Florida Panthers: Skinner’s Double Propels Eichel-less Sabres over Cats

BUFFALO, NY - JANUARY 3: Jeff Skinner #53 of the Buffalo Sabres celebrates his second goal of the game, the game winner, against the Florida Panthers during an NHL game on January 3, 2019 at KeyBank Center in Buffalo, New York. Buffalo won, 4-3. (Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)
BUFFALO, NY - JANUARY 3: Jeff Skinner #53 of the Buffalo Sabres celebrates his second goal of the game, the game winner, against the Florida Panthers during an NHL game on January 3, 2019 at KeyBank Center in Buffalo, New York. Buffalo won, 4-3. (Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images) /

It just wasn’t to be for your Florida Panthers Thursday night in Western New York, dropping the first game of 2019 against the Buffalo Sabres.

The game was, to say the least, frustrating from a Florida standpoint. From the start, the Sabres seemed to be the more ready team, playing up-tempo, physical hockey, while the Florida Panthers couldn’t keep up.

The first goal was a testament to how the two teams open up, with Mike Matheson and Jared McCann losing out on the boards to Jeff Skinner, who simply would not be denied.

He skated past Denis Malgin, lost his footing, yet still smashed the puck off the bar and in past Roberto Luongo to open the scoring for Buffalo.

The Panthers would make a theme of this sloppiness throughout the game, and yet again were made to pay just two and a half minutes later.

This next goal shows just how much more Buffalo wanted this game, it shows the effort of both teams simplified throughout the night.

When Aleksander Barkov turned the puck over, Buffalo’s 2nd line snapped forwards, with Conor Sheary getting the puck to Vladimir Sobotka, who strung the puck to his former St. Louis Blues teammate Tage Thompson, who drove right into the slot and finished past Luongo, with both him nor Keith Yandle able to do anything about it.

Buffalo would take this 2-0 advantage into the first intermission.

The decision to start Roberto Luongo was a puzzling one from the start. Luongo had previously conceded 15 goals in his last 5 games, and he was pulled from the net in two of those five and hasn’t kept a shutout in exactly 30 days.

Meanwhile, James Reimer was the reason the Panthers had won their last two games, with his 34 saves against the Philadelphia Flyers keeping the Panthers alive to stage a late comeback, and coming on to shutout the Detroit Red Wings on Monday night after Luongo gave up 3 goals on 8 shots to win 4-3 in a shootout.

On the attacking end, the Panthers really struggled to create much offensively, clutching at straws to form any kind of lethal attack.

The attack would come past the midway point in the 2nd. Keith Yandle laid out a big hit in the defensive zone, and when the Sabres went looking for interference, the Cats snapped forwards on an odd-man rush.

Frank Vatrano beat keeper Linus Ullmark for his 11th on the year to put the Panthers back in the game. For Vatrano, he now has a new career high in goals in a season, with 11 beating his total from 2016, in 6 games fewer.

The second period would prove to be one of confidence for the Panthers. The team gave much more effort than in the first, still not much, but improving.

The forwards were more careful with the puck, the defenders made a few nice plays, and Roberto Luongo would make a few big saves on both Sheary and Sobotka to keep the score at 2-1 Sabres heading into the second intermission.

Despite the game being close for mostly the entire game, it was a rough night for Bob Boughner. The team didn’t feel as motivated as they were during that last forty minutes against Detroit, and none of his lines were putting together any solid consistent shifts.

He took notice of both these things, and even mentioned the issue of their bad start to Randy Moller on the Panthers’ TV broadcast:

The only one who felt urgency and desperation going into the third was Boughner himself. Frank Vatrano was promoted to line one, Denis Malgin fell to line four, and Jared McCann was taken off the power play unit altogether.

It was just a meshing together of anything possible to try to get some offensive consistency. Buffalo regained their two-goal lead early into the third, through Lawrence Pilut who took a shot from the left flank, redirected in front by Sam Reinhart.

Just a rough goal to give up for Florida, especially after bouncing back the way they had in that second period.

The Panthers then lost valuable time after Mark Pysyk and Aaron Ekblad both took penalties in the span of 36 seconds, with Buffalo on a 5-on-3 power play for around 1:30.

This is one thing Bob Boughner deserves some credit for. On this 5-on-3, Boughner used two forwards (wound up mostly being Troy Brouwer and Juho Lammikko), a change from last Friday’s 5-on-3 tactic against Montreal.

This strategy allowed the Panthers to put more pressure on the defensemen, as Rasmus Dahlin and Rasmus Ristolainen really struggled to create much other than just wrist shots at Luongo. The Panthers killed off both penalties rather convincingly.

It looked as though they could take some momentum for themselves, and they did. This time, it was the power play yet again giving out another goal for the Panthers.

It had been a rough start for the man advantage prior to this; 0/2 with only four shots across those two power plays.

This time, the Panthers got the goal at the crucial time. Linus Ullmark couldn’t hang onto an Aleksander Barkov shot and the puck squirted across the crease for Mike Hoffman to stab into the net.

This was already Hoffman’s 10th power play goal on the season, beating out his 2015 total of 9, and just three behind his career high back in 2016. With that, it was 3-2, game on once again.

Then, an absolute killer for the Panthers came with just 2:52 to go. Jeff Skinner tore down the left side, and again, just would not be denied.

His wrist shot went through Roberto Luongo, a shot that Luongo really should have saved, and the Sabres regained their two-goal lead again.

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This one really hurt as a fan. Luongo has made so many big saves for the Panthers in so many seasons for this club, and this is usually one that he does comfortably deny with the stick or the glove, but it just wasn’t to be.

This was Skinner’s 28th goal on the year, making him 2nd in the NHL in goals, only behind Alex Ovechkin’s tally of 30.

Despite Aleksander Barkov’s goal, there wasn’t enough for Florida to force overtime, and Buffalo closed the game out to win 4-3.

The loss keeps Florida at 40 points, still 1 point above the Carolina Hurricanes, despite their win in Philadelphia, and still 1 point below the New York Rangers, despite their blowout loss in Pittsburgh the other night.

The win puts the gap between Florida and Buffalo to 10 points, and in a game where the Panthers could’ve drawn to within 6 points of the Sabres, this is not the game the team wanted to lose.

For Saturday, they face just as tough of a challenge, a home game against the Columbus Blue Jackets, who have had the Panthers’ number this year, winning 5-4 in October and 7-3 in November.

The one advantage Florida do have is that the Jackets will be playing a back-to-back, facing Carolina on Friday night in Raleigh.

Nick Bjugstad will likely be out, with a slim chance of Chris Wideman making his Panthers debut after arriving from Edmonton earlier this week.

Two simple changes need to be made: Reimer must start, and the Panthers must play more aggressive.

They allowed a team without their best player to control the puck for most of the night. Don’t make the same mistake against Columbus, as they will bury us as they have in games past if Florida plays like they did last night.

Next. Henrik Borgström Looks Ready to Perform at the Highest Level. dark

This is the time of year for the pretenders to show, the time for either the players or the front office to step up and move past this first half of the season is now.