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Panthers trying to rediscover winning path

Meeting held to address issues stemming from injuries to key players, blown leads

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- The Florida Panthers' locker room door remained closed for a brief meeting following a 4-2 loss to the Washington Capitals at Verizon Center on Saturday.

The Panthers are 12 games into their season, but they know they are at an important juncture, with injuries to key players piling up along with some recent losses.

Right wing Jaromir Jagr was the latest to go down. He missed the final two periods Saturday because of a sore groin.

Although coach Gerard Gallant said Jagr is day to day and the injury didn't seem serious, the Panthers can't afford to lose any more top players. They've been without center Nick Bjugstad (broken hand) and left wing Jonathan Huberdeau (Achilles tendon surgery) since the preseason, and left wing Jussi Jokinen (lower body) since Oct. 20.

The Panthers' loss to the Capitals was their fifth in seven games (2-5-0), leaving them 5-6-1 heading into a pivotal Atlantic Division game against the Tampa Bay Lightning at BB&T Center on Monday (7:30 p.m. ET; FS-F, SUN, NHL.TV). Their 11 points leaves them 14th in the 16-team Eastern Conference; only the New York Islanders (10) and the Carolina Hurricanes (nine) have fewer points.

Video: FLA@WSH: Oshie beats Luongo up high off rush

"Obviously we need to battle through," forward Jonathan Marchessault said. "The points are as important right now as after Christmas, just after Christmas it's way harder to get them. So obviously it's not a turn we want to take, but we need to refocus and everyone be on the same page."

Marchessault, who signed with the Panthers as an unrestricted free agent July 1, has done his part to pick up the slack offensively, leading the Panthers with 12 points and tying for the lead with Vincent Trocheck with six goals, but the injuries are taking a toll.

The seemingly ageless Jagr, who will turn 45 on Feb. 15, led the Panthers with 66 points last season. Jokinen was second with 60 points, Huberdeau tied for third with 59 and Bjugstad ranked eighth with 34 points in 67 games.

"Most of the teams have a lot of injuries and it's happening for us right now," center Aleksander Barkov said. "We just need to battle through that, and when they come back we need to get our game back."

Gallant said Jokinen and Bjugstad might be able to play at some point this week. And with Jagr not expected to be out long, the Panthers' fortunes could turn around quickly. They just need to find a way to stay afloat in the meantime.

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"You can't make excuses for injuries because everybody has them," Gallant said. "But obviously with the depth of our hockey team it's really testing us right now. The guys are working hard and competing. Sometimes you make mistakes. When you play against a great team like Washington, they'll take advantage of your mistakes and we just made too many."

Despite being outshot 18-4 in the second period, the Panthers took a 2-1 lead on Reilly Smith's power-play goal 2:32 into the third. Goaltender Roberto Luongo was brilliant up to that point, but the Panthers' repeated breakdowns proved too much for him to withstand and the Capitals took advantage to score three consecutive goals in a span of 4:45.

"You don't like to see [breakdowns] happen, but you look at our lineup and there's a bunch of kids playing there," Gallant said. "Things happen and it wasn't just the kids that had the breakdowns. We had a lot kids in our lineup and we're playing against a great team, so they took advantage of it."

The Panthers already have established a disturbing pattern with blown leads. They appeared on their way to their third consecutive win to open the season before Steven Stamkos scored the tying goal with 5.5 seconds remaining in the third period of an eventual 4-3 shootout loss to the Lightning on Oct. 18.

Video: FLA@TBLA: Stamkos buries one-timer in final seconds

The Panthers led the Pittsburgh Penguins 2-1 entering the third before losing 3-2 on Oct. 25, and led the Toronto Maple Leafs 2-1 in the second before losing 3-2 on Oct. 27.

After the wheels came off in the third period Saturday, the Panthers are well aware that is an area they must clean up.

"We have been playing good hockey some games and we still have been losing, so we just have to find a way to win the games," Barkov said. "We know how to play well. We know how to win. But we haven't been."

The Panthers entered the season with high expectations after finishing in first place in the Atlantic Division and setting team records with 47 wins and 103 points. Unsatisfied following a six-game loss to the Islanders in the Eastern Conference First Round, ownership and management raised the stakes even higher with an aggressive offseason.

That included the restructuring of the front office, with Dale Tallon becoming team president and associate general manager Tom Rowe replacing him as GM, and a revamping of the defense with the additions of Keith Yandle, Jason Demers and Mark Pysyk.

There are plenty of games remaining for the Panthers to make those moves pay off, but they feel an urgency now to straighten out their problems.

"We won the division last year and that gets [outside] expectations high," Barkov said. "And of course our expectations are high too. We want to win every game and we want to be in the [Stanley Cup] Playoffs. We want to go far in the playoffs. Now we just need to concentrate on the next game and next shift."

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