By Bill Whitehead
Last week was probably the last really good chance to get something going, but as has been the case most of the season other than Opening Night or games in Philadelphia, disappointment ruled with an iron fist like a stubborn dictator over the kingdom of the Florida Panthers. Another night with an opportunity to gain two points, this time against a club that had played less than 24 hours earlier and was ending a five-game road trip. But Florida performed as it did against Carolina in back-to-back losses and Winnipeg on Friday in an overtime defeat.
Starting with Carolina on the road two Saturdays ago, Florida had the schedule set up for them to do some damage in the Southeast Division — a seven-game stretch of games with six against divisional opponents, plus five contests were at BB&T Center. It was time to make hay in the division and start moving up the standings. Ten points in that stretch should do it, right?
It didn’t exactly turn out that way.
The fantasy of 10 points in those first six games — which would have been half of what the club has earned in 26 contests — turned into stark, eye-opening reality: three points, four embarrassing losses and goaltending that left some calling for Florida goalie coach Robb Tallas. Not that he should lose his job, mind you, but that he should suit up and play like he nearly did against Carolina.
The final game of the seven is a meeting between two teams who have been classic underachievers for different reasons. At least the Lightning started hot, sprinting out of the post-lockout era with a 6-1 record and the top spot in the division. Since Feb. 1, though, Tampa Bay is 4-13-1 and is just one point ahead of Florida, who occupies the division’s cellar. A win in regulation by the Panthers would put the Lightning 15th in the Eastern Conference, though it would own a game in hand. With both teams in the second half of the season, there’s very little chance either will play in May, so this is basically a battle to stay out of last place.
THIRD TIME’S A CHARM?: Florida has dropped both contests against the Lightning — a 5-2 defeat on Jan. 29 in Tampa and a 6-5 overtime loss at the BB&T Center on Feb. 16. The latter defeat was extremely demoralizing as the Panthers held a 5-4 lead very late before Teddy Purcell scored with 11 seconds left, then Benoit Pouliot had the game-winner in overtime. The loss was the third straight OT loss at home. Worse still, it marked the second time in three games Florida appeared to have a win with the late lead (the other was against Washington), only to lose and come away with one point. The two teams meet for the final time in the season finale in Tampa on April 27.
POWER TRIO: Florida forwards Tomas Kopecky, Shawn Matthias and Jack Skille have emerged lately as the go-to scorers for the Panthers, who are 24th in the NHL at 2.42 goals per game. Against Montreal on Sunday, Kopecky scored his 10th goal of the season, matching the number of goals in his first year with the club. Kopecky, whose career-high is 15 goals, has recorded 10 points (8-2-10) in his last 13 games. Matthias’s seventh goal, also against the Canadiens, gave the Ontario native a career-high four-game point streak (3-1-4), with four goals in his last six games. Skille also is riding the wave of a point streak, recording a career-high of three (1-2-3).
GREAT COMPANY: Rookie Jonathan Huberdeau elevated himself into some rarified air with his goal against Winnipeg Friday. His 12th goal in his 25th career game put him on a list with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Alex Ovechkin and Teemu Selanne as the only active players to turn the feat.
STAT THAT MATTERS: The Panthers have owned the Lightning in South Florida during its time in the league. Florida carries a 32-9-4-8 mark against Tampa Bay at home. Florida’s last regulation home loss to the Lightning was a 3-1 defeat on April 11, 2010.
Tampa Bay (10-14-1, 21 pts.) at Florida (7-13-6, 20 pts.)
Tues., Mar. 12, 7:30 p.m.
BB&T Center — Sunrise, Fla.
BY THE NUMBERS
TBL vs. FLA
20.4% (8th) Power play 18.0% (14th)
82.1% (13th) Penalty kill 73.3% (30th)
3.40 (2nd) Goals per game 2.42 (24th)
3.12 (27th) Goals against 3.73 (30th)
1.11 (12th) 5-on-5 For/Ag. 0.62 (29th)
51.0% (10th) Faceoffs 50.2% (15th)
27.2 (27th) Shots per gm 29.5 (13th)
30.3 (22nd) Shots ag. per gm 31.0 (23rd)
Florida has 20 points in 26 games: 36.9 over 48 games.
LOCAL TV BROADCAST
Fox Sports Florida
Panthers Live, 7:00 p.m.
Tampa Bay vs. Florida, 7:30
Steve Goldstein (PxP), Bill Lindsay (Color)
Panthers Preview, 7:00 p.m.
Tampa Bay vs. Florida, 7:30 p.m.
Randy Moller (PxP)