For the Florida Panthers, Sunday afternoon’s tilt against the Detroit Red Wings had to feel more like Groundhog Day rather than April Fools Day. They played a hard fought, low-scoring game with many unconverted scoring chances but, thanks to strong goaltending, managed to hang around before falling in a shootout (this time 2-1). Sound familiar? It should as this was the eleventh time this scenario took place but if there’s a positive, it’s that the point means a win on Tuesday against the Winnipeg Jets and the Cats will clinch a playoff spot for the first time since 2000.
For the first time in three games, the Panthers truly played like a team fighting for their playoff lives. From the opening face-off til Kris Versteeg’s missed shootout attempt, the team, to a man, played like it was a playoff game. Be it backchecking, giving up the body to block shots, or being in position to clear the puck from in front of the net, it was the type of desperate effort that would’ve come in handy this past Friday in Columbus.
For this game, Kevin Dineen reunited the Flashmob line and their chemistry paid off in the first period. Versteeg found Tomas Fleischmann with a cross-ice pass that he one-timed past Jimmy Howard for a 1-0 lead. Stephen Weiss picked up the secondary assist as the line collected all the points on the goal. With the Panthers struggling to put more than 1-2 goals on the board a night, the Flashmob line rediscovering their collective game as the playoffs draw near could be a great thing for this team.
The Cats would hold the lead for almost 30 minutes of game time before the Red Wings, with the help of some bad luck for the Panthers, would even things up. A Jiri Hudler shot from the right face-off circle would take a deflection as it went past Scott Clemmensen to tie it up 5:30 of the third. The Red Wings would make a hard push over the end of regulation to win it but the defense would hold, thanks to another outstanding performance from Clemmensen.
If there’s a frustrating aspect to losing a three point game to the league’s best home team is that the Panthers had plenty of chances to take control of it on several occasions. Twice in the game, bad penalties cut short Florida power plays including a five minute major just after the Red Wings tied the game up. Overall, the Cats went 0-5 with the man advantage. When a team like Detroit, who aren’t prone to too many mental mistakes, gives you the opportunity, you have to make them pay for it. Not doing so cost the Panthers an extra point on this night.
All that said, the Panthers stand one solitary win from putting a 12 years of frustration behind them. All the years of watching other teams take their shot at the Stanley Cup while debating about who to draft with a high draft pick can be swept aside with 60 minutes of desperate, aggressive hockey…and a bit of good fortune for good measure. A Tampa Bay win over the Washington Capitals on Monday and the win can even secure a Southeast Division title. It’s all right there for the taking. Get your rats ready.
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