In the press box of Madison Square Garden, perched high above the frozen rink, Dale Tallon looked on. Micheal Haley, an unlikely source of offense, just gave the Panthers a 3-zip lead with time winding down in the first period.
Known more for his punches than his points, the 31-year old Haley glided over to celebrate his first goal of the season just as Ondrej Pavelec, the New York Rangers’ backup goaltender, was given the nod to replace Henrik Lundqvist between the pipes.
“Well if I know this is gonna happen, I’ll be on TV a lot,” joked Tallon minutes later during a first-intermission interview on Fox Sports Florida. “I’m happy with the performance so far.”
When he last faced the cameras and spoke directly to the Panthers’ fanbase, it was the same moment during the first game of the season.
Tallon said he believed it would be four-to-six weeks before the entire team was in sync and the new plan set forth by the coaching staff would become natural.
Since losing five straight games from October 28th through November 7th, the Panthers have gone 6-4-0 while winning three of their last four games.
Over the last ten games, the Panthers have allowed 23 goals (excluding empty nets) and 317 shots, which comes out to an average of 2.3 goals against per game and 31.7 shots against per game.
In the ten games before that, the Panthers allowed 41 goals and 407 shots for an average of 4.1 goals against per game and 40.7 shots against per game.
They have six wins in their last 10 compared to just two in the span prior.
Their losses to the Chicago Blackhawks on Monday and the Los Angeles Kings nearly two weeks ago stand out as the most disappointing in the last while.
“I like the way we’re playing,” said Tallon on Tuesday night. “Once everyone buys in on a consistent basis we’re gonna have great nights.”
“We’ve had some games where we really played well and didn’t get the result that we wanted. We’ve had other games where we’ve had good first periods and bad second periods.”
Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Montreal, Tampa Bay, and Columbus. Those are just a few of the teams the Panthers have fallen victim to in the second period this season.
Little did he know, another bad second period was on its way. Three goals in the middle frame by the Rangers and one from Jonathan Huberdeau meant the three-goal lead was gone.
It would also propel the Panthers to the top of the league in second period goals allowed (35).
And before they knew it, Chris Kreider’s second goal of the game evened the score at 4 in the third period.
“It’s just a matter of inconsistency with inexperience and a lack of confidence in some of our young guys, believing that they can win, and it takes time,” said Tallon. “We’re very patient and I’m excited about our future.”
Denis Malgin, a key part of that future – and the present as he fills in on the top line for an injured Evgenii Dadonov – scored the eventual game-winning-goal with 69 seconds left in the third period.
Tallon, of course, was reinstated as the Panthers’ General Manager following a tumultuous 2016-17 campaign which saw the team finish with the sixth-fewest points in the league after a division title the year before.
He, along with the rest of the Panthers’ management team, opted to leave two of the team’s top six scorers – including 30-goal man Jonathan Marchessault and two-time 50-point winger Reilly Smith – unprotected at the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft.
The league’s newest franchise, the Vegas Golden Knights, were seemingly allowed to take Marchessault as long as they agreed to also take Smith – and his soon-to-kick-in 5-year, $25 million contract extension – in a trade.
The Panthers got back a 2018 fourth-round draft pick.
The moves turned out to be less-than-ideal for the Panthers who, although have seen an uptick in offense from most of their top-6 over last year, have struggled to find consistent production from the bottom half of their lineup.
Through 19 and 22 games respectively this season, Marchessault – recently named the NHL’s First Star of the Week with three consecutive three-point outings – has 22 points while Smith has 19.
Meanwhile, hoping to strike the perfect combination, the Panthers have tried at least seven different players – aside from Vincent Trocheck – on their second line.
The Panthers haven’t had many injuries, but the ones they’ve had have exposed their lack of forward depth, including the aforementioned Dadonov, as well as Radim Vrbata, Derek MacKenzie, Colton Sceviour, and Jared McCann.
That, coupled with inexperience and inconsistency, especially on the backend, has left the Panthers trudging through the first quarter or so of the season.
“We missed McCann for 4 or 5 weeks,” Tallon said on Tuesday night. “He’s really developed into a solid center for us.”
Tallon wasn’t at the Panthers’ helm when the deal was made bring McCann to South Florida in exchange for fan-favorite Erik Gudbranson last May, but he seems to have grown to like the 21-year old forward.
McCann has goals in two of his last three games and seven points in 13 total games.
“New coaches, new system, a lot of new players, a lot of young players, inexperienced players, but they’re all buying in,” said Tallon.
Keith Yandle is the Panthers’ only defenseman with over 300 NHL games, the point at which Tallon believes players are truly savvy and and established at the position.
Mike Matheson is playing in his second NHL season while Mackenzie Weegar and Ian McCoshen are both in their first.
With the Panthers sitting three points out of the third spot in a weak Atlantic Division, naturally, Tallon will be on the lookout for deals that could make the team better.
Both Bob McKenzie of TSN and Nick Kypreos of Sportsnet have stated within the past couple of weeks that the Panthers are on the lookout for a scoring winger.
Tallon is no stranger to wheeling and dealing and has been steady in his approach to trades over the years.
“We’ll trade if makes sense for us long-term,” he said. “We’re not gonna bandaid it. We’re gonna see how it develops here the next few weeks. We’re excited about what’s happening.”
Evander Kane of the Buffalo Sabres and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins of the Edmonton Oilers are just a couple of the forward names rumored to be on the market.
Alex Petrovic, who recently re-entered the Panthers’ line-up after serving as a healthy scratch for eight straight games, could be used as a trade chip.
But whether or not the Panthers are a trade or two away from being a playoff team is certainly debatable.
It’s why Tallon should be wary of any move that doesn’t take the future of the organization into account.
“We’re building something here that’s gonna be special for the next ten years, that’s our goal. We want to win multiple Cups and be an exciting team to watch.”