Tonight's magic number was three. As in three blown leads. The Panthers, despite having this game in hand with a two-goal lead more than halfway through the third period, managed to fall to the Washington Capitals 6-5 in overtime. A very brief overtime, I might add, as the Caps would score a brief 32 seconds into the extra frame to earn the two points. There just isn't much to say about this team right now that hasn't been said already. They came into this game with a league-worst minus 15 goal differential, and despite scoring five goals, walked away from this with a minus 16 differential. Want to guess what the problem is here?
You can't hang this one completely on Scott Clemmensen, though he's part of the problem, as has been Jose Theodore. Florida's defensive woes are coming from both ends of the ice and they're absolutely breaking the back of a team that's just starting to find it's scoring touch. Many of Florida's top forwards are simply playing horrible defensively over a full 60 minutes and it's costing the team many hard-earned leads they've built in games. The coaching staff has to either find the solution to the problem or bag skate the repeat offenders until the word "backcheck" is something they repeat in their sleep.
To me, this is indeed a coaching issue, and a total lack of discipline. If a player isn't doing his job, he needs to be held accountable, and the coaching staff is, for whatever reason, not doing that enough to guys who deserve it. I'm not going to do a roster roll call here (I do a little in the observations, for what it's worth), but I am going to call out Kevin Dineen, Craig Ramsay and Gord Murphy for not holding these players accountable more often. Until the problem is fixed, we're going to see the Panthers continue to play from behind and blow one and two-goal leads, just like they did against Washington tonight.
- DREW SCORE SCORES!!!! Waaaaaaay overdue. Congrats to Shore, who has been the best forward on the team this season. Also Drew, when you're on a 2-on-0 like that, just shoot. Do it for me.
- Speaking of Shore, his line was excellent both offensively and defensively. There's no question that line is the new top line for Florida and should continue to get better and better as the season goes by. I think Peter Mueller is going to force Dale Tallon to re-sign him if he wants to stay in Florida, as he's playing excellent hockey. He's very quiet but has continually made an impact over the last six to seven games for the Panthers.
- Alex Ovechkin would absolutely destroy Kris Versteeg early on in the first period, nailing him from behind into the glass head-first. It was debatable in terms of legality, depending on which sweater you're rooting for, but either way Versteeg was very shaken up and had to leave the game. He would return after missing a couple shifts and as soon as he hit the ice, he hunted down Ovechkin and decked him from behind, causing a fight between the two. Not much of a fight resulted, but it's good to see Versteeg sticking up for himself after that hit, because no other Panther did.
- Following up on that last point: the Panthers, for the most part, just get manhandled physically. They don't have enough muscle up front to deal with more physical teams and are one of the few teams in the NHL (and I watch a lot of hockey) who don't immediately swarm to defend a guy getting crushed on a questionable hit like Versteeg did. You also don't see many big bodies in front of the opposing goalie, both taking and dishing out beatings to cause havoc in front. There's just not much of that kind of toughness factor on this team yet and it's something that's really going to affect their ability to compete with the big boys in the Eastern Conference.
- I wish Jack Skille had accuracy. He'd score 20 goals a year. He played a great game, assisting on Shore's first NHL goal, and nearly scored a couple himself. Both he and Shawn Matthias played big in this game, and you really wish you could see that same intensity from those two guys every night. The Panthers would have some serious depth if these guys were competing at this level very game. There's no question they're third and fourth line players, but when they play like they did tonight, they're some of the better bottom line players you'll see.
- I think it's time to call up Jacob Markstrom. Just a thought.
- Dmitry Kulikov just keeps looking better and better every game. He's been the Panthers' best defenseman in the last few games and should be eating up as many minutes as Brian Campbell because right now those two are head and shoulders above everyone else. Kulikov did make a horrible pass right on the tape of Ovechkin in the second period that was saved by Clemmensen, but a Caps goal was scored on the resulting defensive zone faceoff, so that was a major blemish on his record for the night. If he can eliminate the boneheaded plays, he'll be set.
- Man that Club Red looks like the place to be. For anthropophobics.
- Mike Weaver might finally be getting his body and mind back into the NHL game. That's great to see.
- Erik Gudbranson looks like the player we saw last postseason. He's playing some solid heads-up hockey on both ends of the ice and playing very physically. His long-bomb pass in the second created a 2-on-0 with Shore and Mueller, and he assisted on the Mueller deflection in the same period. Along with Kulikov and Campbell, he's going to be a cornerstone of the blueline for Florida and is vindicating Tallon's choice in drafting him.
- The "top" line of Stephen Weiss-Versteeg-Tomas Fleischmann earns some kudos for their ability to put up points in a game, but they have to be earning some MAJOR hate for how poorly they've been playing defense. A pivotal goal in the second period by Mueller was negated almost right away as the VFW line would let up a Matt Hendricks backhander, leaving Clemmensen out to dry. In overtime, Weiss completely lost Troy Brouwer and barely skated back to try and pick him up. People are wondering why this line is getting broken up? That'd be your reason, folks. Scoring goals is great, but leaving up big ones like that due to poor defensive zone play or lack of backchecking hustle is a huge no-no.
- Versteeg just isn't himself; he's not the same player we saw last year. Whatever injuries he's playing with, he's going to serve the team better by sitting and healing. If it's something that requires surgery, that's a different story, but hopefully whatever is ailing him is short term and something he can maybe heal without a long-term absence.
- I think Weiss is taking gliding lessons in his downtime. Cause, you know, he did a lot of gliding tonight. I think Troy Brouwer might have noticed that.
- Also, only the Panthers can mess up a 2-on-0 and a 4-on-1. I facepalmed so hard I think I have a bruise.