By Bill Whitehead
SUNRISE — Like anyone else, I don’t like being forced to do something. Maybe that extends to being a sportswriter as well. Last night with just over five minutes remaining in regulation, everyone in the BB&T Center press box had the story he or she was going to write — the headline would read “Panthers Start Homestand with Big Win” or “Florida Exacts Revenge on Rival” or something similar.
Only one thing changed all of that, though: Six minutes of wretched hockey by the Florida Panthers that forced everyone to write about something else.
The Cats (4-6-2) completely gave away a win and an extra point — in a revenge game, no less — against a Washington club that was on life support less than a week ago, losing to the Capitals 6-5 in overtime in front of 15,340 very angry, disappointed fans. Also, Florida failed to gain at least one point on every team in the division except Carolina.
The dressing room last night was a wreck. Certainly it was music-free, but it was as silent as the movie The Artist. The stunned expressions on players’ faces said enough. Peter Mueller, who had two assists and continues to impress, seemed the most affected, slumped in his locker and still in uniform while the media went across the room to talk to Jonathan Huberdeau first.
“It’s hard to accept, being up two goals,” said Huberdeau, who committed a slashing penalty that led to Alex Ovechkin’s tying power-play goal with 2:49 left in the third period. “We had a good second…but we’ve just got to do better defensively. In the third we let go of all the things we did good in the second.”
Added Drew Shore, who scored his first NHL goal to give Florida a 5-3 lead: “It’s a tough pill to swallow, especially in this season where every point’s important, and we let one slip away. I’d trade (my goal) for a win any day.”
There were too many great storylines floating out there last night that were eventually backspaced over and deleted. My Twitter timeline and the political talk shows this morning mentioned missed opportunities at the State of the Union Address by President Obama and in Senator Marco Rubio’s rebuttal, but did anyone have a worse night than the Panthers? Sure, Montreal wasted a late three-goal lead in a nanosecond, but they redeemed themselves in a shootout win over Tampa Bay.
Dmitry Kulikov made a regrettable pass that led to Troy Brouwer’s game-winning breakaway 32 seconds into overtime. In the circle? Forget it. Florida got spanked 44-24 in face-offs by a team that hasn’t been good at draws early on. Super swell guy Scott Clemmensen — heck, he’s from the same corn-centric state that produced Radar O’Reilly and Field of Dreams, the best baseball movie ever — was a few notches below mediocre in net. The Iowa native (4.32 GAA) has had three starts in goal and has been unreliable every time, at Montreal and Winnipeg and last night, all ending in losses. His role as the backup for this team has to be questioned with future netminder Jacob Markstrom waiting in San Antonio.
On a night when every good bounce for the Cats seemed to end up past Caps goalie Braden Holtby, Florida found a way to blow a statement game at home against a divisional rival. Tomas Fleischmann’s spinning goal in the first period caromed off John Erskine’s right skate and beyond Holtby. Florida’s third marker was a double-deflection — Mueller first in the circle, then Huberdeau for the score. Shore’s goal bounced in off Erskine, whose night as a defenseman was as bad as Keith Ballard’s in Atlanta when he swatted teammate Tomas Vokoun.
The first career two-goal game by Huberdeau would have been a fine story. I’m sure the Quebec native and Calder candidate would have donned the red hat he wore on opening night, whose euphoria seems like light years ago in an arena far, far away. Revenge is always a good theme after getting drilled by a team three days earlier, too. And Shore’s elusive first goal, which has tantalized the rookie, would have made for strong copy as well.
These Panthers, though, wouldn’t allow those stories to be fleshed out and filed. For one devasting six-minute stretch, these Cats looked like Pete DeBoer’s team from two years ago, a group that specialized in grabbing leads and then blowing them in any manner possible. Turnovers in their own end, sieve-like goaltending, untimely penalties, failure to put the game away with an empty-netter, you name it. Heck, a power-play goal in the last two minutes to win it was potentially there for the taking also, but not on this night.
Far too many great storylines existed last night to let the ones that were written actually get written.