CORAL SPRINGS – When the Panthers begin their final Sweet Sixteen of games Tuesday in Pittsburgh in their push to the playoffs, they’ll be without two of their leaders on offense and defense.
Defenseman Bryan McCabe, a leader on and off the ice for the Panthers this season, underwent surgery Monday to repair a fractured orbital bone in his right eye and will not play in Tuesday’s game in Pittsburgh or Thursday’s game in Buffalo.
Nathan Horton, who is second in goals (19) and third in scoring (38 points), will be out at least two weeks after undergoing surgery to repair a severed tendon on his left ring finger.
“When it rains it pours,” said Panther coach Peter DeBoer late Monday morning after watching his Panthers go through an hour practice here at IncredibleIce before flying to Pittsburgh.
“We talked about it this morning,” he added. “The last time we were in this situation we responded well. We upped our desperation and battle level.”
DeBoer was referring to a four-game road trip December 8-14 in which the Panthers went 3-1 without Cory Stillman, David Booth and Horton in the lineup.
“We’re going to have to rely on our structure and our systems, and that’s what is going to have to carry us through here,” DeBoer said.
McCabe’s and Horton’s injuries come at a crucial time for the Panthers. Currently sixth in the Eastern Conference with 76 points, only four points separate the fifth and 10th place team. Both the Penguins, who have won six consecutive games, and the Sabres are below the Panthers in the playoff chase.
“That’s how the season goes,” said Booth, who scored his second hat trick of the season Saturday in a 5-3 Panthers win over the Blues. “Every team goes through (injuries). We’re just going to have to pick it up.”
McCabe, who quarterbacks the Panthers power play, has 33 points including 12 goals this season. Six of his goals have come on the power play. McCabe, was hit with a deflection in the first period Saturday, but came back to play.
Without McCabe in the lineup, the Panthers will play Nick Boynton, a healthy scratch the past two games, and Steve Eminger, who was acquired last week from Tampa at the trade deadline.
“Obviously, you can never have enough defensemen,” DeBoer said. “We have seven we feel comfortable putting on the ice at anytime, so, absolutely, it’s a nice insurance policy to have.”
When asked what he might do without McCabe on the power play, DeBoer said; “I don’t know how much adjustments we can do. We have (Jay) Bouwmeester, (Keith) Ballard, Eminger and Nick Boynton. We’ve got four guys we feel comfortable with.”
“Obviously, Bryan has that world-class shot and ability to find the holes and get the puck to people,” he said. “We’ll miss him, but it will be like everywhere else – like Nathan Horton up the middle – somebody has to fill in.”
Horton, who had a skate cut through his glove Saturday that severed the tendon, was centering Booth and Richard Zednik. The plan, DeBoer said, is to insert Brett McLean into that line. McLean played with Zednik last year and has played a few games with Booth.
“We’ll just have to find ways to win,” McLean said.
Horton’s recovery time? Two to four weeks.
“I’d think at this time of year it’s closer to two weeks, but it depends on complications,” DeBoer said.
The Panthers first game on this trip is Pittsburgh, where the Penguins have won six consecutive games and are 8-1-1 since Dan Bylsma replaced Michel Therrien behind the bench. In their last meeting on March 5, the Penguins beat the Panthers 4-1 at BankAtlantic Center.
When asked if he’s seen a difference in the Penguins the past few weeks, DeBoer said; “They’re just playing better.”
“We all know they’re a great team,” he said. “You don’t go to the Stanley Cup finals last year and fall right off. Obviously, the coaching change has given them a different sense of urgency. You’re seeing some of those teams with big talent starting to find another level. I think the Rangers are in the same boat, too. It’s going to be critical for us to keep going.
“You can see them being a little more aggressive, playing with more confidence. I think any time you got guys like (Evgeni) Malkin and (Sidney) Crosby and some of the guys there with some freedom, and they’re feeling motivated and confident, they’re a dangerous team.”