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What We Learned: Are Florida Panthers counterfeit contenders?

By Ryan Lambert

Hello, this is a feature that will run through the entire season and aims to recap the weekend's events and boils those events down to one admittedly superficial fact or stupid opinion about each team. Feel free to complain about it.

We've heard a lot of talk in recent weeks about how nice of a story it is that the Wild keep leading the NHL and winning game after game despite no one thinking they would be any good.

They've won seven in a row and statistically they probably shouldn't be leading their division; they're largely doing so because the best team, the Canucks, got off to such a poor start.

Meanwhile, the other big surprise team in the league is only just beginning to get a measure of the praise Minnesota has, and it seems very odd. The Florida Panthers are, despite getting pumped pretty good last night by the Rangers, just two points back of the conference lead. Very surprising indeed for a team that entered the year with Jose Theodore as its not-entirely-clear No. 1 goaltender, Stephen Weiss as the No. 1 forward and Brian Campbell as the No. 1 defenseman.

During the summer, I said something along the lines of, "If you go out and buy half a team's worth of mediocre hockey players, you probably end up being a mediocre hockey team."

And being a mediocre hockey team would have been a huge step in the right direction for a team that's been bad so long it's hard to remember a point at which they were good. But the team has certainly exceeded even those modest expectations so far this year, and they're the no-doubt-about-it best and nicest surprise in the league this year.

But how real is it?

(Coming Up: The stats say Ron Wilson should be fired; Perron's revenge; Chara injured; Prust right about fighting; idiots and the Kaberle trade; Kings downplay expectations; goaltending controversy in Chicago; Wideman gets tricked; Teemu keeps rolling; Flames winning with Iggy; Lightning plummeting; Carter's snipe; a bad weekend for Winnipeg; and Tim Thomas makes more magic.)

That six-pack Theodore gave up last night certainly could be the start of a hard and fast regression to the mean, because no one in their right mind would say he hasn't played above his head this year. He came into the game with a 2.17 GAA and .929 save percentage, and obviously those worsened appreciably with last night's dismal performance.

But even if he falters — and he almost has to at this point — the team has a very steady No. 2 guy in Scott Clemmensen; and though Jacob Markstrom hasn't exactly played his best in the AHL so far, he acquitted himself well at the NHL level earlier this year.

Remember, it was around this time last year that the Atlanta Thrashers went out and captured first place in this same division and everyone acted like they had a chance at making the playoffs if only guys like Dustin Byfuglien kept scoring at a superhuman pace. We know how that worked out.

The same is largely true of the Panthers this year. Despite strong offensive contributions from the likes of Weiss, Campbell, Kris Versteeg and Tomas Fleischmann, they're not exactly getting strong output from the rest of the team. They're just about league-average when it comes to putting the puck in the net (82 goals in 30 games) and they're not good enough at keeping the puck out of their own net to continue thinking they're going to stay top of their division.

People have been saying for weeks that the Wild's miserable goal differential, at least when compared to the other division leaders across the league, would ultimately prove out; that is, when Minnesota crashed and burned, it would be math returning reason to the NHL universe, not unlike it did for the Avalanche a few years back after their hot start. Florida's goal differential, you can probably guess, is much worse than Minnesota's.

But on the other hand, what might prove in Florida's favor is that despite its poor differential, it still has the best in its division by far. In fact, it's the only team in the Southeast that has scored more than it's allowed. It's not like there's a juggernaut like the Canucks just waiting to overtake them (though Washington certainly has the juice to get that done with a week or two worth of wins).

Florida is certainly going to look bad against the best teams in the league. Again, that many mediocre players by definition has to make you pretty much middle-of-the-road, and that's it. But if its division competition remains this poor for another month or so, they might be able to create a little more separation between themselves and the rest of the bad teams, and sneak into home ice with an appallingly low point total.

Hell, only five teams in the whole conference currently have positive goal differentials. So you know what? Yeah, the Panthers look like a playoff team.

Make up your own minds about what that says for the East.

What We Learned

Anaheim Ducks: Teemu Selanne picked up the primary assist on a Francois Beauchemin goal, giving him his 900th point with the Ducks franchise. Pretty impressive considering he's played about eight seasons, including his most productive by far, for other teams. Oh yeah and the Ducks lost, but you probably could have guessed that.

Boston Bruins: One thing I love in hockey is when specific club's announcers start talking about how good a guy on the other team is at a particular thing, and then as it happens, the guy does what they're talking about. Here's Zdeno Chara picking out a corner with a rocket.

Too bad he got hurt later in the game.

Buffalo Sabres: Big reason Buffalo lost 4-1 at home to the Rangers on Saturday? Giving up a pair of shorties in the back half of the second period. They're now tied for 27th in the league with five SHG allowed. But at least they're not New Jersey, which leads with eight.

Calgary Flames: Don't look now, but Calgary's won three in a row, largely on the back of Jarome Iginla's strong play. During this little stretch of success, the captain has four goals and two assists. But please, no one mention that the wins have come at home against league giants like Carolina, Colorado and Edmonton.

Carolina Hurricanes: How bad are things going for the Hurricanes right now? Backup goaltender Mike Murphy has appeared in two games since Tuesday, both in relief of Cam Ward, and stopped all nine shots he faced in about 36 minutes. He's still 0-1.

Chicago Blackhawks: So Ray Emery got the start again last night and that's leading some to wonder whether there's a goaltending controversy in Chicago. Pish-posh, says Jeremy Roenick, who clearly hasn't seen Corey Crawford's stats lately.

Colorado Avalanche: JS Giguere isn't afraid to do a little backseat coaching when he's not starting. "We're shooting ourselves in the foot by not keeping the game simple, and because of that, we're making too many mistakes," Giguere told the Denver Post. Look out, Joe Sacco.

