Sun Belt Hockey: Dying on the Vine?

Here’s a look at the state of hockey attendance for the Florida Panthers. It’s not too rosy.

This photo was snapped at Monday’s Panthers-Ottawa Senators game.

FLA-OTT

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Game 40: Red Wings-Florida Enotes

The Red Wings tried wearing their road whites at home on Monday night, but that didn’t fool the hockey gods.

Apparently, those white sweaters only hold their magic away from Detroit.

The Red Wings scored another win on the road tonight, in Florida. There hasn’t been a better traveling show on skates since the Ice Capades.

The Red Wings beat back the Panthers, 4-3, and Jonas Gustavsson made sure of it.

The Detroit goalie repelled one great Panthers scoring chance after another, particularly in the third period when Florida tried gamely to come back from a two-goal deficit for the second time in the contest.

Gustavsson was especially brilliant in the final minute, after Florida pulled goalie Scott Clemmensen. Why Gustavsson wasn’t named one of the game’s three stars is a mystery and a criminal act.

Henrik Zetterberg (welcome back, Z), Gustav Nyquist (eventual game-winner), Daniel Alfredsson and Brendan Smith scored for Detroit (18-13-9). It was the Red Wings’ 12th win away from home this season.

Detroit let the Panthers back into the game in the second period after taking a 2-0 lead in the first 20 minutes on power play goals from Zetterberg and Alfredsson. Florida tied it, 2-2, heading into the third period.

But Smith got the Red Wings the lead back, just 42 seconds into the third stanza. Nyquist added a goal just 38 seconds later to regain the two-goal cushion. Sean Bergenheim’s wrist shot through traffic beat Gustavsson at 4:27 to make for a hectic and frantic 15:33 for the Red Wings.

BOX SCORE

BOTTOM LINE: The night and day records and numbers for the Red Wings at home and on the road is surely one of the NHL’s weirdest storylines this season.

THE WINGED WHEELER SAYS: Gustavsson, whose play of late has tapered from his hot start, turned in a remarkable performance. He also got great support from his defensemen, especially Smith, who functioned as a second goalie during some crazy scrambles in front of the net. It was also great to see Zetterberg return from his back injury. His goal, a wicked wrister over Clemmensen’s shoulder, signaled that there was little if any rust after missing about three weeks or so.

Game 32: Red Wings-Florida Enotes

The Florida heat melted the Red Wings’ two-goal lead in the third period, and so the result was a bitter 3-2 shootout loss to the Panthers in Miami.

The Red Wings’ shootout woes continued, as Brad Boyes neatly fired a snap shot through Jimmy Howard’s legs for the game-winner on Florida’s last try before the shootout would have gone into OT.

Pavel Datsyuk returned from a seven-game absence due to concussion-like symptoms, and scored a pretty goal, re-directing a Jonathan Ericsson pass from the point past Tim Thomas to give Detroit a 2-0 lead in the second period.

Todd Bertuzzi scored a power play goal 10:26 into the first period.

The Panthers got on the board in the third period when Sean Bergenheim deflected a lazy shot from the point by Dmitry Kulikov and the puck trickled past Howard at 5:00. The tying goal came at 14:38, when Nick Bjugstad fought off Datsyuk in the corner, emerged with the puck, switched to his forehand, and popped the puck over Howard’s right shoulder.

FSD’s Darren Eliot pointed out after the game that Howard didn’t respect Bjugstad’s chances of going upstairs, and thus over-committed down low, leaving a gap short side, high.

“We had energy,” coach Mike Babcock told John Keating after the game. “But they just came after us and we didn’t execute coming out of our zone and they scored twice.”

Babcock used Daniel Alfredsson, Tomas Tatar and Gustav Nyquist in the shootout, eschewing veteran shootout guys Datsyuk and Bertuzzi.

Tatar was the only one of the three who scored, slipping a forehand shot through Thomas’s legs.

When asked why he didn’t use Datsyuk or Bertuzzi in the shootout, Babcock was very frank.

“Those guys are 0-for. They haven’t scored. So you either try the same thing, or try something else.”

BOX SCORE

BOTTOM LINE: Too many third period leads have vanished this season.

THE WINGED WHEELER SAYS: The Red Wings only managed one point out of four possible against one of the worst teams in the NHL. The shootout woes are annoying. It’s a combination of a lack of clutch saves and too much dipsy-do by the shooters.

Spotlight on the Opponent: Tim Thomas

What: Detroit at Florida
When: Tuesday, December 10, 7:30pm (TV: FSD)

Tim Thomas

You look at Tim Thomas’ age and figure he must be in his 15th NHL season by now.

After all, Thomas, the #1 goalie for the Florida Panthers, will be 40 years old in April.

Yet the Davison, MI native is only in his 8th NHL season. How does that happen?

Thomas is a throwback, and where he throws back to, is former Red Wings goalie Roy Edwards.

Thomas made his NHL debut as a 28-year-old with the Boston Bruins in 2002. Edwards, who was a serviceable if not spectacular goalie on some mediocre Red Wings teams, was an NHL rookie at the ripe age of 30 in 1967.

