the scrutiny that the Habs do and their players don’t figure prominently in trade rumors. They won on Saturday thanks in part to two players they picked up since Friday — Wojtek Wolski and Jerred Smithson — both with no prior fanfare.

Florida beat Carolina 3-2 on Saturday, a post-game skills competition win in which Kirk Muller’s Hurricanes led 2-0 going into the third period. Wolski, acquired from the Rangers earlier in the day, forced overtime by scoring in his first game for Florida with under two minutes left in regulation.

“We obviously needed those two points,” Wolski said, and provided a little Panthers’ scouting report of his own. “The system is similar to some of the systems I’ve seen in the past, so it was easy to kind of jump in. I liked how fast and how skilled the guys are, especially the `D.’ They jump in the play all the time, which is nice.”

The win broke a four-game losing streak for the Panthers and all those losses were at home, one of which came after regulation. But with their club decimated by injuries, GM Dale Tallon and his assistant GM Mike Santos not only added Wolski on Saturday but also former Predator Smithson on Friday. Santos knew Smithson from his previous job in Nashville’s hockey department. Smithson set the screen in front of Hurricanes goalie Justin Peters on Wolski’s goal

“Jerred is a hard-working, responsible, veteran player who plays well at both ends of the ice,” Tallon said. “He is a very good penalty killer who has consistently ranked among his team’s leaders in faceoff win percentage.”

Florida is clearly set on making a run at their first playoff spot since 2000. These two deals give them some admirable depth. They’ve missed some important players in recent games due to injury — John Madden, Marcel Goc, Marco Sturm, Scottie Upshall and Dmitry Kulikov among them — and some could return shortly.

When they are healthy again, Florida’s group of cast-off should remain in the hunt to the end for the Southeast Division title, which may be the only way a team from that dubious group will make the postseason.

One of the key injured Panthers returning Saturday was defenceman Jason Garrison, who missed a few weeks with a lower body injury. He picked up an assist on Wolski’s late goal. Ed Jovanovski returned earlier in the week after missing a month.

Kevin Dineen’s club is tied in points atop the division with the Jets, each having 68. But Florida has four games in hand over Winnipeg. They have two games in hand over third place Washington, which has 67 points and currently out of the playoff picture.

The hottest Panther is Tomas Fleischmann whose goal Saturday with only seven minutes left in regulation made the score 2-1. It was Fleischmann’s 20th of the year and he has 11 points (five of them goals) in his past 13 games. Kris Versteeg got an assist on that goal and is Florida’s leading scorer with 49 points through 58 games.

Brian Campbell has been a workhorse for Dineen on defence. He played 30:28 on Saturday, the fifth straight game in which he’s been on for over 30 minutes.

Jose Theodore stopped 26 of 28 Carolina shots and has played in the last six for Florida. Scott Clemmesen started one of those games, on Feb. 15, but Dineen pulled him halfway through after he gave up four goals on 16 shots. He hasn’t played since. Theo hasn’t played on consecutive days since the end of December, however. So Dineen may have a decision to make here.

Dineen’s not afraid to make changes. He switched centers during the Carolina game, breaking up Florida’s top line by putting Stephen Weiss with Mikael Samuelsson and Sean Bergenheim; Tomas Kopecky centered Fleischmann and Versteeg. It worked.

One interesting sidelight to this game will be the fans in Sunrise, FL. Usually, the snowbirds and transplants make the crowd at these games loudly pro-Habs. But with the Panthers battling for the playoffs and the Habs out of it, the crowd could be different on Sunday.

Here’s how the Panthers could line up Sunday at 5 PM, and we’ll guess that Dineen goes with Theodore in goal and will return to his usual lines but shake them up again if he doesn’t like what he sees.

Tomas Fleischmann, Stephen Weiss, Kris Versteeg
Sean Bergenheim, Tomas Kopecky, Mikael Samuelsson
Shawn Matthias, Mike Santorelli, Wojtek Wolski
Krys Barch, Jerred Smithson, Jack Skille

Erik Gudbranson, Brian Campbell
Jason Garrison, Ed Jovanovski
Keaton Ellerby, Mike Weaver

Jose Theodore
Scott Clemmensen

And watch out for those rumours.

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