As Florida Panthers continue to search for consistency, a ‘good test’ is upon them

The Florida Panthers, short a player as illness and injury continue to ravage their forward group, had just gotten themselves within a goal of the Pittsburgh Penguins with just under 10 minutes left to play on Thursday. Sam Reinhart had blasted Carter Verhaeghe’s cross-ice pass past Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry, a rare spot of offensive success for the Panthers on that night.

“Definitely built a little momentum,” Verhaeghe said. “Everyone was pushing. Anytime you put it within one, it definitely gives the bench life.”

That life slowly faded as Jarry stopped every other scoring opportunity Florida put up against him in the third before the Penguins sealed Florida’s 4-2 loss with an empty-net goal with about a minute and a half left to play.

It was another game that has played out like so many of the Panthers’ games this season: Solid effort but a loss.

The Panthers are trying to remain upbeat as their erratic first half of the season continues.

But they also understand the reality of their situation.

“At the end of the day,” forward Ryan Lomberg said, “we’ve got to start getting the two points.”

To do that, in simplest terms, they have to win.

And they haven’t done that consistently.

The Panthers are 14-13-4 after 31 games. That has them fifth in the Atlantic Division and fifth in the Eastern Conference’s wild card standings. They have yet to win more than two games in a row.

And the road isn’t getting easier for the Panthers any time soon. Their next three games are against division leaders.

The stretch starts with a two-game road trip, first against the Metropolitan Division-leading New Jersey Devils on Saturday and then the Atlantic Division-leading Boston Bruins on Monday before facing the Devils again on Wednesday at FLA Live Arena. Florida then faces the New York Islanders on the road on Dec. 23 before a five-day break.

“It’s going to be a good test for us to see where we’re at,” Lomberg said. “We’re all competitors. We’re looking forward to the challenge.”

It’ll simply be the latest challenge the Panthers have faced. They had a stretch early in the season in which they played 11 games without star defenseman Aaron Ekblad because of a groin injury. Captain and star center Aleksander Barkov missed a stretch of seven out of eight games while sick.

And now the team has been without a slew of other key contributors, including center Anton Lundell (seven games, illness and upper-body injury), defenseman Radko Gudas (six games, concussion), winger Patric Hornqvist (six games, concussion), for a while now. Three more — All-Star winger Matthew Tkachuk (illness), forward Colin White (upper body) and forward Chris Tierney (concussion) — all sat out Thursday’s loss as well, leaving the Panthers with just 11 available forwards against the Penguins. Three of those forwards — Zac Dalpe, Grigori Denisenko and Aleksi Heponiemi — began the season with the Charlotte Checkers, the Panthers’ American Hockey League affiliate.

“It’s definitely going to build a little bit of character with us,” Verhaeghe said. “We have a bunch of call-ups; guys are playing really good coming up. It’s tough losing guys, especially important players on our team, but it is what it is and we have to battle through it.”

Panthers coach Paul Maurice said he is hopeful the team will get “a guy or two back” on the road trip.