SUNRISE – There are games, stretches during the course of a season, that will help define a team.
For the Panthers, one of those moments might have occurred Tuesday night at BankAtlantic Center when they rallied from a 4-1 deficit in the third period to pull out two points and a 5-4 victory against the Maple Leafs.
The victory was even more memorable when considering the game-winner in overtime came off the stick of Richard Zednik, who a year earlier was undergoing emergency surgery in Buffalo after having his neck lacerated by a teammate’s skate.
The Panthers, who have climbed from the bottom of the standings in November to a playoff position with 29 games remaining, had never in their 15 seasons come back and won from a three-goal deficit, an astounding statistic when you consider this is a team that went to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1996 and also had Pavel Bure in uniform for parts of three seasons.
“That’s pretty cool,” said leading goal scorer David Booth of the comeback. “It’s a new team, a new year and, hopefully, we can make a lot of changes and get to the playoffs.”
The Panthers went a long way in helping to define the kind of team they were back in December when, despite being riddled with injuries, they won three of four games on a week-long trek through Canada. But Tuesday’s comeback against the Maple Leafs, one that began with only 12:13 remaining in regulation, only served to show the league, the Panthers and their fans what coach Peter DeBoer called the “resiliency” of his team.
Nathan Horton, who started the comeback with his 14th goal of the season, said, “I think this year, it’s a different focus on our team.”
“When we’re down, we know we can come back,” he added.
“The thing is,” said forward Radek Dvorak, “we never give up.”
That fact wasn’t lost on former Panther and current Maple Leaf Niklas Hagman, who said of Tuesday’s game; “We just couldn’t hold onto the lead…that obviously separates us from (the Panthers). They are battling for a playoff spot.”
The Panthers, eighth in the Eastern Conference and only five points as of Wednesday afternoon from fourth-place Philadelphia, are 10-3-3 since Jan. 3, earning points in 13 of their last 16 games.
Since Nov. 24, when the Panthers were 30th in the league, they are 19-8-7.
But while Tuesday’s comeback was nothing short of a storybook ending, the Panthers have entered their most demanding stretch of the season. Beginning Thursday in Carolina, the Panthers will play their next 10 games against teams with winning records and currently in a playoff spot.
They’ll also kick off a stretch Thursday of four games in six days, and 11 games in 20 days.
“It’s a tough stretch,” DeBoer admitted. “I think the good news for us is we’ve played our best hockey against the best teams. We seem to play a little bit more desperate when we’ve got that fear that this is a team that could embarrass us if we don’t show up and give our best.
“I’m looking forward to it. It’s a great measuring stick for where we’re at. And, really, you’ve got to be able to survive these kinds of stretches to make the playoffs, otherwise you don’t deserve to be in the playoffs.”
PANTHERS, ‘CANES: MAURICE COUNTING ON HOME ICE
With both teams battling for a playoff spot and separated by a single point, Thursday’s Panthers-Hurricanes game at RBC Center is taking on added significance.
The Panthers are 5-2 in their last seven games, the ‘Canes 6-2 in their last eight. Coming off road wins in San Jose and Phoenix, the Hurricanes will likely have captain Rod Brind’Amour back in the lineup after missing the past two games with a groin injury. The only player who did not practice this week was Scott Walker, who has not played since Jan. 27 with an upper-body injury.
Hurricanes’ coach Paul Maurice was quoted on carolinahurricanes.com that he was counting on fans to give the ‘Canes a seventh man.
“The last game that we played against Atlanta, the fans were buzzing before the puck was even dropped, and I think that had a big part to do with it being our best period in two and a half months – we were flying,” Maurice said. “I think, clearly, Florida will put up a lot stiffer defense against that kind of game, but I think if we can do enough on the ice to get our crowd going, it energizes our team and we’re tough to beat.”
MCCABE EARNS RAVES FROM DEBOER
The off-season acquisition of defenseman Bryan McCabe by GM Jacques Martin is looking like a steal. McCabe, who had 23 points (five goals) in 54 games last season, has 10 goals this year, 14 assists and is a plus-seven.
When asked about McCabe by the visiting Toronto media Tuesday morning, DeBoer said; “Bryan has been consistent all over the ice.”
“We knew he was going to give us a presence on the power play and he was going to give us some offensive dimension,” he added. “What I didn’t know about him was defensively…he’s walking that line where he’s creating a lot of offense and has been very reliable defensively.
“To us, probably the most valuable areas, has been in the dressing room. He’s a vocal guy, comes with a smile every day, he loves to play the game. We’ve got a quiet group. He brings some energy every day, which is important.”NOTES
Cory Stillman, who had assists on Zednik’s game-winning and game-tying goals, has nine points (eight assists) in his last seven games…Zednik has six points (four goals) in his last six games…Stephen Weiss
has nine points (seven assists) in his last seven games…Defenseman Jay Bouwmeester continues to lead the league in time on ice per game, averaging 27:17. Anaheim’s Scott Niedermayer is second at 27:12…The Panthers will see two players this week who are among the leaders in shots. Alex Ovechkin, whose Capitals visit BankAtlantic Sunday, leads the league with 345. Carolina’s Eric Staal is third with 227. The Panthers’ leader in shots: Booth, ranked 34th in the league, with 160…Forward Gregory Campbell, ranked 32nd in the league, leads the team with 117 hits…