It would be easy to blame Scott Clemmensen for Florida's loss on Friday considering Pittsburgh's first two goals came in fairly easy fashion.
Yes, Clemmensen should shoulder some of the responsibility for an ugly 4-1 loss to the banged-up Penguins in front of an announced 18,658 at BankAtlantic Center. Yet the Panthers have no one to blame but themselves – and should be thanking Clemmensen the game didn't get completely out of hand earlier.
“That was a debacle from the get-go,'' defenseman Ed Jovanovski said. “We got outplayed, outworked. It was obvious. There was no push back and our goalie kept us in it. We had no answer for them.''
Clemmensen stopped the first 20 shots he faced before Pittsburgh got on the board as his teammates did little to nothing until they were down three goals.
Florida got a Michal Repik goal in the third and a few golden chances after that, yet dug too big a hole against Marc-Andre Fluery and a Pittsburgh team that had lost six straight.
Pittsburgh outshot the Panthers 41-26 and had 26 more shot chances (shots, missed shots, blocked shots) in the game.
“We didn't have their intensity level,'' coach Kevin Dineen said. “They came in ready to do whatever it took to win. We were looking for an easier way to win the game.''
As far as the Panthers lead in the Southeast goes, well, it could be gone before they play Boston on Monday night. Washington, which beat the Penguins Wednesday and Tampa Bay on Friday, is now two points back. And the Capitals play host to the struggling Hurricanes on Sunday.
The eight point cushion Florida enjoyed in December seems a lifetime ago.
If the Panthers weren't leading the division, their 50 points would put them tied for fifth place in the east instead of their current spot of third. Florida has lost seven of 10. The Penguins remain tied in points with Washington for the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference.
“You learn from games, good or bad,'' Clemmensen said. “It's going to be tight as it is every year. That's what makes a difference between playoff teams and teams that don't make it. Good teams find a way to win and find a way out of bad spots. This team has played consistent hockey for the most part. It's not time to hit the panic button. That just wasn't our best game. We'll move on. We have played better and expect to play better.''
Florida, which had three days between games, looked slow and surprised by Pittsburgh's tenacious play.
Pittsburgh didn't score in the opening period, but had 28 shot attempts to Florida's 11. That trend continued in the second as the Penguins again took the game to the Panthers and picked up a pair of goals to go into the second break up 2-0.
Clemmensen would definitely like the first goal back as he should have been credited for the second assist after playing the puck outside the crease and inadvertently feeding it to Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke, who in turn, passed it to Steve Sullivan. He deposited the puck into an empty net as Clemmensen couldn't get back.
With less than 45 seconds left in the period, Evgeni Malkin carried the puck in with Chris Kunitz on his right for a two-on-one rush. Malkin shot the puck himself with Clemmensen making the save. The puck, however, bounced to the back boards where Malkin pulled it in and backhanded a shot to the net. The puck found its way past Clemmensen and it was 2-0. Tyler Kennedy made it 3-0 on Pittsburgh's initial shot of the third and that was about that.
Aside from Repik's goal, Tomas Fleischmann whiffed on a shot in front of the net with 7:28 left. That would have given Florida life at 3-2. Instead, Pittsburgh's James Neal made it 4-1 with 4:17 remaining.
The trio of Stephen Weiss, Kris Versteeg – who was benched and played just two shifts in the third – haven't scored in four straight games. Weiss, who appears to still be slowed from a rib injury suffered last month, hasn't scored in 14 games.
-- The Panthers appear to be getting much healthier these days, leaving Dineen with some decisions to make as early as next week. Sean Bergenheim, Jose Theodore, Jack Skille and Scottie Upshall all participated in Friday's morning skate. Theodore (knee) is expected to be back in net Monday against the Bruins.
-- For the first time since leaving Miami Arena for Sunrise in 1998, the Panthers will be on the ice in Miami-Dade County on Saturday. The Panthers will hold a practice at Kendall Ice Arena at 11:30 a.m. Admission is free.