By Bill Whitehead
Game 3 of Florida’s 4-game road trip saw the Cats (21-25-7) travel to the Air Canada Centre to face Toronto, who was 7-1-1 – the hottest team in the NHL – over their last nine games. Goalie Tim Thomas got the night off as Scott Clemmensen, who beat Toronto 3-1 in the ACC on Dec. 17, was between the pipes. Jimmy Hayes was one of the scratches as were two surprise ones – Erik Gudbranson and Tomas Fleischmann.
Nick Bjugstad, who had the game-winner in the shootout in Detroit to open the road swing, continued his strong play after Drew Shore chipped out a pass to Scottie Upshall. Bjugstad just outworked Nazem Kadri across the blue line, took the sweet pass from Upshall and flipped a shot over Toronto goalie Jonathan Bernier at 1:39 for his 12th goal. Basically, Bjugstad showed Kadri what 6-foot-6 gets you in a 50-50 battle.
Scott Gomez, in for injured Aleksander Barkov, stole a puck from Cody Franson along the boards and passed it over to Brad Boyes, who was streaking through the center of Florida’s offensive zone. Boyes quickly passed it to Sean Bergenheim on the 2-on-1 advantage against Toronto defenseman Tim Gleason. Bergenheim beat Bernier for his 13th marker.
Kadri and Franson redeemed themselves at 16:49 after the defenseman banged home a shot from way out. Kadri kept the puck alive behind Clemmensen by outworking Brian Campbell. The period ended with Florida holding a 2-1 edge on the scoreboard and an 11-9 shot advantage.
The good: Bjugstad, the Bergenheim-Gomez-Boyes line, the faceoff circle (went 12 of 24) for the Panthers, who played a good first period on the road.
The bad: The power play went 0-for-2 and continued to prevent the Panthers from stretching a 1-0 lead at the time into a 2-goal advantage.
Not much good happened as Clemmensen gave up goals to Mason Raymond and James van Riemsdyk in the first minute of play. The Raymond goal, his 14th, was a soft one as Clemmensen whiffed on the shot from the left circle. Again, the Panthers had the better scoring chances but couldn’t cash in and trailed 3-2 after 40 minutes.
Struggling Nikolai Kulemin’s eighth goal at 4:00 put Florida down 4-2, and Clemmensen gave up another terrible goal when Joffrey Lupul beat him on the short side with a quick shot for a power-play goal. Dmitry Kulikov scored on a blast from the point with 5:31 left past Bernier, but Florida limped out with their second consecutive bad loss in three nights.
The offense for Florida (21-26-7) seemed to be on the right track with the early goals by Bjugstad and Bergenheim, but the power play was garbage as usual and the Cats couldn’t capitalize or take advantage of numerous chances against a not-so-stellar Leafs D. Clemmensen was simply the worst Panther on the ice and gave Florida no chance to win, allowing three bad goals and failing to make big stops that starting goalie Tim Thomas often makes to keep games close.
This was one of those games the Panthers haven’t had too often this year: An offensive fast start with a 2-0 lead, then blowing it with poor goaltending and a suddenly non-existent offensive attack. It was a win that slipped away for a team that desperately needs every point.
On to Columbus to finish a road trip that was so promising to start and has transformed into utter disappointment…