After 7 years and 403 games across the ECHL and AHL, Shane Harper is finally living his dream. Now, he isn’t just playing in the NHL, but he’s scoring there as well. The Panthers originally signed him to a 1-year deal when the free-agent market opened in 2015, and on Saturday, he led the Panthers to a big 5-2 victory over the Colorado Avalanche.
The undrafted 27-year old made the Panthers out of training camp, and even last year he came close as he managed to stick with the team until the final round of cuts. Head coach Gerard Gallant said recently that the team had planned on calling him up a couple of times during last season but injuries to Harper prevented that from happening.
He’s paid his dues in the minors and he definitely knows a little something about goal-scoring. At 6 years old, Harper played hockey with the children – Ty and Paulina – of his favorite hockey player, Wayne Gretzky while also watching “The Great One” often as a Valencia, California-native.
“I remember my parents took me to the very last game that the LA Kings ever played at the Great Western Forum,” Harper told COTP back in January. “They were my favorite team as a child…we used to watch games at The Forum when Gretzky was there.”
Harper most recently tallied 37 points in 59 games for the Panthers’ former AHL affiliate Portland Pirates. That was one year after he scored a career-high 32 goals in 75 games for the Chicago Wolves while in the St. Louis Blues’ organization.
“There’s times when you think like that,” said Harper when asked if he ever thought a goal in the NHL might never come. “I’ve been pretty confident in myself that it would come. Sometimes there is doubt over the years, but you just have to have confidence in yourself.”
Before making his NHL debut on Opening Night just over a week ago, his proudest moment as a hockey player had been scoring the overtime winner on Brayden Holtby in the 2012 AHL Outdoor Classic at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia as a member of the Adirondack Phantoms.
Through the first 4 NHL games of his career this season, Harper has been one of the best players in the Panthers’ bottom-6. Not only has he played a bit of an energy role as a 4th-liner, but he’s been able to put his skilled side on display by creating offense and coming close to finding twine on several occasions.
But tonight was finally the night for Harper.
Late in the 2nd period, Greg McKegg jumped the circle after a face-off loss in the defensive zone and lifted the stick of Matt Duchene allowing him to steal the puck. He broke out into a 2-on-1 and made a perfect saucer pass to Harper who beat his defender to the net and tapped home the feed.
The celebration that ensued was full of excitement and centered around Harper who jumped into the arms of his teammates.
Five minutes into the 3rd period came the other goal in an incredibly similar fashion as the first. Alex Petrovic stripped the puck from star player Gabriel Landeskog deep in the defensive zone and darted up the right wing. Harper tapped his stick just inside the offensive zone blueline and Petrovic sent him the puck.
A one-timer placed just inside the left post. And this time, he nailed the celebration: his signature windup leading to a double fist-pump on one knee.
“It’s a pretty incredible feeling,” said Harper after the thrilling victory and 2-goal performance.
The goals come at a time when the Panthers are without not only Jonathan Huberdeau and Nick Bjugstad, but also Jussi Jokinen who missed Saturday’s game nursing a tweaked knee and having some dental work done to repair damages incurred in the 3rd period on Thursday. Kyle Rau filled in for the Panthers’ 2nd-line veteran after being called up from the AHL on Friday, and he screened the goaltender on a Jason Demers goal from the point which was called back for being offside in the 1st.
“I’m just really excited to get that win especially with some guys being out of the lineup with injuries,” said Harper. “It just makes it even more important for everybody else to pick up some slack and that’s what we’re trying to do. That victory makes it so much better.”
But as we know and have talked about before, Harper isn’t a one-dimensional player; he had an impact all over the ice over the course of the entire game. Early on, he was left all alone in front of Semyon Varlamov where he made several forehand-backhand moves before putting the puck right into the Russian goaltender’s chest.
“I had that chance in the 1st period,” said Harper. “I was a little frustrated with myself that I didn’t put that one in. I told [Greg] McKegg, ‘I don’t know the next time I’m gonna get a chance like that.’ Thank goodness I scored in the 2nd, it kinda released some pressure.”
“I was trying to open him up and go 5-hole, but it seemed like he never really bit. I watched the replay, I think I had him on the backhand but it happens so fast, you never know.”
In the 2nd, Harper had a great backcheck in the neutral zone, and forcing the puck off the opponent’s stick allowed the Panthers to recover it and spend a good minute in the offensive zone.
At the end of the middle frame, the 4th line had a great shift once again, and Harper made a sweet feed from below the goal line to Jared McCann in the slot for a scoring opportunity. He finished the game off with a heavy hit along the boards on Landeskog which resulted in a small fight with Patrick Wiercioch, forcing both of them off for the remaining 2 minutes.
“I hope it wasn’t an ugly hit,” said Harper. “I just kind of hit him, I turned around and there was a guy right in my face so I said, ‘I guess I gotta do this.’ I don’t think I really had a choice.”
“I think he should just stick to the goal-scoring,” said Vincent Trocheck.
Harper’s first gave the Panthers a 2-1 lead headed into the locker room for the 2nd intermission after Aaron Ekblad struck with his 1st goal of the season on the power play. The second goal put them ahead by 3 after Jonathan Marchessault tallied his 3rd of the year in between. Vincent Trocheck made it 5-2 not long after with a dogged effort at the side of the net to push the puck through what little space there was.
Roberto Luongo made 26 saves on 28 shots while the Panthers put 38 towards the Avalanche net and controlled the possession game. The Avalanche snapped the Panthers’ streak of 8 straight penalty kills to start the season by scoring on their 9th time shorthanded in the 1st period. Florida went 1/6 on the power play.
“It was a big win,” said Marchessault. Last game, it was unfortunate that we didn’t come out hard in the third period. But tonight we did a really good job playing a good three periods and it was a good win.”