BY GEORGE RICHARDS
TAMPA – Playing on consecutive nights is a reality in the National Hockey League, a problem each team has to deal with.
How a team succeeds in those games, especially in the second game of a back-to-back set, can help determine whether a team makes it to the postseason or not.
The Panthers sure could do a lot better in that department – although there are teams who handle it much worse.
Florida visited Tampa Bay on Saturday night for the third and final time this season. Two of those trips came when the Panthers had played at home the night before. Florida lost both, outscored 11-4 in the process.
The Panthers are 2-5-1 in the second game this season with five more to go. The next set of back-to-back games comes this weekend when the Panthers visit the Devils on Saturday afternoon then play the Islanders on Sunday.
Winnipeg, which came into the weekend five points back of the Panthers in the divisional race, has lost all nine of its second night games this season.
“You have tired legs so you have to manage your ice time,'' coach Kevin Dineen said. “You can get the same amount, but it has to be distributed differently. You really have to stay mentally sharp in these games. You have to stay in the game and not let how your body feels be more important that being in the right position.''
Although Florida has five more games in which it will be playing on successive nights, the schedule does turn in its favor a little bit down the stretch. Because of travel, many teams head south and play both the Lightning and Panthers.
Six times over the next two months those games will come on consecutive nights in which a northern team plays in Tampa on the first night and then faces a rested Florida team the next. Only once will a team (Washington) start the back-to-back stage against the Panthers.
Florida will be rested and await Ottawa (Feb. 15), Carolina (March 11), Edmonton (March 23) and the Islanders (March 25).
Last week, the Panthers took advantage of that same scenario by beating the Capitals (4-2) and Jets (2-1) after both those teams played across the Alley the night before.
And things sure could be worse. In the AHL, teams routinely play weekend series that include night games on Friday and Saturday with a Sunday matinee thrown in for fun.
“We had 12 three-and-threes last year and you do that a lot in the AHL,'' said Dineen, who spent six seasons coaching the Portland Pirates of the AHL.
Goalie Brian Foster hoped to get the start for the Panthers on Saturday against Tampa Bay. Not only would it have marked his NHL debut, but the start would have come on his 25th birthday. Dineen went with Scott Clemmensen instead as Florida went with the same goalie on consecutive nights for the first time this season.
No matter. When Tampa Bay scored its fifth goal with 4:52 left in the second period, Dineen turned to his left and made the call. Foster would make his NHL debut after all. Foster closed the second and made a save on the only shot he faced. Clemmensen returned to start the third.
“There were a million thoughts going through my head,'' Foster said. “I was nervous, excited. I can't really explain it. I was nervous when he told me, but then you skate out there and it all goes away. It becomes natural. You could see the way the game was going. If it kept up, you have to make a change. I was preparing myself mentally to go out there and do the job.''
By using Foster – even for such a short period of time – the Panthers have officially used four goalies in a season for just the third time in franchise history.