A flurry of action late in the third period from the Florida Panthers quelled any attempt from the Montreal Canadiens to earn a spot in the finals of the Hull Rookie Tournament.
Three goals in a span of three minutes and two seconds pulled the Panthers out from under a 2-1 deficit and into a 4-2 lead they’d hold onto for good. The win puts the team into a meeting with the Ottawa Senators in the finals and creates a match-up of Phoenix and Montreal for third place.
Toni Koivisto, a late-round (200th overall) draft pick of the Panthers, put the dagger in the Canadiens’ collective hearts with two goals on the night, including the game-winner at 13:44 of the third period.
The winner came on a great burst of speed past a Canadiens defenceman before he deposited a quick, low shot into the net behind goaltender Olivier Michaud.
Koivisto, who garnered player of the game honours for Florida, has given opposing defencemen fits with his speed and shiftiness all tournament long and his points on the night gives him a total of four goals and two assists. Though the Panthers disappeared almost completely in the second period, Koivisto was among those who led the late-game charge.
“This is way different than what we play in Finland,” he says of the physical style of play at the tournament, “but it’s OK because I like it very much.”
Koivisto will be returning to Finland for one more year overseas with his club team, Lukko Rauma, but the 6-foot-0, 180-pounder isn’t going quietly.
“I try to be fast and take a lot of shots, make a lot of plays,” he says of his style, which has some consistencies with that of Panthers forward Niklas Hagman, who excelled at the tournament last year and earned a spot on the NHL roster.
Florida took the majority of the play in the first period to the Habs and sniped their first goal nine minutes into the game when Koivisto cut across the crease and deflected a pass from teammate Greg Watson behind Michaud.
The second period was a different story. The line of Jozef Balej, Tomas Plekanec and Johan Eneqvist dominated the play each time it was out on the ice and the other lines seemed to feed off their energy. The majority of the play was in Florida’s end and goaltender Billy Thompson continued his stellar play in the tournament by continually turning rushes aside.
The game was eventually tied when Plekanec, Montreal’s player of the game with two goals, skated through the slot, recovered a weak shot from the point that had found its way through traffic and swiped it passed a surprised Thompson. A couple shifts earlier, Thompson had stoned both Balej and Plekanec and solid scoring opportunities.
“We’ve been working really well together the last two games,” says Balej. “Since (Eneqvist) was added to our line after the first game, it has helped us out because he has good skills and can pass the puck.”
However, he notes that the combination of languages (Slovak, Czech and Swedish) does make for some tricky communication at times.
“It’s kind of funny because I’ll be on the bench speaking to Tomas in Czech and Slovak and Johan will always be like ‘What?, What?, What?,’ so I have to turn and explain it to him in English,” says Balej.
He says the line keeps it simple on the ice by communicating with English words that they all know, and it seems to be working.
“I had a bunch of chances out there,” he admits, “but I just couldn’t put the puck in the net.”
Balej talks of a particular break where he was one on one with the goalie, appeared to have him beaten with a deke and then was stopped trying to go backhand: “I’m trying to visualize it in my head right now so that I can learn from it and maybe try something different next time.”
So far, Plekanec has been the benefactor of the line, notching his third and fourth goals of the tournament. But after pacing the team with solid play for most of the game, the Canadiens were burnt by a sudden Florida attack.
“I think we tried to stick with the system that was working for us the whole game,” he says. “But I don’t know what happened back there. They just kept scoring.”
The game had shaped up to be another goaltending duel, but the Panther found enough holes in Michaud late to make up for some of the great saves he’d made on them earlier in the game.
“We worked pretty hard and believed in winning,” says Koivisto about the team’s comeback.
Jonathan Gagnon, a late addition to the team, and Sean O’Connor scored the other goals for Florida.