The Florida Panthers didn’t hide their feelings about the Washington Capitals on Thursday: It wasn’t just a typical mid-February victory to the Panthers, who are desperately fighting for their postseason lives with less than two months left in the regular season. It was a game Florida built its road trip around winning and expended every bit of energy possible to take. The Panthers openly referred to it as their biggest game of the year.
Two days later, it all led to a letdown. Florida ended its four-game road trip with a 7-3 rout at the hands of the Nashville Predators, blowing an early lead in Tennessee to settle for a .500 trip with both losses by four goals.
The Panthers’ loss to the St. Louis Blues on Tuesday, though, was on the second night of a back-to-back set. Florida had a day off before this one and still got blown out.
Panthers hold off Capitals in ‘biggest game of the season,’ move into tie for wild card
After their win against the Capitals temporarily vaulted them into a tie for the second and final wild card in the Eastern Conference, the Panthers (28-25-6) are again on the outside of the postseason picture and will end the day at least one point behind the New York Islanders.
Although Florida has still won 12 of 21 and secured points in 14 of 21, the Panthers has also lost 3 of 5 — the sort of skid Florida can hardly afford given its precarious place in the standings with only 23 games remaining.
The win in Washington, star goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky said Thursday, was “a complete game.” The loss to the Predators (26-21-6) in Nashville had basically no redeeming qualities for the Panthers, who even lost defenseman Radko Gudas to an injury in the second period.
Florida gave up the first goal of the game in just 2:36 when the Predators capitalized on a failed clear and immediately the odds became long for the Panthers: Florida’s seven come-from-behind victories are still tied for the fewest in the NHL this year.
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The Panthers did come back, though, and led 2-1 with 7:51 left in the first period after wingers Nick Cousins and Matthew Tkachuk scored less than five minutes apart, but it just set up Florida for another disappointment: The Panthers have now been on the wrong end of 15 comeback wins, tied for the sixth most in the league.
Bobrovsky, whose .943 save percentage across the prior month was the best in the NHL, lasted just 27:40 and faced only 11 shots before getting benched with Florida down 4-2. His .636 save percentage was tied for his worst single-game mark of the year and was his worst performance since before Thanksgiving.
Florida had its chances, too, and couldn’t capitalize. The Panthers also had nine high-danger chances in the first two periods and went into the second intermission with more expected goals than Nashville. Florida’s only two goals came when Cousins pounced on a loose puck in the slot and when Tkachuk tipped in a point shot by star defenseman Brandon Montour.
Once they fell behind, the Panthers never mounted any sort of a comeback and missed another chance to start one when they failed on another power play in the second period.
A little more than a minute after Predators center Colton Sissons pushed Nashville’s lead to 4-2 with a breakway goal, defenseman Marc Staal drew a penalty and gave Florida its first power play of the game. The Panthers fired three shots at Predators goaltender Kevin Lankinen and never beat him — their power-play skid hit 1 for 27 before they finally got one in the third period — and star defenseman Roman Josi scored to stretch Nashville’s lead to 5-2 less than six minutes after the power play ended.
Florida’s only only other goal came after it fell behind 6-2 and the Predators dashed any hope at a desperation comeback by scoring an empty-net goal with 5:46 to go.
Now the Panthers return home for 10 straight games in Florida, with little room left for another performance like this. The margin for error is nearly gone for the defending Presidents’ Trophy winners, who are now once again a clear underdog just to make the 2023 Stanley Cup playoffs.
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