Blackhawks vs Panthers: a little friendly competition
Tonight, when the puck drops for the Blackhawks vs. the Panthers, the last of the players who was traded away (and still plays in the NHL) who helped earn the Stanley Cup banner that hangs in the rafters will get their first turn at playing under it.
Kris Versteeg was a popular player while in Chicago, but the post-Cup salary cap purge sent him to Toronto. From there, he would be traded to Philadelphia, and then on to Florida. He was the last of the Cup winners to play against the Blackhawks and had to wait until this season to do it - a November 3 Chicago shootout win at Sunrise. And particularly in light of his current season, where he is one of the Panthers' top producers, with 17 goals and 22 assists, it's no surprise there are still Blackhawks fans who'd love to see him back in the Indianhead sweater.
But it's not going to happen any time soon - and why would it? Versteeg has said he's happy in Florida, and why wouldn't he be: in a sunbelt hockey market that's been starved for star power for years, Versteeg is on the top line and on trajectory for a career year - on track for what could easily be a 65-70 point season. He gets to play with a handful of teammates from his Chicago days, including freshly signed vet John Madden, and they're doing it under Kevin Dineen, who's certain to be mentioned in the running for the Jack Adams this year. This year's Panthers team is to Florida hockey what the 2008-09 team was for Chicago: it's reminding the locals that hey, there was a time that they loved hockey and that the team was capable of playoff runs.
Unfortunately for Florida, they've been plagued by injuries around the holidays, and so they've gone long stretches with more than one major player on the IR. The most recent, Ed Jovanovski, broke his hand on Monday in a fight with Daniel Paille of the Bruins. Jovo is one of 4 alternative captains for the team; along with Brian Campbell, Tomas Kopecky, and Steven Weiss. Scottie Upshall (hip) and Jack Skille (upper body) both return to the lineup tonight, but Sean Bergenheim (lower body) is probably not going to be back quite yet; while Marco Sturm (upper body) and Jacob Markstrom are still on IR.
Versteeg isn't the only ex-Blackhawk making their new-team debut on UC ice tonight. Brian "Soupy" Campbell and Tomas Kopecky were both traded to Florida in the off season. Campbell was the biggest move on the team; there's no doubt the Blackhawks miss his skill, although they don't miss his cap hit. Florida GM Dale Tallon, who helped construct the Blackhawks' 2009-10 Stanley Cup-winning team, recruited Campbell to get him to waive his no-trade clause to go to Florida; it was felt Campbell's presence would lend a lot of authority to the rebuilding effort the Panthers were doing.
The Panthers have played extremely well for most of the season; and they've held on to the Southeast division lead for most of the year. They're now battling it out with a resurgent Washington for SE lead; both teams have 52 points in 45 games. Chances remain high for the Panthers to see their first playoff appearance 2000. The Panthers have lost their past 7 road games (0-3-4), and only two players are on point streaks, Kopecky and Weiss, 1-1-2 each in 2 games.
On the Chicago side, the Blackhawks will look to continue their hot streak, especially after their strong game on Wednesday versus the Sabres. White-hot popular rookie sensation Andrew Shaw will look to add another goal to his current 4-game streak - only 10 other players in the NHL have longer goal streaks this season. But Shaw isn't the only one on a streak; Jonathan Toews has 4 goals in the past 3 games, and no less than 7 players are currently on point streaks for the Blackhawks, with Marian Hossa having the longest at 6 games. The Blackhawks have won their last 3 on home ice while taking points in 22 of 27 games at home, and will look to use the home crowd to their advantage.
There's sure to be plenty of underlying emotions in tonight's game, because so much history has been established between the teams in the course of the past two years. But as the old hockey saying goes, there's no friends on the ice once the puck drops, and both teams are going to be pushing hard to take 2 points away from tonight's contest.
Ray Emery will be in net for Chicago; Jose Theodore is expected to be in goal for Florida.
Game time is 7:30pm CT / 8:30pm ET and will be carried on CSN-Chicago and Fox Sports Florida.