Edwards, bothered by dizziness from fracturing his skull with the Red Wings in the 1970-71 season, finally had to retire by 1973, at age 36. He played just six NHL seasons.

Thomas is a throwback because in Edwards’ day, it was not uncommon for skaters and goalies alike to wallow in the minor leagues for years before getting their shot at the NHL. Edwards was drafted when the league consisted of just six teams. That’s 12 NHL goalies, total. Not easy to crack those dozen. It wasn’t a coincidence that Edwards finally made it to the NHL after the league doubled in size. The expansion draft cleared roster spots on the Original Six teams.

Thomas was drafted by the old Quebec Nordiques in 1994, a 9th round pick after playing one season of college hockey at the University of Vermont. He was 20 when he was drafted.

But Thomas played nothing higher than AHL hockey for nearly eight years, with some stops in Finland and Sweden along the way. His rights had been transferred from Quebec (which became the Colorado Avalanche in 1995) to Edmonton, and finally to Boston, when the Bruins signed Thomas as a 28-year-old free agent in the summer of 2002.

But even after his dream of playing in the NHL had been realized, Thomas still didn’t stick in the league. He played just four games with the Bruins in 2002-03, then again bounced around in the minors, with Providence. In 2004, it was back to Finland to play 54 games for Jokerit Helsinki.

It wasn’t until the 2005-06 season when Tim Thomas, at age 31, had finally become a starting goalie in the NHL, with the Bruins. This time, he was staying.

Twice he has led the league in save percentage (2009 and 2011) and he backstopped the Bruins to the Stanley Cup in 2011, posting a .940 save pct. and a 1.98 GAA during the playoffs. Thomas’ performance in the post-season earned him the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. At age 37, Thomas became the oldest winner of the trophy.

But Thomas still had one more exile left in him, and this one was self-imposed. First, he drew controversy when he refused to appear in the White House with his Bruins teammates to recognize the Cup victory, because he opposed President Obama’s politics. Then, after the 2011-12 season, Thomas took a break from hockey.

In January 2013 (lockout year), Thomas was suspended by the Bruins for refusing to report for training camp. He was subsequently traded to the NY Islanders but never played a game for them, as his contract had expired before he could suit up. A free agent, Thomas signed with Florida on a tryout in September and ended up not only making the team, but was installed as the #1 goalie by the Panthers.

So here we are—a 39-year-old goalie playing in just his 8th NHL season.

To quote the Grateful Dead, what a long, strange trip it’s been.

Oh, and Thomas is a throwback in another way—his cage mask, which isn’t quite as plain as the one Chris Osgood used to wear, but is still a little behind the times.

Game 31: Red Wings-Florida Enotes

It’s supposed to be hard for the other team to win in Detroit, not for the Red Wings.

Playing the second of back-to-back games, the Red Wings didn’t get a bounce, didn’t get a break and didn’t get a win, losing to the Florida Panthers—yes, the Florida Panthers—2-1 at JLA, to fall to 5-6-6 at home.

The puck and ice didn’t cooperate and the Red Wings, one night after stifling the New Jersey Devils (11 SOG), let the Panthers loose for 37 shots on Jonas Gustavsson, who suffered his first loss of the season.

Frankly, the Red Wings were lucky to be in the game, as once again Gustavsson stood tall in net. A horrid second period (Florida outshot Detroit 17-5) highlighted the effects of the back-to-back for the Red Wings.

It was also a game where the Red Wings (15-9-7) really felt the loss of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, particularly on the power play, which looked disjointed and out of sync all night, especially late in the third period.

In New Jersey on Friday, the Datsyuk and Zetterberg of the future, Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar, were the best players on the ice. Tonight, the youngsters tried, but nothing clicked, even when lined up with veteran Johan Franzen, forming a trio that was strong against the Devils but out of sorts against the Panthers.

Red Wings passes were a tad off all night, and there seemed to be a lack of communication on the ice throughout the game, often resulting in turnovers.

A bright spot was Daniel Cleary scoring for the Red Wings, snapping a personal goal-less streak that extended to October. Cleary’s goal came off a juicy rebound at the 4:06 mark of the first period.

Three minutes into the second period, Jimmy Hayes scored a strange goal to tie the game. Gustavsson appeared to have the puck trapped under his right pad, but the whistle never blew and Hayes jammed the rubber disc past the goal line.

If not for Gustavsson’s play in the second period, the Panthers would have been in control after 40 minutes. As it was, the game was tied 1-1.

But the Panthers’ second-year man Jonathan Huberdeau scored his seventh goal 3:29 into the third period, as he broke loose in front of Gustavsson, deked, and flipped a backhand past the Detroit goalie.

The slim lead held up, as the Red Wings just couldn’t get anything going. They were outshot by Florida, 37-23.

BOX SCORE

BOTTOM LINE: This game proved that you can do without your big guns for a night or two, but more often than not, you will miss them badly.

THE WINGED WHEELER SAYS: The Red Wings are 10-3-1 on the road but can’t buy a win at home. Tonight could be mildly excused because of being shorthanded and playing two games in two nights, but the Panthers are awful on the road and the Red Wings let Florida have their way in the second period. This was definitely a game the Red Wings should have won, but deserved to lose—if that makes any sense.