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Bluelines: There's a Powerhouse Hidden Behind the Palm Trees

From a purely hockey perspective, Florida is a scary place to visit and not because of the Gators; but because of those nasty, skating-in-your-face, refuse-to-disappear Panthers.
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Both north and south of the 49th parallel, skeptics find it hard to imagine a Stanley Cup being lifted in Sunrise, Florida.

I do, too.

After all, we're talking about a burgh of about 98,000 people. Another small city called Edmonton boasts 981,000 folks of which about a dozen-and-a-half are Flames fans.

But there should be no laughs about Sunrise nor its sheltering palms, multi-colored beach chairs and vagrant alligators.

From a purely hockey perspective, this is a scary place to visit and not because of the Gators; but because of those nasty, skating-in-your-face, refuse-to-disappear Panthers.

As my Floridian friend, Al Greenberg -- who watches the canny Cats all the time -- succinctly puts it: "This is a season where everything is going right."

What's downright frightening for inhabitants of the rest of the National Hockey League -- You, too, Lightning -- is that Norris Trophy candidate, Aaron Ekblad, will be playing this spring and not be an infirmary inmate as he was last April.

At least that's the hope.

So far, so good because bossman Bill Zito has constructed a well-balanced, mentally-strong sextet. So tough-minded, in fact, that it survived the unfortunate Joel Quenneville exit without missing a skating stride.

Still, as the late, great comic Rodney Dangerfield liked to say, "I get no respect."

And precious little printer's ink or tv coverage.

Because the Panthers are not the Maple Leafs, when Jonathan Huberdeau sneezes, it doesn't inspire a headline nor even a gezunheit. And this despite the fact that Hubie is every bit the total hockey player Auston Matthews is; maybe even better!

Hubie, along with the find-of-finds, Sam Bennett, and the remarkably rejuvenated Anthony Duclair comprise one fine line.

What's more, the pedestrians on Toronto's Yonge Street may not agree but Alex Barkov centers a line with Carter Verhaeghe and Sam Reinhart that will hold its own with the best NHL trios.

While Connor McDavid's Oilers desperately search for a goalie, interim coach Andrew Brunette has the dedicated Sergei Bobrovsky tending goal, determined to surpass the other Floridian stopper, Andy Vasilevskiy.

Up until Zito began his wheeling-dealing, the Cats played like the 98-pound Miami Beach weakling who'd get sand kicked in his face with no retaliation.

But the likes of Patric Hornqvist, Radko Gudas and Bennett have spiked the Panthers image along with some Zito moves that have caused double and triple takes among his peers.

Gudas, for one, seemed like an incurable nut case until he reformed under the kind-hearted sun rays. And how about Zito's other zinger, rookie Anton Lundell?

Like the song, "You Came To Me From Out Of Nowhere," the native of Espoo, Finland, emigrated from Scandinavia to become a star; and is one! He's neatly fit in at age 20, and kills penalties like a five-year vet.

Right now I label the Ekblad-MacKenzie Weegar duet as one of the best shutdown D units that also can illuminate goal lights.

"Weegar," Panthers-watcher Greenberg says, "is a seventh round Draft pick who worked his way through the ECHL and AHL and now plays with major league swagger."

Zito also plucked D-man Gustav Forslung off the waiver wire. What a bargain. He teams with Gudas on the second blue line pairing.

Many snowbirds fly to Sunrise for the sun. Many more will be jetting south for a sunny playoff hockey team!

P.S. 6-0 over the Oilers last night in Edmonton. It tells you a lot about both teams.

I'M JUST SAYIN' --

* JACK-JACK-JACK: I'm excited; are you? Jumpin' Jack Eichel's return is just around the calendar. If the Controversial One truly returns to form, Vegas will be a team you won't want to face in the playoffs.

* THEN AGAIN: No matter how he shakes it, the Knights' Robin Lehner gives me the heebie-jeebies because he can't move laterally quickly enough. Best that g.m. Kelly McCrimmon acquire an experienced back-up. Perhaps Thomas Greiss will be available.

* UNSUNG HEROES DEPARTMENT: Pittsburgh's second pairing D-men, Marcus Petterson and John Marino, are as good as any NHL back-up blueliners. Yet another reason why the Pens are flyin' high.

* BIG M'S BIRTHDAY: At 87, one of my all-time favorites, Frank Mahovlich, has retained the down-to-earth dignity that accompanied his enormous skill. He came within two red lights of tying Rocket Richard's 50 goal season in a season I'll never forget.

* BEST OF THE ZEBRAS: If Glenn Hall is Mister Goalie and the Mister Hockey tag belongs to Gordie Howe, who's the all-time Rajah of Refereeing? My choice, New York's own Bill Chadwick.

* GOOD GRIT GUYS: Corey Perry and Joe Pavelski just won't go away. And why should they? This pair of Ancients has helped both the Lightning and Stars, respectively. Pav already has a four and five point game this term.

* FOUND A HOME IN FLORIDA: That old realty slogan sure fits Anthony Duclair. Once mired in the Used Right-Wing Lot, Dukey does a "Thank You Very Much" in the direction of Jonny Huberdeau whose passes have made Tony a star.

