Panthers remain confident despite recent stretch of frustrating losses

Image courtesy of @turbuL3NT2 / COTP Photography

The Panthers’ rollercoaster ride of a season has continued over the past few weeks. 

After winning 5 straight road games, including being the first team in the league this season to sweep the 3-game trip to California, the Panthers have gone 1-4-1 in their last 6 match-ups, keeping them on the outside of a tight divisional playoff race.

Thomas Vanek was acquired at last Wednesday’s trade deadline from the Red Wings to help bolster the team’s offense – specifically the power play –  however, the Panthers have scored 0 even-strength goals in their last 2 games and 8 goals on their last 189 shots.

Vanek hasn’t found the scoresheet in the 2 games he’s play in since the trade, but he came incredibly close on a number of occasions on Saturday night, as did several other players including Jason Demers, who hit the post, and Nick Bjugstad, who had a handful of grade-A chances.

The Panthers have also allowed the same number of goals as the Pittsburgh Penguins while scoring a remarkable 60 less, making it clear that scoring has been an issue this season

Frustration appeared to boil over for interim head coach Tom Rowe following the disappointing 2-1 loss to the Dallas Stars.

His 63-second post-game press conference included him calling out Reilly Smith for making poor decisions that lead to the two goals against, the last of which eventually doomed the team in the final minute.

“You try to be professional about it,” said Smith about how he handled the situation of being called out. “It happens, and it’s never good. I hold myself pretty accountable, and a couple slip-ups last game probably cost us.”

“If it happens, it happens, there’s really nothing for me to say about it.”

Smith has struggled this season, especially as of late, after signing a 5-year, $25 million contract extension during the off-season. The 25-year old recorded a career-high 25 goals last season and finished 1 point short of his total from two seasons before with Boston.

His last goal came over a month ago on February 3rd against Anaheim and he has 8 assists in his last 17 games while shooting at a career-low 7.8 percent.

Bjugstad has struggled as well, posting just a goal and an assist in 9 games since scoring twice on February 15th during the Panthers’ 5-game winning streak.

In an effort to jumpstart the team’s offense, the middle-6 was tweaked on Monday with Vincent Trocheck centering Vanek and Jonathan Marchessault, while Bjugstad centered Smith and Jussi Jokinen.

“We haven’t scored a 5-on-5 goal in 8 periods,” said Rowe, “so we’re not gonna keep the lines the same way, that’s just insanity.”

The latter of which was a line that clicked for the Panthers in the playoffs as the trio combined for 7 goals and 16 points in the 6-game series against the Islanders.

While the top line remains intact with Huberdeau, Barkov, and Jagr, Michael Sgarbossa will center Derek MacKenzie and Colton Sceviour on the 4th-line, delegating Shawn Thornton to the press box, at least for now.

Denis Malgin is expected to be scratched for the 4th time in 5 games since being recalled from the AHL on February 26th.

“[Our line] ended well, I thought in the playoffs we did a good job,” said Bjugstad of being put back with Smith and Jokinen. “We haven’t scored a lot at 5-on-5 so that’s the big thing right now, just finding ways to score.”

“We had good chemistry during the first few games of the playoffs last year and going into the playoffs as well,” said Smith. [Playing with different players] gives you a little bit of a different outlook.”

Despite the team’s struggles to score, they still – remarkably – find themselves 2 points out of a playoff spot with some key divisional games still to be played in the coming weeks, as well as meetings with the Blue Jackets, Blackhawks, and Capitals.

Before that, however, they’ll face the Rangers on Tuesday, who will come to town after facing the Lightning on Monday night.

“The beauty of it is we’re still very much in it,” said James Reimer of the playoff race. “We’ve had a little bit of help here, so you gotta take advantage of it. Just get going, have some fun, play the right way, and good things will happen.”

“If [the end of the season] comes and it didn’t work out, we can maybe look back on some things and question or doubt some of the things that happened,” said captain Derek MacKenzie. “But for right now, we’re in this thing and I like our chances.”

Jokinen set to retire

Olli Jokinen, the Panthers’ franchise leader in goals (188) and goals (419), will officially retire from the NHL as a member of the team at Tuesday night’s game against the Rangers. Jokinen played in 567 games over 7 seasons with the Panthers and served as captain for 4 of them. His 91 points during the 2006-07 season ranks as the 3rd-highest point total in a season by a Panthers player.

Jokinen has been active in the hockey community since last playing two years ago, starting the South Florida Hockey Academy with Radek Dvorak and Thomas Vokoun as a place for players of a wide range of ages to play and train in a highly-competitive environment.

He’ll be honored with a highlight video during a TV timeout in the 2nd period and an appearance on the stage behind the home net.

Kampfer returns to face former team

With the Rangers traveling to Sunrise, Steven Kampfer is expected to face the Panthers for the first time on Tuesday. Kampfer was traded by the Panthers to New York on November 8th for defenseman Dylan McIlrath, who was recently dealt to the Red Wings for Thomas Vanek.

Kampfer played in 73 games for the Panthers over 3 seasons, recording 2 goals, 6 assists, and 8 points. He was recalled on March 5th from the AHL where he has spent most of the season playing for the Hartford Wolf Pack.

Tanner Glass, who was drafted by the Panthers in 2003, was also recalled by the Rangers and will likely suit up as well.

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