‘We’ve got to put on our big-boy pants’: Time is running out for the Florida Panthers
The first thing Paul Maurice wants his Florida Panthers to do is pay attention to what’s going on all across the league.
It’s not because he wants them to be scoreboard watching — although the Penguins’ and Islanders’ scores do matter a lot right now. It’s because he wants them to realize their plight is not unique. A three-game losing streak, as costly as it might be, can’t kill the Panthers when Pittsburgh and New York are struggling to consistently rip off wins, too.
“Everybody’s going through the exact same thing,” the coach said Saturday after Florida fell to the New York Rangers, 4-3, in Sunrise for a third straight loss. “Enjoy the fact that you put yourself back in the fight.”
These are facts: The Penguins have won just four of their last 10 and the Islanders six, and a pair of three-game winning streaks for the Panthers earlier this month did let them erase an eight-point gap in the standings to briefly control their own destiny last week.
This is also a fact: Florida (36-30-7) now trails both Pittsburgh and the Islanders by three points for a wild card spot, and only have nine games left to make up ground and five of those, including the next four, are on the road, beginning Monday when it faces the Ottawa Senators (35-33-5) at 7 p.m. at the Canadian Tire Centre in Ontario.
“We’ve got to put on our big-boy pants and just do it,” left wing Ryan Lomberg said Saturday. “We know what we’re up against.”
Those three-game winning streaks, separated only by an overtime loss, are evidence the Panthers can still regroup and make the 2023 Stanley Cup playoffs. Their first period against the Rangers was, too.
The last three games, and the last two periods against the Rangers, are a reminder of the challenge.
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Florida’s skid started with a loss to the lowly Flyers on Tuesday in Philadelphia — albeit in its second game in as many nights, with three key players out — and continued with two convincing losses at FLA Live Arena to two of the best teams in the NHL. The Panthers even blew a two-goal lead to the Rangers, getting outshot 39-22 across the final two periods after they outshot the Rangers, 12-3, in the first.
“We’re going to forget all the bad things and move on,” All-Star center Aleksander Barkov said Saturday.
As always, it’s easier said than done and mistakes compounded across the final two periods of Florida’s latest loss. The Panthers committed nine giveaways — to the Rangers’ two — in the second and third periods, and their 5-on-5 possession numbers plummeted from about 80 percent in the first period, using Corsi as a guideline, to about 45 percent in the next two.
Florida could feel the game starting to slip away and tried to get too aggressive with high-risk, high-reward passes through the middle of the ice. As much as the style worked for the Panthers last year, it’s not how Maurice wants them to play this season and it made for a disjointed performance.
“We’ve got to find that inner confidence, especially when it’s a little bit shaky,” Maurice said. “You start chasing that game before you should. We had no business chasing that game.”
Still, Barkov nearly saved them. He scored in the first period to put Florida up 1-0 and then again in the third to cut the Rangers’ lead to 4-3. The captain — given his work on special teams, too — was as good as any player on the ice and, first and foremost, the Panthers need more games like those in the final three-plus weeks of the regular season.
Right wing Matthew Tkachuk, and defensemen Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour — perhaps Florida’s three other biggest stars — combined for zero points, seven giveaways and only two high-danger chances.
“The first thing you’ll do is look at your leaders to lead, to have their ‘A’ games,” Maurice said. “We have other guys that can play better.”