The Panthers have two games left before they join the rest of the National Hockey League in taking a break and stepping aside for the 2014 Winter Games, two games to capture what head coach Peter Horachek described as a best-of-seven series.
Horachek compared the last two weeks before the Olympic break to a playoff series, and the Panthers still have a chance to win that “series” thanks to their tremendous performance against the Toronto Maple Leafs Tuesday night at the BB&T Center. More important than ending up with a winning record in their final seven pre-break games for the Panthers, of course, is continuing to make a push toward the final spots of the playoffs.
As defenseman Brian Campbell pointed out after the game Tuesday, the Panthers have some work to do in that department. But they also showed against Toronto, as they had before against Colorado, Pittsburgh (twice) and Anaheim, among others, that they’re capable of beating any team in the league.
The game against the Maple Leafs, who came in with a 9-1-1 record in their previous 11 games, actually might have been the Panthers’ best performance of the season. If it wasn’t, it clearly ranks right near the top.
After the morning skate, captain Ed Jovanovski said in no uncertain terms that the Panthers needed to play with an attitude, play as though they were ticked off. “Jovo” certainly got his wish.
Sean Bergenheim set the tone early by hitting everything that moved in the first period. And then in the second period, Jonathan Huberdeau got into a fight with Toronto defenseman Jake Gardiner. Yes, Jonathan Huberdeau.
It was the talented forward’s first NHL fight and it was more proof that the Panthers weren’t going to back down.
The Panthers kept coming at the Maple Leafs and ended up with a season-high 48 shots and an overwhelming 48-21 shot advantage. The final score would have been a lot more lopsided if not for Leafs goalie Jonathan Bernier and some bad luck by Erik Gudbranson.
Among Bernier’s 44 saves were breakaways by Huberdeau and Scottie Upshall. Gudbranson, meanwhile, hit the crossbar once and the post on another occasion.
Horachek made a couple of lineup changes for that game, and all four lines contributed. Huberdeau, who continues to show signs of breaking out of a difficult stretch, skated with Nick Bjugstad and Upshall. Meanwhile, the newly assembled line of Shawn Matthias, Scott Gomez and Jesse Winchester had two of the Panthers’ four goals as each forward picked up a point in the victory.
Given how well they played, it would not be a surprise if Horachek kept those same four lines intact for the game Thursday against the Detroit Red Wings at the BB&T Center. That will be followed by a road game Friday against the Carolina Hurricanes.
The Panthers won’t play after that until Feb. 27 when they host the Washington Capitals at the BB&T Center. Those last two games are huge for the Panthers because every game is important, particularly those against Eastern Conference opponents.
The Panthers will be hard-pressed to duplicate the kind of performance they put on against Toronto, but the reality is they’ll need to play superior hockey on a consistent basis to get back into the playoff picture — Thursday, Friday and the rest of the season.