BY GEORGE RICHARDS Twitter: @OnFrozenPond
PITTSBURGH – The Panthers had a lot going against them in the final minutes Friday, the biggest obstacle of all being their opponent.
The host Penguins threw everything they had at a Florida team that lost Jack Skille to injury in the third and were obviously playing on dead legs after Thursday's loss in Philadelphia. Still, thanks to some strong play by Jose Theodore down the stretch, the Panthers forced overtime and earned a valuable point in a 2-1 shootout loss to the Penguins at Consol Energy Center.
Florida now heads home for a key stretch of games with the following four in Sunrise through next weekend.
The Penguins have now won eight straight and 11 of their past 13.
“The outcome is important at this time of the year, but it's a process,'' said Panthers coach Kevin Dineen, whose team went 0-1-1 on this Keystone State road trip and has lost eight of the past 12.
“At the end of the day, it's how you play. We walk out of here knowing we played a good team and played extremely hard. We gave ourselves a good chance to win.''
Skille, who has been a very productive player of late, was lost in the third period when he collided with teammate Sean Bergenheim near the Pittsburgh goal. Skille skated off favoring his shoulder in obvious pain. Skille missed a big chunk of the season with a shoulder injury, returning on Feb. 12 and playing in 13 straight games.
“He looked pretty sore,'' Dineen said without giving further update. “He looked like he was hurting.''
Florida took a much-needed 1-0 lead in the second period when Tomas Fleischmann charged the net from the right side and followed up a big shot from Wojtek Wolski and beat Marc-Andre Fleury at 7:17 of the period.
The Panthers took that lead into the third period with the Penguins tying things up 2:56 in when Steve Sullivan charged in on Theodore on a breakaway and tossed up a soft backhanded shot. Theodore (33 saves) made the initial stop, but the puck somehow crawled past and ended up behind him. This came not long after Florida survived its lone penalty kill – a four-minute job after Krys Barch was given a double-minor for a high stick.
Theodore didn't let the next big shot get that far when Pascal Dupuis chopped at a loose puck that was initially ruled a goal. Hockey Central in Toronto reviewed the play and overturned the call on the ice as replays couldn't confirm the puck fully crossed the line as Theodore had his arm on top of it midway through the period.
“I saw the puck the whole way,'' said Theodore, making starts on consecutive nights for the first time this season. “You never like to see the referee point that it was a goal, but I felt confident it wasn't.''
The Penguins came strong at Theodore the rest of the night but the Panthers goalie stood up to the challenge and made a nice save with less than 10 seconds left. Theodore made three saves in the overtime but gave up both goals in the shootout as Pittsburgh moved to 9-3 in shootouts this season. Florida, now 5-13 in overtime contests, is 4-8 in shootouts.
Still, Florida added a point in the standings to help keep it in first place in the Southeast Division for another few days at least.
“I thought we played a very solid game. It's real tough playing in Pittsburgh, especially up 1-0,'' Fleischmann said. “We fought hard on both sides and it took the shootout to decide it. It was a good bounce back. We played more as a team, five guys on the ice. We need to keep playing that way. This is a very tough stretch.''
() The Sidney Crosby saga continued Friday as the Penguins star worked out but did not play against the Panthers. Crosby, who has missed over 101 games over the past two seasons because of concussion-related injuries, may return to the lineup Sunday when Boston comes to town.
Or not. Crosby was cleared for contact on Tuesday. He could return next week in New York against the Rangers.
“We haven't practiced a lot lately,'' Crosby told reporters on Friday morning. “Just a couple of morning skates. I haven't got a lot of contact really, the way the schedule has worked out. I haven't tested things as much as I'd like. But even the bumping I've done, it's been good.
() With two extra forwards, Dineen has a little flexibility in what he can do with the lineup. After being shutout in Philadelphia on Thursday, Dineen decided to switch things up a bit as he brought back Marco Sturm and John Madden for Friday's game.
Mike Santorelli and newcomer Jerred Smithson sat.
Dineen also sat defenseman Keaton Ellerby and went with Tyson Strachan instead.
“You have to rate where your players are and energy is a very important thing at this time of the year,'' Dineen said.