It may seem like hyperbole to say game seven of a 48 game schedule is a ‘must win’ but, entering the game with a five game losing streak, the Florida Panthers were in just such a situation Thursday night against the Winnipeg Jets. After scoring two goals or less over their previous five contests, the Panthers exploded for six goals, including five in the third period in the 6-3 comeback win over their Canadian division foe. For the first time since opening night (not coincidentally), the Cats looked very much like the hard working, opportunistic squad that defied its detractors en route to the teams first ever division title.
And, much like last year, it would be the power play that would play the biggest factor in a game that produced nine goals over the final two periods of play. Brian Campbell’s tally with the man advantage (with some help from a goalie-screening Tomas Kopecky) five minutes into the second gave Florida a lead in a game for only the third time this season. The lead wouldn’t last as Grant Clitsome knotted the score with a blast from the point with less than four minutes remaining before the second intermission.
It didn’t take long in the third for the Jets to have Panther fans thinking, “here we go again!” Former Florida captain (and all-time leading scorer) Olli Jokinen made his former team pay for a bad defensive zone turnover with a goal just 1:23 into the period. Jet killer Kris Versteeg would even things up two minutes later when finished a beautiful, patient pass from Tomas Fleischmann. Not to be outdone, Tobias Enstrom’s goal four minutes later would put the pressure back on the Florida’s shoulders and, they would respond as they did all night.
Over the final 12 minutes of the game, Florida would score almost as many goals as they scored since opening night. Peter Mueller would clean up the rebound of a Fillip Kuba shot would level the game. The power play goal gives Mueller a goal in three consecutive game and ties him for the team lead with Campbell. A minute later, Alex Kovalev would cash in another power play with a vicious snipe from the blue line for the eventual game winner. Jonathan Huberdeau and Kopecky added insurance goals to put this one away and allowed Panthers fans to take a HUGE sigh of relief
The encouraging sign for Panther fans was that they finally got to see the team that they fell hard for last year. The squad that outworked their opponents while making them pay for seemingly every penalty. Earlier in the days, coach Kevin Dineen called his team ‘soft’ and his team responded and it didn’t go unnoticed by the head man.
“There was a difference for me tonight. You get down a goal and you keep bouncing back, get down again. We had a few kick in the tails in the last ten days and that was the identity we were trying to build on. To see us come back like that with the gas pedal down, and confident play by our defense taking away a lot of space that they didn’t have room to skate. I think that was a big difference”
With the win under their belts and a bit of the pressure off, the Cats will hit the road for four straight (Buffalo, Winnipeg, Philadelphia and the still-reeling Washington Capitals) before coming home for five. Perhaps going on the road isn’t such a bad thing for a team that’s still looking to further their chemistry. Nine days of just being surrounded by each other with an undivided on hockey certainly isn’t going to hurt. Stephen Weiss should be back in the lineup for Super Bowl Sunday’s game against the Sabres although, they’ll likely be without the services of Scottie Upshall who left this game with an apparent knee injury following a fight. The return of the Flashmob Line to go along with the emerging line of Mueller-Drew Shore-Huberdeau could give this squad a nice boost as it hopes to get back into the division chase. Stay tuned.
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