THE NHL / HELENE ELLIOTT : How ‘Bout Those Mighty Panthers?

The Florida Panthers continue to break the “rules” for expansion teams.

New teams are supposed to be patsies, but the Panthers have been competitive since their formation. Newcomers usually have bad goaltending, but John Vanbiesbrouck and Mark Fitzpatrick ranked third in the NHL in 1993-94 and sixth last season. First- and second-year teams aren’t supposed to challenge for playoff spots, but the Panthers missed by only a point each season.

No team of any vintage is supposed to win when it trails after two periods, especially on the road, but the Panthers rallied to victory in the third period Sunday for the third time in their last five games.

Nor were the Panthers expected to have the NHL’s best record, but their 15-5-1 mark is no fluke.


Their success is generated by a blend of the defense-first ethic instilled by Roger Neilson, their coach in their first two seasons, and the adventurous offensive philosophy of new Coach Doug MacLean.

“We had to worry about defense in the past because we were only going to score a couple of goals,” said Brian Skrudlund, the Panthers’ captain and spark plug. “Now we can afford to open it up.”

They have surpassed the Mighty Ducks, their expansion twin, because of their superior defense, goaltending and on-ice leadership. Balanced scoring also makes Florida more difficult to defend against. Stop winger Paul Kariya, whose 15 goals constitute 21% of the Ducks’ offense, and chances are good your team will win because no one else poses a threat. Scott Mellanby, with 12, has 16% of Florida’s goals, but Rob Niedermayer and Stu Barnes are close with 10 and eight.

“Our cohesion is good and our composure is good,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “In opening things up, we give up some scoring chances, but somebody will make the extra effort to come back and help out. . . . This is not a fable. We’re definitely making believers in here.”


Mario Lemieux draws headlines because of his courageous comeback from Hodgkin’s disease and back surgery, and Jaromir Jagr draws attention because of his skills and how difficult it is to knock him off the puck.

While they grab the spotlight, Ron Francis is quietly having a superb season and is tied for third in scoring with 34 points. Francis has 811 assists in his career, the 16th-highest total in NHL history. He is also 25th on the all-time scoring list with 1,172 points and 12th among active players.

“I’m hiding behind the two big guys,” he said. “This is the best start of my career, but I am behind Mario and Jags. In all honesty, they’re a huge part of why I have [34] points. Everyone on this team moves the puck well.”


An unexpected but pleasant offshoot of Lemieux’s return is that it may result in Wayne Gretzky’s staying around awhile.

Disappointed by his performance last season, Gretzky considered retiring after this season, when his contract ends. He had a good start but shifted into another gear after Lemieux said he wanted to win the scoring title. Taking that as a challenge, Gretzky went on a spree, collecting 13 points in five games. Along the way, he learned that his skills and competitiveness remain sharp.

“If I keep playing the way I’m playing, I’ve got a lot of hockey left,” Gretzky said. “Last year was a strange year. The tour [games he organized during the lockout] was the chance of a lifetime and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world, but it put a lot of pressure on me and maybe it took something out of me.

“I worked hard this summer. I didn’t want to come into this year with any excuses. With Tony [Granato] on my right side and [Vitali Yachmenev], it’s been great. I feel like I can skate forever right now.”

He also admitted he’s shooting for his 11th scoring title, “especially since the [Lady] Byng is gone.” No sportsmanship trophy for him, not with a goon-like 18 penalty minutes.


The San Jose Sharks may have turned their season around by acquiring goalie Chris Terreri from the New Jersey Devils for a second-round draft pick

Before Terreri arrived, the Sharks’ save percentage was 85%, which a fan plucked from the stands should match simply by standing up. Terreri has stopped 90 of 96 shots in three games and got his first victory Sunday, a 3-2 decision at Chicago. He has always been a top-notch goalie, but he was unlucky to be a teammate in New Jersey of the acrobatic Martin Brodeur.

Coach Kevin Constantine’s teams have a history of slow starts. The Sharks overcame an 0-5-3 start last season to make the playoffs, and in 1993-94, they rebounded from a 4-9-2 start to make the playoffs and took Toronto to a seventh game in the second round. Still, 2-14-4 is pushing it a bit.


The firing of Rick Bowness as coach of the Ottawa Senators doesn’t come as any great surprise. He was in an impossible situation. Alexei Yashin bolted for Russia, 1993 top pick Alexandre Daigle is a bust, first-round pick Bryan Berard refuses to play there, and fans refuse to go to games. Decent goaltending propelled the Senators to a 6-5 start, but they have since reverted to their bad, old ways of lax defense.

Ottawa has some talent in Radek Bonk, Martin Straka and rookie Daniel Alfredsson, but General Manager Randy Sexton can’t seem to impose order on the organization’s chaos. He should have paid the price too.

Candidates to replace Bowness include former Calgary Coach Dave King and minor league Coach Dave Allison.


New York Islander General Manager Don Maloney thought he had a deal for reluctant center Kirk Muller last Friday, but it fell through.

“We’re making headway,” Maloney said of his team. “We have to decide if we want to go for a name player or go young and build from the bottom up.”

Chicago Blackhawk General Manager Bob Pulford denied rumors that he will trade goalie Ed Belfour. He also said he is happy with Jeremy Roenick, but look for Roenick to play out the season and test the free-agent market.

The economy-minded Buffalo Sabres, after weeks of rumors, sent defenseman Doug Bodger to San Jose. They have also been unhappy with former King Alexei Zhitnik but he has revived, recording a goal and three assists in his last two games. Also, the New York Rangers and St. Louis Blues talked about sending Stephane Matteau to St. Louis for Denis Chasse.


Observers say New York Islander Coach Mike Milbury fumed after King Coach Larry Robinson continued to play Gretzky in the late stages of the Kings’ 9-2 rout last Thursday. . . . The International Ice Hockey Federation upheld Yashin’s suspension from international hockey until he settles his dispute with the Ottawa Senators. Yashin left the Senators after claiming they broke a promise to renegotiate his contract and has played several games for the Central Red Army team in Russia.

Employees and fans honored Panther President Bill Torrey at the team’s last home game by wearing bow ties, Torrey’s trademark. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame on Monday. . . . Randy Burridge, signed by Buffalo as a free agent, has 15 points in 16 games. He had only 19 points in 38 games as a King last season.

Ranger General Manager Neil Smith couldn’t resist taking a shot at St. Louis Coach Mike Keenan after the teams’ first meeting since Keenan left New York. The Rangers are 11-7-2 and the Blues 8-9-2. “I guess it worked out for everybody except the Blues,” Smith told Newsday. . . . The Washington Capitals have scored six goals in their last five games. . . . Winnipeg left wing Keith Tkachuk is playing with a cast on his broken left thumb. . . . The NHL has taken so much heat since it removed team logos from game pucks, it may rescind that decision. And it should.