Tuesday wasn’t the first time a goalie went after Panthers forward Tomas Kopecky. Last season in Los Angeles, goalie Jonathan Quick had to be pulled away from Kopecky after a showdown in front of the net.
At the time, it was assumed that Quick and Kopecky had past run-ins — Kopecky had spent the entirety of his career in the Western Conference before coming to Florida.
“Nah,” Panthers general manager Dale Tallon said after that game. “He just annoys a lot of teams. They all hate playing against him.”
Tallon, as GM of the Blackhawks, had seen Kopecky get under the skin of goaltenders before.
It was one reason Tallon worked to get Kopecky in a Panthers sweater. The Panthers, Tallon reasoned, were too soft in front of the net. Florida needed someone not only willing to get down and dirty, but someone who was successful at it.
“I’m making the life of the goalie tougher,” Kopecky said. “So if they don’t like me, I’m doing something right. I can live with that.”
Kopecky has a nice shot and good speed. Yet he saw the success Tomas Holmstrom had in getting physical down by the goal during their days together in Detroit.
Holmstrom has made quite the career of moving people out of the way, creating shooting lanes for teammates and getting his stick on loose pucks and putting them into the net. Kopecky has done the same.
“It hasn’t always been there, but I’ve learned over the past few years — like I saw [Holmstrom] doing it in Detroit — you can find success there,” Kopecky said. “There are so many skilled guys in the league, someone has to do the dirty work in front of the net. It’s stuck with me. And I have the proportion for it, the big body.”
During the past two seasons, Kopecky has become one of the Panthers’ most reliable players. Last season, Kopecky scored 10 goals and assisted on 22 others.
On Tuesday, Kopecky recorded his first NHL hat trick by scoring Florida’s first two goals of the game before putting the finishing touches on a 6-4 victory over Pittsburgh with an empty-net goal.
Kopecky, who has six goals in the past six games, has eight goals through 19 games — just two off last season’s total and seven from tying the career-high 15 he scored in 81 games as a member of the Blackhawks before coming south.
“Sometimes, it’s good to have reminders of why a player has been good throughout his career,” Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said.
“Tomas has been successful because he’s a hard guy to play against and is a big body who isn’t shy about going to the hard areas. You can talk all you want, but there’s nothing like that reward.”
One of the highlights of Tuesday’s game was Kopecky’s scrum with Penguins goalie Tomas Vokoun.
Although the two are friends and South Florida neighbors — “they are really good buddies, but that’s the game,” Tomas Fleischmann said — Vokoun started throwing punches when Kopecky scored and was driven into Vokoun by Pittsburgh’s Craig Adams.
The two continued pushing and punching each other until the altercation was broken up.
“I texted him after the game, told him no hard feelings,” Kopecky said. “He texted me back the same. We’re still neighbors, still friends. Sometimes emotions run high. We’re all good. The game’s over. We spoke the truth and moved on. I wish him the best for the rest of the season, and he does for me as well.”
Dineen said center Stephen Weiss was traveling back to South Florida on Wednesday after attending his grandmother’s funeral in Toronto on Tuesday. Weiss is expected to play Thursday against the Sabres.
“He’ll be back in our mix,” Dineen said.
With Weiss coming back, Scott Timmins was returned to Florida’s AHL affiliate in San Antonio.
• Florida might have to start making some roster moves. Forwards Kris Vertseeg (upper body) and Scottie Upshall (ankle) practiced on normal lines Wednesday and should be ready to play soon. Dineen said both were questionable for Thursday’s game.
“You see all those bodies out there, and a lot of our guys know how to count,” Dineen said. “There are only so many jobs every night. That doesn’t hurt our cause.”
Defenseman Filip Kuba, who has missed the past two games with an undisclosed upper-body injury, also practiced.
• For the second game in a row, the Panthers will hold their morning skate at the Saveology.com Iceplex in Coral Springs instead of at BB&T Center.
The workout starts at 10:30 a.m. and is free and open to the public.