A three-goal comeback — something the Florida Panthers made shockingly routine last year — never materialized Tuesday in Canada and the Panthers’ skid continued.
This time, it was a 6-2, blowout loss at the hands of the Calgary Flames.
The nature of the loss was uncharacteristic for Florida even this year, although a loss wasn’t necessarily. The Panthers have now lost six of seven heading into another road matchup against the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday and sit on the outside of the Eastern Conference’s postseason picture. With more than a quarter of the season done, Florida has a losing record and is spiraling in the wrong direction.
“Everybody’s got to take their game to a whole new level,” All-Star right wing Matthew Tkachuk said Tuesday after the Panthers’ second loss in as many nights in Alberta.
It’s still too early for Florida (10-9-4) to panic, but this is no longer the case of a team outplaying its opponents and suffering undeserved losses from a statistical standpoint. The Panthers haven’t generated more shot attempts than their opponent in four straight games and haven’t had more scoring chances in three of four.
Everyone around the organization expected growing pains after Florida brought in coach Paul Maurice to implement a more defensive-minded style and those have never been more evident than in the last few games.
The Panthers right now are playing like a team caught between identities, not good enough defensively to win with defense and not good enough offensively to win with offense.
“We need to shift our focus a little bit,” forward Sam Reinhart said Tuesday, “and get back to the defensive side of the game.”
The two losses this week exemplified both ends of this dilemma: On Monday, Florida blew a pair of leads to the Edmonton Oilers before falling in overtime; on Tuesday, the Panthers fell behind 3-0 early the Flames and never managed a comeback.
Last year, Florida led the NHL with 29 come-from-behind victories and set an NHL record with six three-goal comebacks, including one in the 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs. This year, the Panthers have only two comebacks of any kind and none after trailing by multiple goals.
“The last couple games and last two weeks or so, I feel like our structure has slipped a little bit,” Reinhart said. “Early in the season ... it wasn’t quite going for us, but our structure was really there and it was saving us, and I think that’s slipped a little bit.
“When we play the right way within our system, it makes it tough on opposition.”
Maurice, for his part, said he considered Tuesday to be an outlier performance. Before the loss in Calgary, Florida’s last six losses were all by one goal and the Panthers notched points in three of them by getting the game to overtime. Even though Florida blew leads to the Oilers and St. Louis Blues in the prior two, Maurice said Tuesday it wasn’t “indicative of ... who we are.”
On Monday, Maurice gave a short assessment of what the Panthers need to do to take the next step.
“Get Barkov back,” he said.
Florida was hopeful it could happen as soon as Thursday when it faces the Canucks (9-11-3) at 10 p.m. at Rogers Arena in Vancouver. Star center Aleksander Barkov has missed three straight games — and four of seven — with an illness and did not travel with the Panthers for the start of their five-game road trip, hoping to avoid passing his ailment on to other teammates.
Florida has badly missed him, though. In four games without Barkov, the Panthers are giving up 5.25 goals per game. In the other 19 with him, Florida is giving up just 3.11.
“You get on the road against some teams that are pretty good teams. ... We’re fighting right with them without our big dog,” Maurice said. “I don’t think tonight is an indication of how we’ve played. We had four of six points coming into the game. Yeah, we left some on the table coming in, but we beat Boston, had St. Louis handled and can’t close the deal, we played a hell of a game last night, got great goaltending, but you need that on the road, so this isn’t indicative of how we’ve played or who we are.”