March 12, 2013

Florida Panthers looking for confidence

The struggling Panthers spent some extra time in Monday’s practice holding onto the puck and pressuring the defense near the net.

Barely three minutes into starting drills at Iceplex, the Panthers have managed more shots on goal than in the entirety of Sunday’s 5-2 loss to the Montreal Canadiens.

There’s a lot of hustle on the ice, and none of that pesky presence brought by Montreal fans to the BB&T Center to damper the momentum. It’s just a handful of fans and quiet observers to watch the Panthers run the basics Monday.

How basic? Plan and simple: hold onto the puck. The Panthers shot a season-low 16 times on Montreal’s net just two days after firing 40 at the Winnipeg Jets. It’s an exhausting way to play hockey.

“It’s the confidence to get [the puck] in and hold onto it,” assistant coach Craig Ramsay said of what’s missing from the Panthers’ game.

Florida is in the midst of a rough shortened season in the basement of the Eastern Conference with a 7-13-6 record.

Monday’s practice reflected the need to drive the point home to a beaten-down roster: that it’s not about the perfect play, it’s about driving to the net and throwing the puck in.

“The rush drill was about being confronted by a defenseman, getting the puck past him and driving in there,” Ramsay said. “We did a coverage drill down low ... you’re trying to score, but initially you’re trying to hold onto the puck and make it difficult on the defensive team.”

Ramsay believes that his players need to focus on sticking together and staying mentally tough as a team in light of the injuries that have forced frequent turnovers to the roster.

“When you get into a slump, you’re looking for something else, but it isn’t something else,” the veteran coach said. “It’s about what we do; when we get it deep, when we hold the puck, we get 40 shots like we did the other night.”

Panthers center Jonathan Huberdeau, who leads all rookies in goals, brings an unbridled enthusiasm to the ice. He managed one shot in the Panthers’ lowly tally Sunday.

“You want to help the team to win, so you always have the energy,” he said of finding a role during his first season in the NHL. “Even losing, I want to help the team to win. That’s motivation.”

Huberdeau was one of the last to leave the ice Monday, and it’s not surprising that the hard-working rookie has joined an elite group with his 12 goals in the first 25 games. He’s the fifth active player, behind Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Capitals Alex Ovechkin, and Anaheim’s veteran Teemu Selanne.

“We’re losing right now, but we’re trying to build chemistry together,” Huberdeau said. “We’ve got to step up.”

The 19-year-old echoes Ramsay, whose playing career was done long before the young Canadian was born. Their premise of a team that plays together can win together transcends their generational gap.

“You have to stay together and stay simple — focus on the fact that you’re a group out there, a team,” Ramsay said. “We don’t need or expect you to do one-on-one things all night long.”

When Southeast Division rival Tampa Bay arrive in town Tuesday night, there should be a strong appetite for winning. Both teams have managed only two wins in their past 10 games, and the Lightning has taken the first two games of the cross-state series with the Panthers.

If the Panthers can trust one another to make shots and find the rebounds, things might start to be more fun.

As Ramsay said, “If you shoot the puck on net enough, it’s got a bad habit of going in.”

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