Photo: Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

Every year the Blackhawks do a father/son trip, usually involving some kind of bonding excursion. This year it took the form of a golf outing while dodging alligators in the Florida heat. The event spilled over into the social media arena, with Daniel Carcillo dissing the Lepisto twosome for bird-watching instead of shooting birdies. But fun and games aside, we have two difficult contests to get through when we’re not wading through the Everglades looking for a #4 Titleist, starting with the new-look Florida Panthers.

This past March, we were chuckling to ourselves as we prepared to face a Panthers team assembled out of the remnants of the league-basement Florida squad from the previous year, and the bargain bin cast-offs picked up at the end of the free agent signing period. It was a joke on skates, the money-saving brainchild of former Blackhawks GM Dale Tallon, and everyone expected a rout.

Everyone except the Panthers, it turns out: they caught the Blackhawks flat-footed and scrapped their way to a 3 – 2 victory. But a much different, and much more dangerous Florida team awaits the ‘Hawks tonight. Hopefully the Blackhawks’ players don’t leave their A-game on the fairway.

This past off-season, Dale Tallon went shopping, and while some of his decisions met with more chuckles from the armchair quarterback crowd, the results speak volumes. Florida is 6-4-1, sitting 6th in the East, and Tallon’s newcomers are delivering. Tallon didn’t have to look far to find the pieces to the puzzle he was assembling in Florida: he just looked at the 2009-10 Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks roster, and started writing checks.

First he gobbled up the MASSIVE contract he saddled the ‘Hawks organ-eye-zation with upon his departure, trading for defenseman Brian Campbell. He then added utility winger/center Tomas Kopecky and sniper Kris Versteeg, to complement never-lived-up-to-billing Jack Skille who he had acquired at the end of last season.

Other veterans and up-and-comers were added as well, in the form of forwards Scottie Upshall, Tomas Fleischmann, and Marcel Goc; defenseman Ed Jovanovski and goaltender Jose Theodore. And in a surprise move, Tallon declined to renew the contract of franchise goaltender Tomas Vokoun (who, incidentally, has a .920 save percentage and a 7-1-0 record with the Caps this year — fool-idiot move, Dale).

But these players are paying off. Florida sits above the midway point in the league in most offensive and defensive categories, in which they embodied the term “dead last” for most of the 2010-11 season. But most noteworthy is their power play, sitting above 22% on the year. The Blackhawks had better try to keep the sticks down this game, or it’s going to cost them. By comparison, just FYI, the Blackhawks’ power play is next-to-last in the league at a where’s-the-Viagra 8.9%.

But is it the new boys that are making the difference? Well, Campbell and Versteeg lead the team in scoring, with 5 goals and 17 assists between them — 3 power play goals for Steeger, plus 13 blocked shots for Campbell. Fleischmann is 5+5=10 with 2 PPG; Kopecky is 1+5=6; and Theodore is holding his own with a 4-2-1 record, .913 SVG. That’s a good return on investment so far, and a solid start to the season. The Panthers are certainly worthy of more respect and concern than the team we faced 8 months ago.

Speaking of concern, there was plenty to go around when word hit the Twitterscape that Duncan Keith had left the bench during the 2nd period of the Blackhawks’ win over Nashville. Keith had blocked a shot with his hand, and did not return to the bench. He did not practice with the team on Wednesday, though he is on the trip. Officially he is “day-to-day”, but the smart money says we won’t see him on the ice until after the team gets back to the Central time zone.

Defensive pairings that were practicing together on Wednesday were Nick Leddy with Sean O’Donnell (finally, a chance to see what the pairing that I have suggested since October can do), Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson stay together; and Sami Lepisto will skate with Steve Montador. How Head Coach Joel Quenneville will split up the minutes with those three units is anybody’s guess, though it’s safe to say that Seabs and Hjammer will carry the load.

On the offensive side, last game it was Patrick Kane’s turn to kick in the afterburners, notching 2 tallies himself and adding a helper on Leddy’s goal. But it was Viktor Stalberg with the game winner (second straight game) in the extra frame as the ‘Hawks edged the Predators 5 – 4. Stalberg seems to be enjoying his time playing on the first line with Captain Jonathan Toews, and if he keeps pumping in the points like he has the last two games, he will earn himself a permanent spot up front with the big boys — where we were hoping he would be when we acquired him in the first place.

Corey Crawford had what could probably be described as his worst game of the year against Nashville. But if history shows us anything, it’s that he will likely be on fire against Florida: the games after his “bad” outings are usually stand-on-your-head affairs.

Administrative nonsense: For Chicago, Duncan Keith is out with a hand injury; Florida is without the services of winger Sean Bergenheim and backup goaltender Scott Clemmensen. Crawford will start for Chicago, expect Theodore to get the nod for the Cats.

East coast game means early start time, 6:30pm Central is your puck drop. Comcast SportsNet has the TV coverage, WGN AM-720 for broadcast radio; XM subscribers look for the game on channel 215; Sirius Premiere customers will find the game on channel 214.

Follow Cheer The Anthem on Twitter @CheerTheAnthem and on Facebook
Download Cheer The Anthem’s Android app for immediate alerts to new posts