It wasn’t easy, but the Panthers stuck with the game plan on Saturday night en route to a much-needed 2-1 victory over the visiting Nashville Predators.
On Jagr Night, the 44-year old found the scoresheet but probably not in the way he would’ve like. Aside from 2 penalties for tripping and holding, Jagr tallied a secondary assist on Jonathan Marchessault’s team-leading 12th goal of the season which gave the Panthers a 2-1 advantage half-way through the 3rd frame.
Somehow, he was able to sling the puck on net and put it through a seam between the post and Nashville goaltender Juuse Saros, who stopped 32 of 34 shots on the night.
“I thought it was great the way guys battled,” said head coach Tom Rowe. “We’ve got a lot of injuries. We really talked as a group to not let that get in the way and whoever’s in the lineup has to perform and execute. We had two lines there with a lot of inexperience on it and I thought they played unbelievable.”
The penalty kill was solid for both teams as the Panthers killed off 5 opportunities for the Predators and couldn’t score on 4 of their own chances with the man-advantage.
Greg McKegg opened the scoring for the Panthers early in the 1st period with his second goal of the season and second in as many games when the puck bounced to him off the boards, allowing him to make a move to the backhand right at the top of the crease.
In net was James Reimer who was named the starter after Roberto Luongo was injured by a puck during the pre-game warm-ups. Reimer turned in an impressive performance and stopped the first 21 shots he faced before Craig Smith scored on the Predators’ 22nd shot of the game at 5:03 of the 3rd period.
A mixup at the middle of the ice allowed a turnover at the Panthers’ bench door to turn into a 2-on-1, which Smith would use to deposit the puck into the top shelf easily. Reimer went on to stop the final 7 shots of the game, giving him 28 saves on 29 faced.
Luongo left the game after appearing briefly on the bench in the 1st, turning the backup duties over to 25-year old team account and sales executive Bobby Segin. Formerly a goaltender for University of Connecticut, he has served as the team’s practice goalie for some time and signed an amateur try-out contract in case he was needed to step onto the ice.
“That’s the great thing about the that goalies we have, they’re both terrific,” said Rowe. “[Luongo] is day-to- day right now and we’ll see what happens. Reimer came in and did an unbelievable job.”
The Panthers also lost another forward to injury with Nick Bjugstad leaving late in the 1st period after suffering was appeared to be some sort of groin or leg injury. He took a defensive zone face-off and fell awkwardly while fighting for the puck. After skating hard to exit the zone, he reached down for his leg and turned towards the bench just before entering the offensive zone as a trailer.
Bjugstad left the game and did not return.
The injuries to Bjugstad and Luongo come at a time when the Panthers are already without Huberdeau, Barkov, Petrovic, and Griffith with 3 players called up from the AHL in Paul Thompson, Greg McKegg, and Michael Sgarbossa. The three have been reliable for the Panthers so far, but asking them to take on even more difficult minutes isn’t ideal.
Jared McCann, who was called up on Friday after the injury to Seth Griffith, suited up and played well in his first game back with the Panthers following a 15-game stint in the AHL. He recorded 2 quality shots on goal and was on the ice for 5 scoring chances and 0 against.
“[Tom Rowe] showed confidence in me,” said McCann. “When he does that, it gives me confidence. I tried to make some plays, but at the same time I want to keep it simple and do my job.”
The victory, however, was partially overshadowed – and understandably so – after a shooting at the nearby Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport left 5 people dead and another 8 wounded hours before the game.
Mike Matheson, as well as several other players, recognized those affected by the tragedy by writing “FLL” – the airport’s abbreviation – on their skates. The team also held a moment of silence on the video board prior to puck drop.
“I was sitting in my apartment when I heard about the news,” said Matheson. “It’s pretty crazy when you think of what happened. I just felt like I wanted to do something to recognize the people that were affected by what happened and obviously the people that stepped in and probably saved a lot of lives.”
It’ll be a quick and difficult turnaround for the Panthers as they’ll face the Boston Bruins on Saturday night. The Bruins lost 4-3 to the Oilers on Thursday, and it’s sure to be a tightly contested game as the Panthers are 2 points behind the division rivals for 2nd place in the Atlantic.