Panthers’ homecoming spoiled by Penguins in 5-1 loss

With a long, tough road-trip finally in their rear-view mirror, the Panthers looked to turn the page. However, it wasn’t going to be easy with the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins coming to town with Tom Rowe set to make his home coaching debut.

None other than Sidney Crosby opened the scoring for the Penguins just 3 minutes into the opening frame. The Panthers were positioned pretty well, but Crosby was left alone to set up a wrist shot from the right face-off circle and it went right past Roberto Luongo.

Just under 2 minutes later, Conor Sheary made it a 2-0 lead on a flukey goal. Aaron Ekblad and Jakub Kindl both tried to put a hip-check on Sidney Crosby at the defensive zone blue-line, but he got through it before his 2-on-1 pass to Sheary was sticked a way by Luongo. The puck bounced off the wall and towards Luongo’s leg as he unknowingly pulled it into the net.

The Penguins scored their 3rd goal of the 1st period on a deflection in front by Tom Kuhnhackl who picked up a rebound in the slot off a point shot and put it into the net easily.

“I’d say our start was probably the main thing that broke us down,” said Keith Yandle, who was a game-time decision and played in his 579th consecutive NHL game. “Letting them get a couple goal lead early in the game…against any team it’s tough to battle back when you’re down 3-0.”

The Panthers’s lone goal came in the 2nd period at the end of a 4-on-3 power play when Aleksander Barkov centered a pass from the bottom of the right face-off circle. Jaromir Jagr was there to receive it in the low slot and chipped it past Matt Murray. The goal was Jagr’s 6th of the season and 2nd in the last 5 games.

One-time Panther Matt Cullen scored his 7th of the season give the Penguins a 4-1 lead 6 minutes into the 3rd period. Scott Wilson shot the puck off Luongo from his knees in the left corner and Cullen was there to put the rebound 5-hole.

Murray finished with 28 saves on 29 shots while Luongo allowed 4 goals on 29 shots.

The 1st period was certainly the worst for the Panthers and things were cleaned up marginally through the following 2 frames. Just about everything was off from the drop of the puck: decision-making, defensive awareness, and passing. The forecheck was  essentially non-existent all night long and the Panthers had trouble creating off the rush without hesitating or forcing plays that weren’t there despite being in close proximity to the net.

Overall, it was a huge change from the game the Panthers played on Tuesday where they dominated in nearly all facets of the game. The team was clearly beat; the effort wasn’t there and neither was the willingness to go to the dirty areas or frustrate the Penguins who pretty much had things their way all night. Odd-man rushes were had often by the Penguins and the puck was moved freely around the defensive zone.

“We don’t look at that as a good excuse,” said head coach Tom Rowe when asked if the road-trip had an effect on the team on Thursday night. “We talked about that this morning. I know that’s what happens an awful lot, but we told the guys that they can’t do that.”

“You’ve got to be ready to go. It’s a tough, tough league. There’s parity right across the league and you can’t fall behind in too many games.”

Vancouver will be in town on Saturday as the Panthers will face Erik Gudbranson for the first time since he was traded away for Jared McCann in May. The Canucks have won 4 of their last 6 games and are coming off a 5-1 over the Lightning on Thursday which saw Jack Skille and Jayson Megna each score twice while Jacob Markstrom made 2 saves in relief of Ryan Miller who left with an injury.

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