SUNRISE – Coach Peter DeBoer admitted recently he’s been doing a little scoreboard watching.
“I’ve been watching Carolina, Buffalo…everybody,” he said. “It sounds like it’s early in the year to do that, but it really isn’t. With the parity in the league and a playoff spot usually coming down to one or two points – I think (two) teams missed by less than two points last year – it’s going to be a fight right to the end.”
While scoreboard watching is a welcome pastime to Panther fans, its also underscores the importance of games like tonight at BankAtlantic Center against the Flyers and Saturday in Tampa against the Lightning.
The Panthers, who enter tonight’s game 4-0-1 in their last five games, are a single point from a playoff spot and second place in the Southeast Division. They also have three games in hand on Carolina (eighth in the conference, second in the Southeast) and two games in hand on Buffalo (seventh in the conference).
But the Panthers also realize tonight’s game is critical. The Panthers haven’t played since Jan. 10, when they crushed the Thrashers 8-4. That victory was followed by two days off, and the last time that happened during Christmas they went winless in their next four games.
“Hopefully, it’s a lesson learned,” said DeBoer following Friday morning’s skate.
DeBoer made it point to remind his team earlier in the week of the consequences of their last break. He also skated them hard over the past three days at IncredibleIce.
“I think that’s the main thing, those hard practices we had this week that got us ready,” said forward Anthony Stewart. “Before we sort of skated and it wasn’t too hard. But the coach made sure we got ready for tonight. Everyone’s got their legs ready and I think it showed (Thursday) in practice.”
“We have to make sure we don’t take any steps back,” said center Stephen Weiss
The Flyers come into BankAtlantic tonight off a 4-1 loss Thursday in Tampa and have lost four of six. The Flyers aren’t happy and are expected to play an aggressive, physical game tonight against the Panthers.
“We’re not paying a big enough price to win a hockey game right now,” said Flyer coach John Stevens after his team’s loss in Tampa. “We didn’t match their level of desperation and the result was indicative of that.”
Added captain Mike Richards; “We’re just getting outworked. It’s kind of embarrassing how much they outworked us.”
DeBoer, who coached Richards in junior hockey, said the captain’s comments weren’t exactly what he wanted to hear first thing Friday morning.
“The worst news of my day was seeing Mike Richards call his team out in the paper,” DeBoer said. “I’ve seen that before in juniors with him for four years and usually the aftermath of that isn’t too pretty for the opposing team. So, hopefully, we can respond in the right way.”
The Flyers bring an explosive offense into BAC led by Jeff Carter (22 goals, 48 points), Richards (44 points) and Simon Gagne (18 goals). They’re sixth in the league in goals for (147) and third in the East. They also lead the league with 13 short-handed goals.
Goalie Tomas Vokoun gets the start for the Panthers tonight. He’s won three consecutive games, stopping 83 of 91 shots. Vokoun is 11-12-1 with a .915 save percentage and 2.81 goals against.
“The key tonight will be getting the forecheck going early, try to get the first goal, and take them out as soon as possible,” Stewart said.
“We have to make sure we’re ready to put pressure on them and pressure their defense,” Weiss added. “As soon as we start thinking too much, we get ourselves in trouble. So we have to go out and move our legs and play 60 hard minutes.”