Back to back games haven't treated the Panthers well so far this season, and that trend would continue as the Cats would succumb to the New Jersey Devils 5-2. Despite playing a pretty solid game, the Panthers missed too many golden chances to put themselves ahead and change the course of the game. Kris Versteeg hit two posts, countless other players in white sweaters were unable to convert quality chances, and those squandered opportunities would be the difference in the game. Jacob Markstrom made his first start for the Cats since November, and the numbers don't look to be in his favor, but two of the goals scored by New Jersey were of the empty net variety, so Marky wasn't at fault. Doesn't matter how healthy this team is, they'll still need to convert their chances to win games.
Both teams would come out with some speed and get some early shots off to wake up the goalies. The Panthers would get an early chance on the powerplay as the Devils were called for a cross-check. The Cats weren't able to top the Devils top-ranked powerplay through the first minute of the man advantage, and then Stephen Weiss would take a high sticking call against and put the teams in a four-on-four situation. With about 20 seconds left on the four-on-four, rookie Adam Henrique would receive a pass from Zach Parise and put one home as no Panther player picked him up in front of Markstrom. The Devils would then get a little over a minute of powerplay time but luckily for the Cats they were able to kill it off. The Panthers would respond not too long after the Devils tally as the Cats started a rush up ice and Mikael Samuelsson would pick up a loose puck in the high slot, ripping a wrister past Johan Hedberg to tie it up. The teams would trade chances throughout the rest of the first period, but the Devils would hold the Panthers mostly shotless for the remainder of the period by controlling the majority of the play thanks to a solid forecheck. Neither team was able to pot another goal though, and the teams would go into intermission tied.
The Devils would strike early in the second as Patrick Elias would absolutely hammer a slapshot past Markstrom high glove side and take a 2-1 lead just 36 seconds into the period. The Cats would not let the Devils top them though, and they responded with another goal of their own. This time newcomer Krys Barch would score his first of the season off a centering feed from Michael Repik, and his first as a Panther, knotting it back up at two apiece. The Devils came back with some strong shifts, but so did Florida and the top line for the Cats nearly benefitted as they set up a pretty play but clanked one off the iron. Kris Versteeg would get an absolutely golden opportunity on a basically empty net but would put it off the crossbar, and that was an indication of the kind of night the Cats top line would have. The Cats would take a penalty for high sticking with around 4:30 left in the period, sending Dmitry Kulikov to the box and giving the Devils their second shot on the man advantage. The Cats would be up to the task though, as the PK unit and Markstrom were able to shut the door and keep it tied. The Panthers would continue to press as did the Devils, but the game would remained tied going into the third.
The Panthers would come out and put on most of the early pressure in the period but wouldn't get one by Hedberg, even with some help from the boards as a dump-in would carom right in front of the empty New Jersey net. Barch and Madden would nearly connect on a goal but the rebound off the Barch shot would elude Madden and they wouldn't convert. Barch would later get shaken up on a hit by David Clarkson, which likely should've been an interference call, but it was missed by the officials. The Panthers would continue to control much of the pace of play until about the twelve minute mark, when Ilya Kovalchuk would outwork Tomas Fleischmann on a rush up ice and score his 13th of the season, putting the Devils back in front 3-2. Not much later Weiss would take a penalty, putting the Devils back on the powerplay, but Florida would hold strong and kill it off. At that point, the Cats had about five minutes left to tie it up. Florida would catch a break as Parise would get called for delay of game after flipping the puck over the glass, giving the Panthers a chance to tie things up yet again. The Cats would also pull Markstrom to get a six-on-four opportunity, but would fail to convert and promptly gave up an empty net goal to Kovalchuk, making it 4-2. Dineen would take a timeout afterwards to rally the troops with about a minute to go, and keep Markstrom out of the net, but Parise would score another empty netter and ice the game.
- You only see glimpses of it at times, but you definitely see it again: team depth. There's more than just one line again as a lot of the injured players make their way back into the lineup. The top line of Weiss-Versteeg-Fleischmann has cooled off quite a bit since the incredible start to the season, and the Cats will really need that depth to step up for the remainder of the season.
- When you hear players say, "The puck just wasn't bouncing our way," you sometimes roll your eyes. But that seems to be the case for the Cats top line as they again had some great chances but couldn't convert. They seem to be generating plenty of scoring chances, though not quite as much as earlier in the year, likely because the competition now takes them very seriously and plays them much closer/tougher. Hopefully fortunes change and they start scoring at a regular clip again.
- You might think I'm lying, but I'm not: I saw Kovalchuk play defense! Right after that shift, four leprechauns, two unicorns and a dude riding a Chocobo from Final Fantasy ran out onto the ice. Crazy stuff.
- After getting pressured by the Devils forecheck in the first period, Florida seemed to alter the gameplan to do the same themselves, causing the Devils defense to start rushing with the puck and turning it over more frequently. Good move by Dineen and his assistants.
- Madden didn't look 38, that's for sure. He's still quick when he needs to be. He logged some time on the PK as well and looked like the Madden of old. He is no doubt a fantastic mid-season addition to the Cats and will be an invaluable depth piece down the stretch, provided his legs hold up.
- Erik Gudbranson was quiet in this game, and that's becoming a good thing. He's not making as many rookie mistakes and is playing at NHL speed. He seems to be getting the hang of things and you see his pedigree at times. As he gains confidence and continues to learn, he's going to become a force on the blueline for the Panthers.
- Anyone else notice that Weiss doesn't have the "A" on his sweater?
- After the end of the second period, Barch was chirping with Kovalchuk at the Panther bench. Methinks that Barch kept the, "Did yo momma slip on the Borscht?" comments to himself this time.
- Grats to Barch, who got his first in a Cats sweater. Works hard every game and bleeds for the team, and it's always great to see those guys rewarded.
- Flash should be disappointed with his work against Kovalchuk on the third Devils goal. I'm sure Dineen is. He had inside positioning against Kovalchuk and could've tied him up better, but gave up his positioning and in turn gave up the go-ahead goal at that point in the third.
- Man, is it just me or do some of the Devils "cheerleaders" look like Snooki stunt doubles? Ugh. Before you ask, yes, I'm aware I'm a horrible person.
- Tough game for Versteeg. He knows, as does the rest of the world, that he's the premier finisher on this team and that when he doesn't bury his chances, the team suffers. We saw that in this game for certain.
- I'm gonna start a new tradition for my recap writeups: The Drink of the Evening. Tonight's beverage: The Deep Sea, comprised of 2 oz. Kraken Rum, 2 oz. Sailor Jerry's rum, 0.5 oz. Nellie & Joe's Key Lime Juice, and Coke, stirred with ice. Sublime.
With games in hand, the Capitals and Jets will be closing in on the Cats in the standings if Florida doesn't start to pick it up. The schedule doesn't get any easier during the month of January either, and the Panthers will face the current kings of the Western Conference, the Vancouver Canucks, on Monday evening. It's going to be a tough test and Florida is going to have to put this loss in the rear view mirror and soldier on. We'll see if they can do just that on Monday. In the meantime, go make yourself a Deep Sea (if you're of age, otherwise enjoy your Kool-Aid) and forget about this one.