Columbus Blue Jackets: I really liked this Jeff Carter goal against the Bruins on Saturday night.

After going his first eight games without a goal, he scored three in two, then went another six without one. Now he's on a two-game goal streak again. Very weird season.

Dallas Stars: Richard Bachman got his first-ever NHL start on Saturday and turned in a strong performance against the Kings in a 2-1 win. So strong, in fact, that he looks like the probable starter for Tuesday against the Rangers. Of course, the way Andrew Raycroft has been playing lately (and given the recent state of the Kings' offense), a Shooter Tutor had a pretty good chance of earning a second consecutive start as well.

Related Links

Detroit Red Wings Presented by Amway: The Wings gutted Winnipeg at home, and 14 different players had points in the 7-1 win. I think they're gonna do okay in realignment.

Edmonton Oilers: One team Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle and Sam Gagner have a lot of trouble solving is the Calgary Flames. In the Oil's three games against the Flames, they have combined for two goals and an assist (though to be fair, Gagner missed one of those games). In 27 games against everyone else, the three have combined for 27-51-78.

Florida Panthers: The Panthers practiced in Central Park on Saturday ahead of yesterday's tilt with the Rangers. They showed up on the team bus in full gear like a peewee team. Adorable.

Los Angeles Kings: "Hahaha, big preseason expectations, for THIS team? No no, you must be thinking of someone else." That was the general thrust of everyone in the Kings organization's conversation with ESPN. Really.

Minnesota Wild: Somehow Kyle Brodziak leads the Wild with 10 goals. Bet they hold onto the top spot in that division forever!

Montreal Canadiens: Tomas Kaberle with two assists in his first game for the Canadiens. Who's laughing now, idiots?

Nashville Predators: The engineer of all three Nashville goals in a 3-2 win over Anaheim? Jordin Tootoo in his first game back from suspension. Man, he might want to start getting suspended all the time.

New Jersey Devils: Pete DeBoer is nothing if not unafraid to make iffy moves in an attempt to kickstart his team. One game after he yanked Marty Brodeur in the first period to wake the boys up, he shuffled the lines in the second period against Montreal. The move produced one goal, but not the two needed to tie the game.

New York Islanders: Sure the Isles got tuned up on Saturday by the Pens but look at this goal to open their account by David Ullstrom. Man oh man.

Great shot.

New York Rangers: Brandon Prust thinks if fighting was forced out of the game, more guys would get hurt. In other news, Brandon Prust is right.

Ottawa Senators: Chris Neil taking cheap shots at someone? You don't say. But hey, the referee is good buddies with him and told Kevin Bieksa that Neil wouldn't cross the line. So it's all good!

Philadelphia Flyers: The Flyers have won five games in a row, yes, but with Claude Giroux and Ilya Bryzgalov added to the list of key contributors headed to the shelf, one expects that streak won't last much longer.

Phoenix Coyotes: Mike Smith on the Coyotes taking a 4-1 beating at the hands of Minnesota: "Your goaltender can win and lose hockey games and, tonight, I lost it for the team. It's as simple as that. You have to make saves, you have to give your team a chance to win and I didn't think we were that bad...my game wasn't where it has to be." He made just 16 saves on 20 shots.

Pittsburgh Penguins: Last night the Penguins were without Sidney Crosby, Jordan Staal, Kris Letang, Zbynek Michalek, Richard Park, Ben Lovejoy, Brian Strait and Rob Bertuzzo. They beat the Islanders 6-3 after trailing 2-0 early on.

San Jose Sharks: "I was disappointed in the desperation on our first two power plays in the first seven minutes of the game," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said of the reason San Jose lost 1-0 to St. Louis on Saturday. "Their confidence went up in that situation." Tough way to lose.

St. Louis Blues: Speaking of that game, it was the first meeting for the Sharks and Blues since David Perron returned to the lineup. Perron had the primary assist on the game's only goal.

Tampa Bay Lightning: How will Steve Yzerman remedy his team's inability to stop giving up goals? He better figure it out soon, since the team's dropped six of the last seven, giving up 27 goals in the process.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Should the Leafs fire Ron Wilson? Statistics say yes. Brian Burke almost certainly says no.

Vancouver Canucks: Hey did you know the Canucks have won four straight and eight of the last nine? Why, it's almost like they're third in the league in goal differential, and plus-11 better than the division-leading Wild, and this is math catching up with everyone.

Washington Capitals: Matt Hendricks says he tries to imitate Dale Hunter's game, but I've never seen him try to cripple anyone.

Winnipeg Jets: The Jets need more emotion if they're going to compete with the Wings, according to Claude Noel. Also, more players that aren't bad.

Gold Star Award
Dennis Wideman not only wins this for putting up four points (two goals, two assists) in Friday's win, but also for being a good guy. He would have had a hat trick but told the league that his third goal was deflected in by Brooks Laich. Sportsmanship.

Minus of the Weekend
Not a good day at the office for Ondrej Pavelec, who gave up all seven Detroit goals on just 26 shots.

Play of the Weekend
Tim Thomas might have gotten the hook in the Bruins' 5-3 comeback win over Winnipeg, but at least he made this frickin' save first.

Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Week
User "o Hamhuis 2 x" wants to shake things up for the Flyers, for some reason.

To Colorado: Brayden Schenn, Wayne Simmonds, 1st, Matt Carle
To Philadelphia: Erik Johnson, Jay McClement, Ryan O'Byrne

Signoff
I will never backslide!

Ryan Lambert publishes hockey awesomeness rather infrequently over at The Two-Line Pass. Check it out, why don't you? Or you can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter if you so desire.

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