Amidst all the fanfare involving Nick Bjugstad’s debut, the Panthers still had to face the red hot Washington Capitals, a team they have struggled mightily against. Led by the resurgent Alex Ovechkin who recored a hat trick in the game, the Caps jumped out to a 4-0 lead. The three goals gave him 23 on the year good for second in the NHL. The Panthers however, would not go quietly and the team gathered itself and scored three in the third period coming up just short in the end falling 4-3. Tomas Kopecky scored his 14th and 15th goals of the season giving him the Panther lead.
With the win, the Capitals whom many had given up on after early season struggles, took hold of the Southeast Division lead. The Caps struggled out of the gate going 2-8-1 through Feb 7th. Two back to back wins against the Panthers kickstarted a 17-9-1 record the rest of the way. The Capitals have relished playing the Panthers this season sweeping the four game season. Last night’s game marked the last matchup between these two teams as division rivals as they will be in separate divisions under next seasons realignment.
For the Panthers the game was a special occasion despite the loss. Projected top line center Nick Bjugstad made his NHL debut after signing with the Panthers last week. Bjugstad had a quiet game with 13:04 TOI and one shot. Bjugstad was encouraged by the start saying after the game, “I was both excited and nervous, but as the game went on I felt a little more comfortable. It was good to get the first game under my belt and hopefully I can build off that.”
The Panthers are right back at it tonight when the Ottawa Senators come to town. The Senators have 44 points and currently sit in the 6th playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The game will be a preview of what is to come next year when the two teams become division rivals. The Panthers can get a jump start on the rivalry tonight. By handing the Senators a loss, the Panthers could complicate the Senators playoff plans.
At this point in the season the playoffs are out of the picture for Florida but there is still much to play for. The Panthers current lineup features a number of young players with much to prove. Players like Nick Bjugstad, Quinton Howden, Jonathan Huberdeau, Erik Gudbranson, Jacob Markstrom and Scott Timmins will bring the enthusiasm of youth to the rink every night and it should be exciting to watch the rest of the way. The future of the Panthers is starting to become a reality.