Panthers' blue line surprisingly tough

TORONTO -- What's a nice way of asking the coach of a team whose blue-line corps doesn't blow you away with name recognition just why that ragtag group of defensemen has played so darn well so far this season.

Florida Panthers head coach Pete DeBoer started laughing as a certain ESPN.com writer fumbled and bumbled his way through the question Tuesday morning.

"Say it nicely," chuckled DeBoer.

He knew exactly what the question was. What's the deal with this group of six defensemen helping Florida carry the NHL's third-best defensive record going into Tuesday night's game at Air Canada Centre?

OK, everyone knows Bryan McCabe and Dennis Wideman. Those are top-four guys with brand-name stock. But has anyone noticed how well Jason Garrison, Mike Weaver, Dmitry Kulikov and Bryan Allen have played?

It's the best-kept secret of the young NHL season.

"You're sort of hidden away in South Florida but I think we've got as good a group of six as any in the league," Allen, 30, said Tuesday. "All six of us play and we all contribute in different ways. It's working right now."

Weaver, 32, a shutdown type who is key on the penalty kill, came over as a free agent from St. Louis. Wideman, 27, was a big addition from the Nathan Horton trade with Boston.

"I like the six guys that we've got," DeBoer said. "I think we've changed our identity back there from last year. Adding Wideman and Weaver, Kulikov taking another step, Garrison taking another step -- I think we're a much more mobile group, much better with the puck and smarter. We can break out of our end with tape-to-tape passes whereas in the past we did a lot of rimming and just tried to jam it out."

And you can tell that when you watch these Panthers play. They've become a better puck possession team and it starts on the back end. They're not just hammering it down the ice from their zone like they did so often last season.

Garrison is probably the biggest unknown of the group.

"Garrison is a great player -- he does it all," McCabe said. "He's big, strong, shoots the puck, good both in offense and defense."

Undrafted, Garrison was signed by the Panthers out of the University of Minnesota-Duluth two years ago, with Joe Nieuwendyk doing the recruiting for Florida at the time.

"Joe came down and saw me in college," Garrison said Tuesday after the morning skate. "I got to know him a little bit. He's such a great guy. I [was] just in awe when he came down to see me. So were my teammates. It was a cool experience."

A self-described late bloomer, the White Rock, British Columbia, native didn't really think hockey was a serious avenue until his senior year in high school. Then he got focused on it.

"The NHL was a far reach," Garrison said. "I was like 5-6 or 5-7, small and skinny. I started growing in my last year of high school, started hitting the gym every day and started filling out. Every summer I was telling myself I had to get bigger and stronger. I peaked out at 238 pounds and realized I had to slim down a little."

Now at 6-2 and 220 pounds, he was the fittest player in camp for the Panthers. The man is a rock. After missing two games with a groin injury, Garrison returns to the lineup Tuesday night.

"He played real well for us last season down the stretch," DeBoer said of Garrison, who played 39 games last season with the Panthers in his NHL rookie campaign. "He's got a shutdown-type body, he's a big wide body, strong guy, stakes well, can move the puck -- he's a good first-pass defenseman, he's got the physical tools to do that. We've kind of pushed him into that [shutdown] role and he's embraced it. He's done a real good job for us."

Garrison teams up with Weaver right now in that shutdown pair. Weaver has been an unheralded player during stops in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Vancouver and St. Louis. One Panthers observer told ESPN.com Tuesday that he's the guy who has impressed him the most so far. Weaver was plus-10 on a Blues team last season that didn't make the playoffs.

"Real unsung guy," said DeBoer. "He's one of those guys, he's not big, and he's not the quickest guy on the ice, but he's got a long stick and anticipates well. He knows his job, battles hard every night and he's been a key guy for us."

The other pairings feature Allen with Wideman and McCabe with Kulikov.

"Maybe people don't look at the names and say, 'Wow,' but so far we've been really good defensively and our D has been great," star goalie Tomas Vokoun, himself brilliant so far this season, said Tuesday morning.

"Our shots against are down, our chances against are way down," added Vokoun. "Blocking shots, playing hard -- they're making my life easier."

The numbers don't lie. Last season, the Panthers were dead last in shots allowed per game at 34.1. Entering play Tuesday night, they were 10th in the league at 27.7. Last season, the Panthers were 19th in goals against per game at 2.85; entering Tuesday, they were third overall at 2.00 goals against per game.

They need to be tight defensively because goals will be hard to come by again this season.

"We do have to take pride defensively, because obviously we go through spurts of scoring goals and then not scoring so many," Garrison said. "But it's part of the game. And we definitely look forward to trying to shut down the other team every night."

There's a chip on the collective shoulder of these Panthers. It's a motivating force.

"Right from training camp we read where people had us dead last in the Eastern Conference and maybe the whole league," Allen said. "Obviously that fuels some ambition. You want to prove people wrong."