Had you told Pete DeBoer last week that his team not only would have won three of its first five games in a very important six-game home stretch, but picked up eight of the possible 10 points, he would have been a very happy man.
The Panthers have done exactly that.
Yet based on the circumstances surrounding how the Panthers have gone about getting those points has left no one celebrating and the mood around the team wouldn't be considered even remotely jovial.
Florida opened its homestand with three straight wins. Then came two late meltdowns that resulted in two points in the standings – but two lost points as well.
“It's always tougher to swallow when you've lost games the way we have,'' DeBoer said. “If we had crappy starts and had been coming back in all these games, everyone would be patting us on the back talking about our great character. Instead, we can't finish but got eight of 10. We have to keep this in perspective.''
The Panthers led Atlanta, a team they are chasing for the final playoff spot, by two with two minutes left on Monday. The Thrashers got two quick goals then won in a shootout, their radio announcer giddily calling it “a miracle win.''
Wednesday, Columbus trailed 2-1 in the waning moments before Antoine Vermette scored off a rebound to tie it, R.J. Umberger winning it for the Blue Jackets in overtime.
Their celebration – Columbus had lost seven of its past eight – looked like something out of the Stanley Cup playoffs and not a weekday game in front of a sparse crowd on the edge of the Florida Everglades.
(Photo credit: Lynne Sladky, Associated Press)
The prevailing theme around the Panthers is that they need to have a short memory, to put these two losses in the back of their minds and move on. Only these type of losses are happening almost on a nightly basis.
“It definitely hurts, we needed these couple of points,'' center Mike Santorelli said. “We played good enough to win. We just need to find a way, any way, to get through these last couple of minutes.''
Since Dec. 31, when the Panthers led Montreal 2-0 only to lose 3-2 in overtime, the Panthers have scored four goals just twice. Florida has held early two goal leads in games in seven of its past 11 games. Of those seven games, the Panthers have given up said lead six times – winning just twice under those circumstances.
Florida's problems late in games could be avoided if only the team were to score more earlier. In both the Atlanta and Columbus losses, Florida missed great scoring chances, be it missing empty nets (five against Atlanta) or missing out on close goals (the Panthers would have taken a 3-1 lead late against Columbus were it not for an odd and errant roll of a puck near the goal cage).
“It's the worst bounce I've ever seen. That puck was going into the net,'' DeBoer said. “We have to find a way to manufacture more goals. That's the bottom line. We can fix the last-minute stuff. That's just the by-product of the bigger problem and that's not getting more goals at the right time.''
-- The Panthers played the second half of Wednesday's game a little shorthanded as two of their defensemen were slowed by injury.
Dmitry Kulikov (ribs) and Jason Garrison (groin) left the game but did return. Kulikov, who will miss Friday's game against Tampa Bay, was called for holding late in overtime – a penalty that led to Columbus' game-winning goal. “Sure, [the injury] affected him,'' DeBoer said.
Defenseman Joe Callahan has been called up from the Panthers AHL affiliate in Rochester, N.Y. If Garrison is unable to play, Clay Wilson will be summoned from Rochester as well.
-- Even though the Panthers appear to be fatigued late in games, DeBoer doesn't sound like he's ready to give Darcy Hordichuk any more playing time. Hordichuk seemed a little upset about his lack of playing time following Wednesday's loss as he had hoped to contribute more with the Panthers after being traded here before the start of the season.
Hordichuk played six shifts in the first Wednesday and fought on his third shift of the second. Hordichuk didn't leave the bench after serving his five minute penalty for fighting and totaled 5:45 on the ice – the most time he's seen in the past five games.
Hordichuk is averaging 4:22 per game this season.
“He's averaging for us about what he's averaged his whole career,'' DeBoer said. “When we got him, we weren't going to turn him from a five-minute player into a 10 or a 15 minute player.''
FRIDAY: LIGHTNING AT PANTHERS
When, Where: 7:30 p.m.; BankAtlantic Center, Sunrise
TV/Radio: FSNF; WQAM 560
The series: Florida leads 51-33-10
The game: This is the third time these two rivals have met this season, with the Panthers winning the first two. The Panthers beat Tampa Bay 6-0 in their home opener on Oct. 16, then won in Tampa 4-3 on Stephen Weiss' shootout goal on Nov. 27. .-.-. This is the finale of Florida's six-game homestand. The Panthers are 3-0-2 so far. Tampa Bay will play at Atlanta on Thursday night and are 0-3 in the second game of a back-to-back set this month. The Lightning have been outscored 20-8 in those games.