Panthers now much more than merely competitive


Just months ago, the powers that be in the NHL suggested it was just the neutral zone trap that had kept the Florida Panthers competitive and within one point of the playoffs each of their first two seasons. The words talent and Panthers were mutually exclusive.

Well, not any more. And the 13 players from the team's original roster should be enjoying a pretty good laugh right about now.

Today, the Panthers are the best in the NHL. Their 28 points are four better than their closest rival -- the Western Conference- leading Colorado Avalanche.

"The $65,000 question is can we sustain it?" said Florida goaltender John Vanbiesbrouck, whose team was on a seven-game winning streak going into last night's game against Vancouver. "I don't want it to end. No one in our locker room wants it to end. But every day you come in you don't know if it will end or not. I think . . . we're afraid to let it die."

Vanbiesbrouck adds that it isn't just fear that has this team winning.

"We have an ingrained strategy of how to play and successfully defend in our own end," he said. "I believe that's where your offense starts -- in any sport. The keys to winning is in defense. We had that and now we're executing the things we're told to do [offensively] and we've got a team willing to follow instructions. I think in professional sports that's very rare."

Slowly, but surely, they're convincing opponents.

"I guess they are for real," said Toronto coach Pat Burns, after Florida scored four third-period goals to beat his Maple Leafs. "That's why they came back and took it away from us."

It has been an amazing performance. And not only because the Panthers seem to have come from nowhere. They have come out of the pack at the same time they've been put up for sale.

"We're aware of it," said Vanbiesbrouck. "We talk about it. We don't want to ignore it. We'd like to know what our future is. But it's out of our focus in the atmosphere we've created on the ice."

Yashin badly advised

Alexei Yashin needs to get on the first plane out of Russia and return to Ottawa.

The Ottawa center refused to report to training camp in September and has been suspended ever since. Saying he's been shortchanged on his contract, he returned to Russia and wants the International Ice Hockey Federation to declare him a "defective" free agent.

The IIHF will hold an arbitration hearing Monday. "This is a very complicated case" said IIHF spokesman Kimmo Leinonen.

It doesn't look so complicated from here. Yashin's agent, Mark Gandler, negotiated Yashin's original contract and renegotiated a second. Now he wants to do it a third time?

L The important thing here is that the right decision be made.

Everyone in the NHL is waiting for the outcome. In Philadelphia, Flyers general manager Bobby Clarke said he thinks the 22-year-old is hurting his future -- and perhaps the future of every team.

"He's asking to be allowed not to honor his contract," Clarke said. "The players' association is supporting his position to make him a defective player. If that happens, I guess the contracts in the NHL are not valid.

"As managers we're all very foolish. Why would we want to pick up that type of aggravation? We do it because he can play hockey . . . but here's a kid making a million dollars. How much does he need? . . . Wherever he goes, what's it going to take? How are you ever going to make this guy happy? I'd be worried about it."

Cats and rats

Florida right wing Scott Mellanby had no idea what he was starting when he one-timed an errant rat against the wall in the Panthers' locker room a few weeks ago. That night, Mellanby went out and scored two goals, which goalie John Vanbiesbrouck later termed a "rat trick."

When Mellanby scored in the team's next game, a plastic rat was hurled onto the ice. Now there are "Rat Man" T-shirts and, said Vanbiesbrouck, "Every time we score a goal, there are plenty of little critters on the ice."

It's not octopus, but it's not Detroit either.

Around the rinks

* The San Jose Sharks have have acquired goalie Chris Terreri (3-0-0, 2.57 GAA) from New Jersey, apparently to be their No. 1 goalie, while Arturs Irbe (1-6-4, 4.73 GAA) pulls himself together.

* The Hanson Brothers, heroes from the movie "Slapshot" starring Paul Newman, will appear at the Capitals game tonight.

* Anaheim ended Colorado's 10-game unbeaten streak with a 7-3 win Wednesday as Mighty Ducks forward Paul Kariya extended his point-scoring streak to nine games, tying the club record set by Anatoli Semenov in November 1993; and Anaheim's Alex Hicks, called up from the Baltimore Bandits 10 days ago, had two goals and an assist in his NHL debut.

* Ottawa's Daniel Alfredsson took over the rookie scoring lead from Los Angeles' Vitali Yachmenev with his 18th point in Wednesday's 3-2 loss to Hartford.

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