It’s been a tale of two season for the Panthers over just the past few weeks.
Since winning 5 straight games on the road in the middle of February, they’ve now lost 7 of their last 8 games, including Friday night’s 7-4 track meet against the visiting Minnesota Wild.
It hasn’t been an easy season, but things were certainly looking up. Now, they’ve taken a turn for the worst, and it’s going to take an awful lot of wins to get the Panthers back into the playoff conversation.
“Tonight was a critical game,” said defenseman Mark Pysyk after Friday’s loss. “Every game here on out, it’s obvious that we need to get two points and start winning games here.”
The Panthers entered Friday’s game 7 points back of the Eastern Conference’s second wild card spot. They have 6 points fewer than the Islanders, although they hold the advantage in the ROW (Regulation and Overtime Wins) column, meaning the Panthers would have to surpass them in points to take sole possession of the position.
Not only that, but the Maple Leafs, Bruins, and Senators have held their ground as of late inside the division while the Lightning have surged, going 6-2-2 in their last 10 games. The Panthers will meet the Lightning on Saturday night for the final time this season, and the Leafs will visit the BB&T Center on Tuesday for the first of two remaining matchups.
On Friday though, things started as they have lately with the Wild opening the scoring. Jonas Brodin’s point shot was deflected past starter James Reimer, and the Panthers were already down nearly 8 minutes into the 1st period.
The see-sawing began when the Panthers struck back twice, first with a seeing eye slap shot by Jonathan Marchessault on the power play and less than 4 minutes later with a wrister by Mark Pysyk from the high slot that snuck through goaltender Darcy Kuemper.
Minnesota took the lead back when Eric Staal and Jason Pominville netted goals 2 minutes apart in the middle frame. Again, the Panthers responded as Jaromir Jagr caught Kuemper off guard with a shot that went 5-hole before Aleksander Barkov tooking a bouncing puck off the end-boards and deposited it into a wide open net to start the 3rd.
It was the only goal allowed by Devan Dubnyk, who replaced Kuemper to begin the final period. From there on out, it was all Minnesota as they’d go on two score 4 times in the final 15 minutes of the game, including twice on an empty net.
Two leads were lost by the Panthers; it was 2-1 after the 1st period and 4-3 early in the 3rd. It didn’t take long for either of them to vanish.
“Obviously it could have went both ways, but we always manage to find a way to not win hockey games,” said Jonathan Marchessault, who potted his 20th goal of the year. “Obviously there’s something we’re not doing right, especially me. I had a bad game defensively. I think everybody needs to help each other and try to pick us up. We need to turn that boat around.”
“It’s just disappointing.”
Reimer would go on to finish with 39 saves on 44 shots. It was the 5th time in the last 8 games that the Panthers allowed more than 30 shots and the second time in the last 3 that their opponent recorded at least 40 shots.
The Panthers have recorded 30 or more shots in 9 straight games and 40 or more in 4 straight, but it hasn’t meant much on the scoreboard as they’ve lit the lamp a total of 17 times in the last 8 games, 4 of which came on Friday.
Head coach Tom Rowe shuffled the lines for the second straight game, and it worked as the Panthers tallied more than 2 goals for the first time since February 24th, but the defense was there to back things up.
Jonathan Huberdeau moved down to the 2nd line with Vincent Trocheck and Colton Sceviour, while Reilly Smith skated with Barkov and Jagr. Jussi Jokinen went all the way down to the 4th line with Derek MacKenzie and Denis Malgin, the latter of which played in his first game since the end of February.
Finally, Thomas Vanek was reunited with Nick Bjugstad and Marchessault on the 3rd line.
“I know we played a heck of a game,” Rowe said. “I thought our guys competed hard. We were right there until the end. There were a couple rebounds that we didn’t pickup quick enough, but I thought our guys played a real good game.”