The Cats will look to bounce back after an incomplete effort and a heartbreaking overtime loss to the New Jersey Devils by welcoming the Islanders to the warm confines of the BB&T Center this evening. The Devils handed Florida a crushing late overtime loss with slightly more than two seconds left in the OT frame as Marek Zidlicky would launch a puck past Tim Thomas off a faceoff win in the Panthers zone. Head coach Peter Horacek called the Panthers out for their compete level after the game, nothing that they really only started to turn things on in the third period. He wasn't wrong.
If Florida wants to compete on a nightly basis, these mystical 60-minute efforts have to become a regular sight. That goes doubly so for the Cats tonight, as the Islanders, who struggled mightily this season as the Panthers have, are starting to gain some serious steam, going 10-6 since December 10 and rising out of the basement of the Eastern Conference. The Isles sit with two more points than the Panthers and two games in hand, so you don't really want to call this game a must-win for Florida, but the reality is that if the Panthers hope to compete for a postseason spot, every game from now until April 12 is a must win.
The Panthers will need to play a complete game and get some scoring depth if they wish to walk away with two points in this contest. The Islanders are playing some excellent offensive hockey and getting just enough goaltending to keep them in games. Meanwhile the Panthers are struggling to score, netting only four in the last three games, and the team was rife with defensive breakdowns in the first two periods against the Devils on Saturday. Can they shore things up tonight, or will New York continue to scorch their way up the standings in the Metropolitan division?
We'll find out tonight as we all observe, comment, and post hilarious images on the LBC GameThread. And if you have a few moments at intermission, go check in on the folks at Lighthouse Hockey for some excellent coverage of the Isles.
Players to Watch
- John Tavares - What can you say about him that hasn't already been said? When the team looked close to firing head coach Jack Capuano, Tavares stepped up his game to another level and is leading the team both on the ice and off. His 56 points has him tied with Patrick Kane for second in the NHL, and those on his line are seeing increased production from his playmaking abilities. There are few in the league as dynamic and effective as Tavares, even on an underachieving team.
- Kyle Okposo - Many (but not all) were suprised that Okposo was left off the US Olympic squad for Sochi. He's currently 13th in the league in scoring, sitting at an astounding 45 points, which puts him ahead of such names as Marty St. Louis, Alexander Steen, Henrik Sedin and Claude Giroux. He's set to shatter his career high in scoring, and looks to be maturing as a leader of the team. The Panthers will have to work hard to keep Okposo from finding his way to the crease of Tim Thomas.
- Erik Gudbranson - He's been back in the lineup now for three games, but he's been pretty quiet. Gudbranson was playing some solid hockey before his orbital bone surgery alongside of Dylan Olsen, who is out with injury. Since returning and being paired with old partner Ed Jovanovski, Gudbranson has looked a bit tentative and is a -3 in three games. He was a +4 player in the month of December. Is it Gudbranson struggling, or is it his partner? Either way, the Panthers miss the pairing of Gudbranson and Olsen, which was one of the best defensive pairings on the Cats before Gudbranson missed time with his injury.
- Scottie Upshall - After a torrid November in which he posted six goals and six assists playing on a line with Nick Bjugstad and Jonathan Huberdeau, Upshall's offense has dried up, as he's only managed five assists since the beginning of December. The Panthers really don't have the luxury of having an entire line of offense disappear, and Upshall and his linemates need to find that forechecking, grinding scoring touch that gave them lots of confidence in November.