Panthers Find Their Game Again on Road Trip

There haven’t been too many negative aspects of this Panthers season — largely because of how consistent their game has been over the past few months.


So when they began to stray away from their usual course two weeks ago, there was some slight cause for concern as the playoffs are just a month away. 


Last Thursday’s 3-0 loss at home to Nashville was another night of disappointment for the Panthers. They had dropped three consecutive games in regulation for the first time all season — and trailed at least 3-0 in each of their last four games. 


The team who was so good at locking teams down from mid January to early March had everything going for them.


From Jan. 22 to March 9, the Panthers gave up two or fewer goals in 18 of 20 games and did not concede more than three in any of those — going 17-3-0 over that span. 


They were playing elite hockey — until they hit a bump in the road. 


Before we get into the skid, it’s important to note that the Panthers lost Aaron Ekblad, their top-line defenseman, to a lower-body injury in their 5-1 win against the Flames on March 9 and haven’t had him back since. 


March 12 in Dallas, the Panthers were in unfamiliar territory, trailing 3-0 to the Stars in just the second period. They were able to rally with four unanswered and win the game. 


They slacked at the start but picked up the two points, don’t panic.


It happened again.


Two nights later in Carolina, they were dominated.


The Hurricanes beat the Panthers 4-0 and handed them their first multi-goal loss in nearly two months.


It continued. 


The following game, Tampa put four straight goals past Florida before the Panthers clawed back to make it a 4-3 game. The Lightning sealed away an empty netter and Andrei Vasilevskiy had 47 saves in a 5-3 win, but the second half of this game wasn’t bad at all — they just ran into a goalie who was from another planet.


Nashville would be the next thorn in Florida’s side. 


Looking for a stronger performance on home ice, the Panthers were already in a hole as they were without their Aleksander Barkov (lower-body injury) and defenseman Dmitry Kulikov (serving two-game suspension).


The red hot Predators, who had points in 15 straight games when they arrived in Sunrise (13-0-2), weren’t going to be an easy out and they proved it. Nashville scored three goals, locked down the Panthers offense,and had a top performance in net from Kevin Lankinen — who picked up his first shutout in three years.


“We’re not close to our game now,” Panthers head coach Paul Maurice said following the loss to Nashville. “Right now we’re a rush team with no speed, which wouldn’t relate at all to the team that you’ve seen in the past… I got lots of faith in them, I’m going to have to find a way to get it out of them.”


Four full days off between the Tampa and Nashville games wasn’t enough to get the Panthers out of their mini funk — and a few tough road games were ahead. 


On Saturday, the Panthers went into Madison Square Garden to face the Rangers, a team who, like them, were still sniffing for the top spot in the Eastern Conference. 


Still without Ekblad, Barkov and Kulikov, the Panthers had even more bad luck on the horizon, losing the service of their other top-pair defenseman, Gustav Forsling, to an illness. 


Florida had to shuffle some things around. Uvis Balinskis was called up from AHL Charlotte for the Nashville game and 22-year-old Tobias Bjornfot made his Panthers debut in place of Forsling against the Rangers. 


Kyle Okposo and Steven Lorentz reentered the forward lineup while Ryan Lomberg was a healthy scratch for the first time since the 2021-22 season.


Missing three of their top players, on a losing streak, against undoubtedly one of the best teams in the NHL was a disaster waiting to happen. 


But it wasn’t.


Florida came out strong against the Rangers. They forechecked hard, put pressure on the opposition and most importantly, they didn’t get dominated. 


The Panthers scored the first two goals on Saturday night before the Rangers scored two unanswered of their own. 


Each side would exchange goals late in the third before the game entered the overtime period. 


Florida ended up losing 4-3 in the shootout, but they picked up their first points in 11 days and fought to the end against a team who now sits one point ahead of them in the standings. 


“I liked our game tonight.  I’m really happy with it,” Maurice said after the loss to New York. “It’s been a little bit of a grinder for us. The element that we haven’t been able to grab hold of in our games was in it tonight. I was very happy with it.”


The Rangers game was a step in the right direction and they had an opportunity to build off that less than 24 hours later in Philadelphia. 


On Sunday night, the Panthers had the second half of their back-to-back, this time against the Flyers. 


Anthony Stolarz got the call after Sergei Bobrovsky started five consecutive games and Dmitry Kulikov returned from his suspension. Ryan Lomberg also got back into the lineup.


The Panthers continued where they left off in New York.


Sam Reinhart got the ball rolling with his 49th goal of the season to open the scoring 10:34 into the first period. Vladimir Tarasenko doubled the Panthers lead in the second period with his 20th goal of the season (third with Florida). 


Carter Verhaeghe put the Panthers up 3-0 in the third with his 32nd goal of the season and that just about wrapped things up.


The Flyers would make it a 3-1 game but Sam Reinhart put a cherry on top of his historic offensive season with his 50th goal of the season — becoming just the second player in Panthers history to do so (Pavel Bure did it twice).  


After losing four straight (0-3-1), the Panthers finally got back into the win column with a 4-1 win against the Flyers, doing so without Barkov, Forsling and Ekblad.


“I think we built off last game (in New York),” Brandon Montour said in Philadelphia. “Last two weeks we haven’t liked the way we’ve been playing… It’s gonna happen with long seasons. So we want to get back to what made us successful this year. I thought the guys did a good job today.”


There’s only 11 games left in the Panthers regular season and they stopped the bleeding at an opportune time. 


They are first in the Atlantic Division and trail the Rangers by just one point for first in the East. 


With a three-game home stand coming up, the Panthers will see the Bruins on Tuesday, in what will be a huge four-point swing with the top two teams in the division playing for first as the season dwindles down. 


The Panthers may get Barkov back for that game and would hope Forsling can return too. Aaron Ekblad isn’t too far off either. 


In less than a month, the two week slump would be all but forgotten as the Panthers will be playing in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. 


The race to the finish line will see multiple teams battle for the top seed in the East and the Panthers should be right there in the mix as the post season approaches.  

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