The Florida Panthers got their five game road trip started off with a strong performance last night but they were unable to defeat a tough Minnesota Wild team falling by a score of 3-2. The Panthers fell behind 2-0 in the first period but picked things up the rest of the way. Florida scored two third period goals to even the score but Charlie Coyle was able to beat Tim Thomas at 11:38 in the third with the go ahead goal.
The Wild came out of the gate and took control of the game scoring a power play goal at 4:59 into the first. Zach Parise got the goal on the man-advantage, his 10th goal of the season. The Wild kept coming and at 13:38 in the first Jason Pominville put Minnesota up 2-0 with his 12th of the year. The Panthers were thoroughly outplayed in the first and Minnesota outshot Florida 10-3.
The Panthers would put the clamps down on Minnesota the rest of the way. With no score in the second, the Panthers headed to the third down 2-0. Florida got on the board quickly as Tomas Kopecky scored at 3:31 into the final frame. Kopecky planted himself in front of the net and got a stick on a Jesse Winchester pass, deflecting the puck past Minnesota keeper Josh Harding. The goal was Kopecky’s first of the season and you could see the great weight being lifted off his back as the puck went into the net. There were lots of smiles to go around as the Panthers celebrated the goal, Kopecky’s teammates being well aware of the burden the scoring drought had become on him. After 20 games and 48 shots on net, Kopecky finally got one to go in. Hopefully that opens the door for a few more. Jesse Winchester got the assist on the goal, extending his point streak to four games.
It was a game of getting monkeys off backs as not too long after Kopecky got off the schneid, Jonathan Huberdeau scored the game tying goal, his fourth of the year, breaking a 12 game goalless drought. Huberdeau had an expression of relief of his own as he celebrated with teammate and Minnesota native Nick Bjugstad who assisted on the goal in front of his home town fans.
Despite the Panthers late game dominance, the Wild were able to find the game winner when 21-year-old Charlie Coyle got good body position on Mike Mottau in front of the Panther net allowing him to deflect a Mikko Koivu pass into the back of the net. The Panthers would threaten in the remaining eight minutes but were unable to find a goal.
Despite being outshot 10-3 in the first period, the Panthers ended up outshooting Minnesota 24-20. In the second and third periods, the Panthers outshot the Wild 21-10. Tim Thomas stopped 17 of 20 in net for Florida while Wild goalie Josh Harding stopped 22 of 24.
While Florida ended up on the losing end of things last night, there are a number of positives that we can take from the game. The Panthers played better tonight than they did when they defeated Minnesota 2-1 in a shootout at home back in October. In that game, the Panthers were outshot 31-22 and would not have won that game without a stellar effort from Tim Thomas. Last night, on the road, in a very tough place to play, the Panthers held their own and for good portions of the game looked like the better team. We can be upset with the result but not with the effort.
Another positive is, the line of Huberdeau-Bjugstad-Fleischmann has emerged as the unquestioned number one line. Fleischmann and Bjugstad were both over 19 minuets of ice time last night and Huberdeau was at 17:53. It makes sense then that when the Panthers were pressing for a goal with Thomas pulled at the end of the game, the forwards Peter Horachek put on the ice were Huberdeau, Bjugstad, Fleischmann and Upshall.
Scottie Upshall deserved those crunch time minutes as he had another strong game. It is amazing to see the difference in Upshall’s on-ice performance since the head coaching change. I would say his play is by far the biggest difference we have seen since Horachek took over behind the bench.
Coming over in the Kris Versteeg trade, Jimmy Hayes did not play last night for the Panthers. The 6’6″ winger was a healthy scratch but he could be in the lineup tonight against Colorado. The Panthers did not seem to be missing anything with Versteeg out of the lineup and I was surprised by how little I was impacted by his absence.
With the loss, the Panthers fall to 4-12-4 while the Wild improved to 12-4-4. The Panthers are right back at it again tonight as the face the Colorado Avalanche at 9:00 p.m. in Colorado.