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A Victory To Build On

by Alain Poupart / Florida Panthers

The Panthers have played some of their best hockey this season against the elite teams of the NHL, so maybe it made sense they would snap their frustrating losing streak against the Anaheim Ducks.

On Finnish Fan Night, Teemu Selanne and the Ducks came to the BB&T Center with the most points of any team in the league and carrying the longest active winning streak at five games.

Anaheim rookie Frederik Andersen had become the first goalie since 1993 to win his first six NHL decisions and was shooting to become the first since 1982 to win his first seven.

Even with Ducks leading scorer Ryan Getzlaf out of the lineup with an upper-body injury, it was quite a formidable challenge for the Panthers. And then it got tougher less than a minute into the game when Anaheim took advantage of a defensive zone coverage mistake and a pretty centering pass to take a 1-0 lead.

Before the first period would end, the score had moved to 2-0 and it wasn’t 3-0 only because Tim Thomas stopped Corey Perry on a breakaway.

But the Panthers refused to quit or accept defeat. They just kept pushing and pushing and pushing, and came all the way back for an impressive 3-2 victory that had all the ingredients we thought all along the Panthers would need.

You can start with the consistent effort, the kind we haven’t seen quite often early in the season. The game-winning goal, for example, came after some relentless fore-checking by rookie Aleksander Barkov, Brad Boyes and Scottie Upshall.

There was some impressive goaltending by Thomas. He said after the game he “felt terrible” in the first period, adding he was fighting the puck. Even though he was beaten by a clean wrist shot on Anaheim’s second goal, it certainly wasn’t his fault the Panthers trailed by two at the first intermission.

Regardless, Thomas was flawless the rest of the game and his spectacular leg save on a redirect by Emerson Etem with about two minutes left preserved the 3-2 lead.

And the Panthers also had some luck — finally. Upshall’s game-tying goal in the second period was a fluke, clearly, but it’s not like the Panthers weren’t due some good fortune.

That said, hard-working teams, good teams, make their luck. Generally speaking, the more you skate, the harder you work, the more you’re around the puck, the better your chances of something good happening.

Given the way the Panthers played over the weekend at Ottawa and New York, it seemed inevitable the losing streak would end soon. The challenge now for the Panthers is to bring that kind of effort each and every game.

That was the message provided by interim head coach Peter Horachek after the game last night. For his first victory as an NHL head coach, Horachek could have done worse than winning at home, against the team with the best record in the league, and after watching his squad overcome an early deficit.

But Horachek wasn’t concerned about his personal accomplishment, he just talked about his goal for the team — namely to become consistent and to cut out the giveaways that have hurt the Panthers this season.

Despite their record, the Panthers have shown they can be competitive. They played Boston evenly at the BB&T Center before the Bruins got a game-winning goal in the final minute; they actually outplayed the defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks before Chicago prevailed in a shootout; they handled the powerful Penguins in the home opener in their most impressive victory of the season.

The Panthers, though, haven’t been consistent enough, which is why the coaching change was made last week. In the three games under Horachek, the Panthers have put together solid efforts but there still have been patches of erratic play.

That’s the next step for this team. For the last 40 minutes of the game Tuesday night, the Panthers played playoff-caliber hockey. They’ll need that kind of effort on a consistent basis if they want to make their upcoming five-game road trip a success.

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