With the success on the road this season, much has been made of the Panthers' struggles at home. Florida kicked off a four game homestand with a tough matchup against one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference, and made it a memorable experience as they managed to survive the Pittsburgh Penguins and pull out a very close 3-2 regulation win. The Panthers powerplay was largely responsible for the victory, as they were able to score two goals on the man advantage against the league's second-ranked penalty killing unit. This was a very gutsy win for Florida, and with the Capitals losing to the Leafs, the Cats take sole possession of first in the Southeast Division... for now.
The Panthers came out knowing they would need to work hard to have a shot in this game, as the Penguins are generally one of the hardest working teams in the NHL night in and night out. The Pens posted early leads in shots, and also posted a goal by Chris Kunitz just 1:09 into the game, thanks to a misplayed puck by Jose Theodore. Theodore attempted to swat the airborne rebound but Kunitz beat him to it. That seemed to shake the confidence of the Panthers a bit, but the Cats top line didn't seem to notice, as they hooked up Brian Campbell with a nice backdoor feed and he finished the play with a great backhand five-hole tally to beat Brent Johnson and tie the game. The Panthers nearly scored immediately after off a great individual play by Tomas Kopecky, who stole the puck before the Penguins could exit their zone, and set up Sean Bergenheim in front, who dished it to Jack Skille, who then fired it high over the empty net. The teams went back and forth for a bit until Matt Cooke had a fantastic chance in all alone off a bad Florida line change, but Theodore came up with the save. Florida got the first man advantage not much later, although the Penguins came into the game with the second best penalty kill percentage in the NHL. The Pens killed off the penalty, but the Panthers kept the pressure after Richard Park came out of the box, and it resulted in a second penalty, this time to Paul Martin for slashing the stick of Tomas Fleischmann. The Pens killed the second off as well, but Florida generated a few quality chances. Unfortunately none resulted in a goal and both teams went into the locker room tied at one.
Both teams came out flying in the second and there was quite a bit of end to end action with some good stops by both netminders. There were a bunch of odd-man rushes, something you'll end up seeing more of as the Panther defense gets more aggressive, as they were in this game. About five minutes into the period, the Panthers drew yet another call with Mike Santorelli drawing a trip call. The 0-for-18 streak on the PP would end, as Fleischmann would follow up a play in front of the net, collecting a loose puck and firing it high for his eighth of the year. The Cats really needed this; the power play was really struggling as of late, and hopefully that one was a confidence booster. Unfortunately for the Cats, they followed up the power play goal with a penalty, as Jason Garrison gets caught tripping Steve Sullivan and headed to the box. The Panthers killed the penalty off without a problem, and then the game turned into some pond hockey, as each team just went back and forth for awhile. That ended with around six minutes left in the period, as Jordan Staal made a great move holding the puck until Theodore was well out of position, tying it up at two. The Pens got a lot of energy after that and nearly scored several times shortly after, but Theodore and the Cats weathered the storm, and managed to get out of the period tied at two.
Florida came out with a great first shift and nearly converted several times. The Panthers took the first penalty of the period Garrison taking his second of the game after Pittsburgh nearly scored. The Cats managed to kill it off, and the teams traded chances for awhile. The third period was really reined in compared to the first two, as both teams managed to eliminate a lot of the odd-man rushes against. The Cats top line had another golden chance with Versteeg getting stuffed by Johnson while standing all alone in front, squandering a great opportunity to get a lead. The Panthers got on the powerplay with only four minutes left in the period, with the Pens taking a too many men on the ice penalty, and Florida made them pay. Off a big scrum in front of the net, it looked like Stephen Weiss managed to get it past Johnson to convert on the powerplay and give the Cats a 3-2 lead. The goal was reviewed for some reason (possibly a kicking of the puck), but goal stood and the crowd started to respond. The Penguins responded with heavy pressure for the next couple shifts, and eventually had to pull Johnson for the extra attacker. The Penguins simply assaulted the Panthers in the final minute of the period, but Theodore saved his best efforts for when it counted, and shut down Pittsburgh to earn the 3-2 win in regulation.
- Kopecky was once again really good at backchecking this game, as was Bergenheim. The rest of the team needs to follow Kopecky regarding how to pickpocket the opposition, because he did it again a few times this game and it created scoring chances and negated opposition's scoring chances.
- I don't know what Bergenheim ate for dinner before this game, but he was a determined dude all evening. This was by far his best game of the year and he looked great on all areas of the ice. That's how you justify a contract that many naysayers: go out there and shut them up.
- The Dadonov-Santorelli-Sturm line looked good at times in this game. Sturm needs to get to the net more, being the big body on that line. The quickness and shooting abililty of both Santorelli and Dadonov makes that line very dangerous, and they had some great chances. Dadonov looked very good at times; he's looking more and more like he belongs with the big club.
- Butters looked good in this game as well. Aside from his goal, he had some great plays keeping the puck alive in the offensive zone and set up some great looks for his linemates. It's great to see the consistency so far this year for Tomas after his health issues last year, and here's to hoping he's healthy all year for Florida, as he will post some serious scoring totals by season's end.
- Mike Weaver tends to be at his best when he plays against teams that work hard like the Pens, and he looked great in this game, doing all the dirty work when needed and winning a ton of battles down low. His eight-foot stick helps.
- At times, this game devolved in some old school end to end action, and it was great to see the Panthers be able to play that style of game and still be competitive. That's a huge change from previous years. Still, there were too many odd-man rushes given up this game.
- Kris Versteeg's got some absolutely sick hands. SICK HANDS. Not like, you know, gross looking. Sick as in, "This guy could stickhandle some thread through a needle's head. And then cross-stitch his name into your knickers and call it an autograph."
- Theo was big when he needed to be. Enough said.
- Staal is having a great season so far and is starting to surpass his elder brother in the discussion of who is the best Staal. I'll always pick one that doesn't dive.
- Too many Pens fans in the seats. Too many fans in the Panthers home arena cheering for the opposition when they score. Just sayin. #WeNeedToSeeMoreRed
- No, I'm not going to talk about Sidney Crosby. That's what the rest of the internet is for.