* ESPN WINNER: Sean McDonough has impressed doing play-by-play. He's the pro's pro. Or, as one critic puts it, "He makes games feel big when it counts."

* A KRAKEN GOOD THEORY: My man in Seattle, Glenn Dryfuss explains why patience is the hockey buzzword in the Northwest: "When the Kings recently visited, fans got a splashy new pregame multimedia presentation as well as performances by a live band, not to mention a marriage proposal (accepted!); a competitive game and another Kraken loss." (Yeah, they finally beat Chicago in a Shootout after that.) Ron Francis is building for the future. But tough Seattle Times columnist Matt Calkins still is unhappy. Check out his rip job below.

* LOW PRICE: You have to feel sad about Carey Price's non-season so far and hope things improve on all fronts for the good fellow.

* LATEST HABS BOSS: Kent Hughes is the new Canadiens g.m. and more power to him. He'll need it. Looks like Boss Molson didn't want Patrick Roy in his face. Or, maybe, the vice was versa.

* YAY, IAN -- AND JESSICA: That was a superior job THN's Ian Kennedy did on potential first female NHL GM candidates. Plenty of good ones and I'll add another. Jessica Berman, who held big jobs in the NHL hierarchy and now is Deputy Commissioner of the National Lacrosse League.

* NOTHING CHEESY ABOUT THIS SWISS: Not that anyone needs a reminder but the lesson to be obtained from Sharks' Timo Meier's recent five-goal night is simple:

Switzerland develops terrific hockey players. (That's why two of my grand-kids, Ariel, 15, and Avigail, 12, are playing there. He's a fast forward and she plays tough D; against the guys, no less!

WHO SAID IT? "I looked at the tapes and it was like reading a Sunday morning comic strip." (Answer below.)

DOC EMRICK ON HIS INTRODUCTORY NHL BROADCAST

EDITOR'S NOTE: In a series of exclusive interviews, Hall of Fame hockey broadcaster, Mike (Doc) Emrick tells all about the ice game. Here's his latest.

"It was a pre-season game on PRISM cable in Philly, September 1980. The Flyers were playing the Canadiens at The Spectrum. Because it was the last weekend of preseason, both teams had made nearly all their cuts.

"The helmet rule had come in just a year before which meant that nearly all the players were still bareheaded. Both teams had recently won championships so I could recognize nearly every player. Grilling myself on names and numbers wasn't really needed too much.

"I worked with the old Flyers gritty defenseman Ed Van Impe and the goalie Bobby Taylor who later became the Lightning broadcaster. Both had been in Philly as players on both Flyers Stanley Cup teams and both later got traded to Pittsburgh.

"Coach Fred Shero's famous expression, 'We will walk together forever' didn't happen for Van Impe nor Taylor nor for many others on the title teams. As for me being nervous, the two guys saw to it that I would be okay by making fun of me as being 'The guy from Maine in the American League.'

"I had known Bobby since he had come up to Maine a few times to training camp and he was full of laughs to begin with; so that helped me. As it happened, the Flyers won the game -- which didn't mean anything since it was only an exhibitiojn -- but for me it was good. I got in the experience I needed before my first NHL broadcasting season had begun."

(NEXT MONDAY DOC TELLS US ABOUT HIS FAVORITE BROADCASTS)

RATING SOME TNT BROADCASTERS

1. Paul Bissonette: He's the most entertaining of the bunch but he can't be your best guy. It's like a 37-year-old forward being the best skater on your team.

2. Rick Tocchet: He speaks his mind which is a good thing.

3. Anson Carter: He'll give an opinion and is solid.

4. Keith Jones: This insightful fellow remains one of my all-time favorites.. Delivers a solid, no B.S view. Love that man.

5. Kenny Albert: My kind of play-by-play guy; the perfect follow-up to iconic Doc Emrick.

And one other TNT thing: Kudos to the innovative penalty clock superimposed on the ice. It doesn't distract and keeps from having to shift eyes elsewhere.

UNFAIR RIP ON THE KRAKEN -- OR NOT?

Seattle Times columnist Matt Calkins recently basheds the Kraken's record which was 11-23-4 at the time. Among the author's more endearing sentences dealt with his team's subterranean approach to the .500 mark. "Not acceptable in this sports town"

The man has a point if you compare the Kraken's performance to Vegas' super-duper maiden season. And, rest assured, the moment Seattle's big-league team paid its NHL dues, it knew that comparisons with the Knights were inevitable.

The fact that Seattle is an expansion team and newcomers usually struggle in their early seasons does not seem to matter to Calkins; nor should it.

GM Ron Francis deliberately has taken a slow-growth approach. "He refuses to fall for the 'Future is now' trap," answers my man, Dreyfuss, in Seattle. Hopefully it'll pay off in the long run. But, right now, the results are disappointing and Calkins is making his dismay front and center. Right or wrong; that's his right.

ANSWER TO WHO SAID IT: Coach Al Arbour on the Islanders winning a game, 8-7.

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