BY GEORGE RICHARDS [email protected]
FACEBOOK: On Frozen Pond
Only one team has finished below the Panthers in the standings the previous two seasons. On Friday, the Edmonton Oilers – minus one of the two rising stars they drafted ahead of Florida – came to town trying to make the Panthers run to the playoffs a little more difficult.
Playing each other for the first time since the 2010-11 season opener, one of Edmonton's top youngsters was a difference maker as Ryan Nugent-Hopkins helped start one goal then hit the game-winner in a shootout as the Oilers escaped Sunrise with a 2-1 win. Florida hasn't beaten the Oilers on home ice since 2002.
Despite the loss, Florida picked up a point in the standings and continue to hold a four-point lead on Washington for the lead in the Southeast Division and four on Buffalo as the Sabres fight Washington for the last playoff spot in the conference. Florida's standing in the conference and division was of little consolation to the Panthers, however, as this was a winnable game lost.
“We need to produce more offense and not just hope, play the game the way it's supposed to be played,'' coach Kevin Dineen said. “It's a disappointing loss for our team.''
Said goalie Jose Theodore: “You have to look at what's ahead. You look at the scoreboard, but we have to approach every game the same.''
Since the two teams rarely see each other, the Panthers coaching staff had to do some extra scouting. Edmonton, which lost in a shootout on Thursday in Tampa Bay, started 25-year-old goalie Devan Dubnyk adding a little more intrigue to things since Florida players have limited experience against him.
Florida failed to get anything past the 6-foot-5 goalie until Jason Garrison took a nice feed in the left circle and sliced one five hole to tie the score. And that would be the only goal Dubnyk surrendered as he stopped 26 shots in regulation and overtime before stoning Florida on four shootout attempts.
The biggest save of the night came with 1.8 seconds left in overtime as Stephen Weiss found Kris Versteeg streaking down the ice all alone. Versteeg walked in on Dubnyk and was stopped on his initial offering but corralled the loose puck and tried pushing it through. Dubnyk got a skate on the puck, however, as the Panthers ended up inches from a win – and an extra point.
“I was [terrible] all night. When you're playing that bad, it really doesn't matter. You're not going to get the bounces,'' an angry Versteeg said, liberally mixing in profanity in his post-game comments.
“It was on the line. It almost went in. I don't know what to tell you. It comes down to playing better. I have to be better because I've been brutal.''
Nugent-Hopkins, taken first overall last June as Florida took Jonathan Huberdeau two spots later, got Edmonton's first goal going as he picked up a loose puck in front of Dubnyk and took off on the fast break. Nugent-Hopkins fed Jordan Eberle who found Ryan Jones on his left as Jones beat Theodore 1:37 into the second period.
Florida tied it three minutes later as Garrison set the Panthers record for goals by a defenseman with 16.
Taylor Hall, whom Edmonton took first in 2010 before Florida grabbed Erik Gudbranson, missed Friday's game with a concussion. The Oilers are a better team with Hall in the lineup, but were good enough to beat the Panthers once more without him. Florida has now lost three straight to the Oilers. Edmonton once again sits at the bottom of the NHL standings and will definitely finish below Florida for a third straight year.
“I hope that's not a point we need down the stretch. Two points were on the line and we didn't take it,'' Mikael Samuelsson lamented. “We didn't play a good game. They played [Thursday] and we should have taken over. One goal is not enough against a skilled team like that.''
Count Dineen as one who wasn't a big fan of Sean Bergenheim taunting the Carolina Hurricanes after Wednesday's game for their place in the standings. Bergenheim reportedly swung his stick as if it were a golf club, an old hockey joke meaning teams out of the playoffs – like the Hurricanes – should start making tee times come April.
Bergenheim helped Tampa Bay come to within a goal of the Stanley Cup Finals last season although he now plays for a team that owns the NHL record for not making the postseason in 10 seasons/11 years.
“I think it's a little early for that,'' said Dineen, as Bergenheim wasn't available for comment as he left soon after the morning skate ended. “I would be certainly be more worried about our own play than I am wondering where everyone else is suited in two weeks.''
() Defenseman Brian Campbell played in his 700th NHL game on Friday.