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The Globe and Mail

Surprising Panthers have proven resilient

Florida Panthers right wing Kris Versteeg (32) skates in the offensive zone during the second period against the Boston Bruins at TD Garden.

Bob DeChiara-US PRESSWIRE/Bob DeChiara

Kevin Dineen is a man who seems to like words.

So far this season, the Florida Panthers' rookie head coach concedes, the word to describe his team is resilient. The injury bug came early and stuck with the team, which will play the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday night with seven forwards on the injured list, including their most important player, centre Stephen Weiss.

While the Panthers did go into the Christmas break off an 8-0 loss to the Boston Bruins, overall Dineen and general manager Dale Tallon have done an excellent job rebuilding the team in the wake of last season's house-cleaning. Many eyebrows were raised when Tallon followed the release or trades of many veteran players by signing a similar group of veterans, such as defencemen Ed Jovanovski and forward Tomas Fleischmann just to reach the NHL's minimum payroll requirement of $49-million (all currency U.S.) under this season's $64.1-million salary cap.

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However, the Panthers proved to be one of the Eastern Conference's best teams, sitting third by Tuesday with an 18-11-7 record despite the injuries and the fact Dineen is in his first NHL head coach's job.

"I like the word resilient because that's what we've had to be this year," Dineen said after the Panthers' game-day skate. "We're trying to keep a short-term focus right now and concentrate on the guys who are here.

The guys who are here are a large group of call-ups from the Panthers' American Hockey League farm team or prospects like rookie defenceman Erik Gudbranson who are seeing their ice time take a big leap.

But coming off a three-day break, Dineen says he has another word in mind for his team when they face the Leafs on Tuesday night. It came to him Monday night when he watched some other NHL teams coming back from a break for too much turkey, mashed potatoes and sweets.

"Sloppy pretty accurately describes most of the games last night because guys were coming off a break," Dineen said. "More than resilient, we'll need to be sharp."

That is a tall order, since forwards Weiss (undisclosed upper-body injury), Scottie Upshall (hip), Marcel Goc (upper body), Jack Skille (upper body), Sean Bergenheim (undisclosed lower-body injury), Mikael Samuelsson (upper body) and Marco Sturm (upper body) are all out of the lineup. In their place are a gaggle of promoted fourth-liners and AHLers, which Dineen is somehow keeping in contention despite a three-game losing streak going into the Christmas break. Someone suggested it might be his six years of experience as a head coach in the AHL where lineup changes are the norm thanks to NHL call-ups.

"American league experience is a good thing. Whether you're a coach or a player you learn mistakes will be made," Dineen said.

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Former Leaf Kris Versteeg, who bounced from the Chicago Blackhawks to the Leafs to the Philadelphia Flyers before finding a home with the Panthers, thinks his team is just used to playing without a full lineup. He also thinks Dineen should get a lot of the credit.

"[Dineen]is very systematic," Versteeg said. "We follow a system here. He wants you to play with confidence and not be scared to make plays.

"We haven't had a full lineup all season so we don't know what it's like to play fully healthy."

When it comes to himself, though, Versteeg knows what it's like to play fully healthy. After being dogged by health problems since his Blackhawks days, Versteeg had sports hernia surgery last May and is now playing the best hockey of his career. With Weiss as his centre and Fleischmann as the other winger on most nights, Versteeg leads the Panthers with 37 points in 35 games.

Since Weiss was injured last week, Versteeg moved to the Panthers' second line with centre Mike Santorelli and winger Tomas Kopecky. The top line is now centre Shawn Matthias with wingers Matt Bradley and Fleischmann.

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