Panther Preview: Pittsburgh at Florida

By Bill Whitehead

After two long days in Daytona covering Speedweeks and eventually DanicaFest (i.e.–the Daytona 500), it’s time to get back to Florida Panthers hockey. I recorded Sunday’s matinee against the Bruins, avoided finding out the score and eagerly awaited watching it when I returned home.

That didn’t turn out too well.

What I saw late Sunday night was more of the same. The Cats (5-9-4) have been exposed as a team that isn’t as good defensively as last year, has much shakier goaltending than that Southeast Division-winning club, loses far too many battles for the puck and commits crucial mistakes by turning over the puck.

But the big problem is the finish — or lack of it. Like last season, the Panthers can’t hit the net at key times and gain the momentum that puts teams away. Other clubs, especially those that win night in and night out and head to the playoffs, take advantage and bury those chances. Only one defenseman has an even-strength goal, Mike Weaver in Pittsburgh. No knock on Weaver because it’s not part of his game, but he shouldn’t lead Florida in any offensive category.

Other than Jonathan Huberdeau (eight goals), Peter Mueller (six) and Tomas Kopecky (five), the forwards aren’t putting pucks away either. Tomas Fleischmann shouldn’t have the same amount of markers as Brian Campbell (four), and Campbell’s numbers, while impressive, shouldn’t exceed Drew Shore or Shawn Matthias. Or Stephen Weiss, which is another sore subject. The No. 1 center was benched in the third period against Boston, officially entering coach Kevin Dineen’s doghouse, and the whole top line — so good last season and a primary reason for the playoff appearance — has been a wreck. Weiss (one goal, minus-11) has been very unproductive, Fleischmann isn’t connecting on shots, and Kris Versteeg has one goal in seven games and was hurt after being hit by Alex Ovechkin.

And it doesn’t get any easier.

The Pittsburgh Penguins, the top team in the Atlantic Division, waddle in to South Florida Tuesday, and it will take a stellar effort and finish that has been nowhere to be found of late. Florida’s five wins are the fewest in the Eastern Conference and tied with Columbus for the fewest in the NHL.

NO GENO: The Penguins’ star center Evgeni Malkin has a concussion and was put on injured reserve. The Russian forward, who will miss the next three games, had 21 points (4-17-21) in 18 games before being knocked into the boards by Florida’s Erik Gudbranson on a perfectly clean, hard hit last Friday in Pittsburgh.

SHARP PENS: Sidney Crosby has paced Pittsburgh of late. He has three goals in five assists in his last five games, and he scored a pair in Sunday’s 5-3 win over Tampa Bay. Crosby leads the Penguins in points with 28 (9-19-28), while James Neal tops the club with 12 goals. Second leading scorer Chris Kunitz has seven goals and 14 assists. Pascal Dupuis also has seven tallies.

POWER (PLAY) OUTAGE: Florida’s power play, which was so good to start the season, has been anemic of late. Well, anemic is being kind. Generally at this point, a Florida power play is simply two minutes in which neither team will score. It’s like taking a 2-minute slice of time out of the game. The Panthers have scored one man-advantage goal in its last 24 opportunities in the last eight games. In its 5-game winless streak, the Panthers are 0-for-17 on the power play.

LOOSE PUCKS: Florida sent goaltender Jacob Markstrom back to San Antonio on Monday. The Swedish netminder was 0-2 with a 3.05 GAA and .915 SV% against two of the top Eastern Conference teams, Pittsburgh and Boston…Florida is facing Pittsburgh for the 75th time, holding a 31-30-4-9 overall record…Jonathan Huberdeau is the only rookie to lead his team in goals and is first among rookies in goals and second in points…Fellow rookie Drew Shore has six points (1-5-6) in his last seven games…Tomas Kopecky has three goals in his last five games and is third on the team with 44 shots…Colby Robak posted 14:53 TOI and two shots in his season debut Sunday filling in for Filip Kuba (upper body).

A great moment against the Penguins at home a few years ago. Look out, Geno!

Pittsburgh (13-6-0, 26 pts.) at Florida (5-9-4, 14 pts.)
Tues., Feb. 26, 7:30 p.m.
BB&T Center — Sunrise, Fla.

BY THE NUMBERS

PIT                       vs.               FLA

28.0% (3rd)            Power play               16.2% (21st)
82.2% (17th)            Penalty kill             73.4% (29th)
3.37  (2nd)            Goals per game           2.28  (26th)
2.53  (13th)            Goals against            3.61  (30th)
1.22  (7th)            5-on-5 For/Ag.          0.63  (29th)
52.9% (3rd)             Faceoffs                 49.9% (16th)
30.4  (6th)            Shots per gm             28.6  (18th)
27.6  (7th)            Shots ag. per gm        31.5  (25th)

PANTHERS’ PACE

Florida has 14 points in 18 games: 37.3 over 48 games.

LOCAL TV BROADCAST
Fox Sports Florida, 7:30 p.m.
Steve Goldstein (PxP), Bill Lindsay (Color)

LOCAL RADIO
560 WQAM, 7:30 p.m.
Randy Moller (PxP)

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