By Bill Whitehead
SUNRISE —Well, that didn’t go as planned.
In a scene Florida fans have watched much this year, the Panthers (31-15-6) let one slip away in a huge way Saturday, squandering a two-goal lead in the final 10:45 and falling to the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-2 in overtime on a skillful game-winner from Sidney Crosby to Kris Letang.
To say it was disappointing to most of the 20,295 in attendance is an understatement as enormous as the red-clad crowd.
After Sasha Barkov dashed down the ice and retrieved a slick pass from Jussi Jokinen and scored Florida’s third shorthanded goal of the season — a dazzling backhander that beat goalie Jeff Zatkoff 5-hole — the Cats seemed to be in good shape. It appeared all they needed to do was sit back, pack it in, grab puck possession and send it down the ice.
It’s textbook play and what they’ve been doing since Thanksgiving. It’s what fans have come to expect.
But Crosby and Letang changed the outcome almost singlehandedly, hooking up for the first goal on a one-timer by Letang from the bottom of the left circle, then Letang shoveling in the final marker on the power play after a dish from Crosby. Twice now the Pens have beaten Florida in overtime with the man-advantage.
The sudden loss tainted some of Florida’s better numbers on the year.
Florida slipped to 14-3-6 in one-goal games and 26-3-4 when they score first. The Panthers are now 19-2-2 when leading after one period and 22-2-4 when ahead after two periods. And they are now 22-7-4 against the Eastern Conference.
Those stats aren’t the new Twitter algorithm. They’re the numbers — a calculation of hard work in a systematic approach — that illustrate the Panthers are a top hockey club in the NHL.
If Florida had found a way to hold on to the two-goal margin, they would’ve won for the 12th time in their last 13 home games, dating all the way back to early December, with the only loss being to Edmonton in which they were more interested in owning the score with Matt Hendricks than owning the contest’s final score.
Those are the bad numbers — well, the numbers are fine, they just could’ve been finer.
The good number? One, the amount of points they added to their Atlantic Division-leading season.
Unlike the 2011-12 Florida club that won the Southeast Division by grabbing the dreaded loser points in overtime and shootout losses, the current pack of Cats has won games in regulation. A lot of them. Because of that they can afford to lose a game and — voila! — grab that loser point. At this point (there’s that word again), the idea is to keep banking points.
They aren’t chasing a playoff berth and don’t require two points every night; they’re holding one and padding a first-place lead. And they’ve been there for a while. Keep adding points, mostly two at a time but occasionally one, and they’ll be hosting Game 1 of a first-round playoff series in April.
Honestly, a Florida win, say, 2-1, wouldn’t have been the most artful one of the season, and many would’ve said, “Yeah, they won, but…”. The Panthers had 20 shots in the first periods, but as Crosby, Zatkoff and Pens coach Mike Sullivan said, they weren’t high-quality scoring chances. All of the Pens interviewed seemed to think the shots were misleading, and they ended up 42-35 anyway.
Both teams took way too many penalties, too. Pittsburgh’s overtime power play resulting from Jokinen’s hooking penalty proved to be what is painfully obvious: The 4-on-3 is the true death sentence in the NHL. Rarely do teams kill it off. Too much ice, lack of possession and the long change are brutal to overcome.
On the good side, I posed a question to Crosby about facing Florida this time as compared to the club he saw in Pittsburgh way back on Oct. 20 in the Panthers’ sixth game of the year.
“I thought they possessed the puck,” Crosby said. “It took us a while to climb our way back (in shots). They’re a really deep team. They’ve got a lot of different ways they can beat you. Their D is active, make good plays and come up the ice. Their strong on the puck down low and have good goaltending.
“It’s not a fluke why they’re doing well.”
And, because they’ve been doing well, a non-fluke divisional leader can come away with one point on a night when two seemed so near.
Let’s just not make it a habit.
**Follow Bill on Twitter @BillWhiteheadFL and in newspapers at TCPalm.com