Weekly Cat Nip: Panthers Off to a Slow Start

Welcome to the first edition of Weekly Cat Nip, your Monday morning fix of Florida Panthers coverage. During the season, we’ll dive into game recaps and storylines from each week. At this point, 12 days into the season, the Panthers have played three games and none have gone exactly how they had hoped.

Game 1: Oct. 6 – at Tampa Bay Lightning

The Panthers dropped their opening game of the season by a 2-1 score in a shootout against their in-state rival, the Tampa Bay Lightning. They played two feisty games against each other during the preseason and picked up where they left off to open the regular season. The Panthers looked strong throughout and outshot the Lightning 43-29.

The first goal of the year came from defenseman Jacob MacDonald, whom the Panthers signed this offseason, 5:58 into the first period on the first shift of his first career NHL game. He made the roster due to his exceptional training camp and preseason, as well as an injury to Bogdan Kiselevich. Vincent Trocheck carried the puck below the goal line and passed it back up to MacDonald, who was pinching to the faceoff dot opposite of Trocheck. It was a fantastic read and shot, though it would be the only Panthers goal of the evening.

One of the goals of the Cats’ summer was to acquire some goalie insurance should one of their two netminders go down to injury. Little did they know, Roberto Luongo would get hurt in the second period of the season. It occurred when Frank Vatrano tripped over teammate Mark Pysyk while back-checking and fell backwards onto Luongo’s extended right leg. It did not look pretty, and Luongo needed assistance off the ice. Backup James Reimer tagged in with his team up 1-0. After the game, the Panthers recalled Michael Hutchinson to backup Reimer.

Roberto Luongo, Florida Panthers
Unfortunately, Luongo’s health did not make it through two periods of the season. (Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports)

Ultimately, the Lightning tied the game with 9:15 left in the third period during a Panthers power play. As promised, Florida deployed a top power play unit consisting of five forwards: Aleksander Barkov, Evgeni Dadonov, Mike Hoffman, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Trocheck. The goal came after a Hoffman pass bounced off an official and onto the tape of Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh, who passed it up to Anthony Cirelli for an odd-man rush. Despite continuous pressure, the Panthers power play ended the night zero-for-five.

Fourth line center Derek MacKenzie suffered an upper body injury after a hit during the first period. He did not return to the game. Although Maxim Mamin was already on the roster as an extra forward, he does not have much experience playing the center position, and the Panthers called up Juho Lammikko from the Springfield Thunderbirds to make his NHL debut on Thursday versus the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Game 2: Oct. 11 – vs Columbus Blue Jackets

This back and forth affair saw its share of ups and downs for both teams, but ended with Columbus emerging with a 5-4 victory. Scoring commenced in the first period with a slick shot from Blue Jackets defenseman Zach Werenski during a five-on-three power play. Shortly after, the puck inexplicably wandered off the stick of Panthers defenseman Keith Yandle and Blue Jacket Artemi Panarin was on a breakaway against James Reimer. Two-nil, Blue Jackets. The Panthers got one back with 10 seconds left in the first period as Dadonov fired home a one-timer off a Barkov pass. Six and a half minutes into the second period, Dadonov returned the favor and fed Barkov, who tied it at two.

Lammikko, Colton Sceviour, and Troy Brouwer played well as the Panthers’ fourth line. They generated six shots on goal and scored Florida’s third goal of the game when Brouwer beautifully redirected a Pysyk shot from the point. Lammikko in particular was strong on both sides of the puck in his NHL debut. He finished with a plus-one rating, received some time on the penalty kill, and maintained pressure in the offensive zone.

Michael Hutchinson Winnipeg Jets
Former Jets goalie Michael Hutchinson was recalled to backup Reimer during Luongo’s absence. (Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports)

Anthony Duclair scored for Columbus and Nick Bjugstad netted one for Florida before the period was over. Reimer did not look comfortable in the third and a number of defensive breakdowns allowed Columbus to score twice more. The Panthers were handed their first regulation loss of the year despite outshooting the Blue Jackets 41-32.

Game 3: Oct. 13 – vs Vancouver Canucks

After opening the season with two losses, coach Bob Boughner looked to change up his lines a bit. Denis Malgin was moved up to the second line with Trocheck and Huberdeau and Hoffman was moved down to play with Jared McCann and Mamin, who played in his first game of the season. Additionally, MacDonald was sent back to Springfield and was replaced by Kiselevich, who made his NHL debut after years of playing in Russia. However, those changes made little difference as they dropped the game by a 3-2 score.

The action picked up early in the second when Huberdeau crashed the Vancouver Canucks net and recorded his first goal of the season. The Canucks went on the power play after a hooking call to Brouwer and rookie phenom Elias Pettersson found himself with the puck all alone in the faceoff circle to Reimer’s left. He went top-shelf and tied the game at one with his fifth of the season.

Later, Hoffman recorded his first point as a Panther as he cycled the puck from the right wing up to Yandle at the point, who sent it down to Trocheck on the left wing and he buried a quick wrist shot. Before the second ended, Canucks forward Antoine Roussel was awarded a penalty shot after being hooked by Kiselevich. He converted. Still in the second period, he Panthers took unnecessary chances and let Bo Horvat walk right past the defense for Vancouver’s third and game-winning goal.

Early in the third period, Pettersson played with the puck at Panthers defenseman Mike Matheson’s feet, and Matheson went swimming. He followed Pettersson behind the Panthers net and once the puck was cycled back, took his chance to plaster Pettersson to the boards, then the ice, as best he could. He did not receive a penalty on the play, and Pettersson did not return to the game. Pettersson has since been diagnosed with a concussion and Matheson has a phone hearing with the Department of Player Safety.

Vancouver outshot Florida 30-26. In what could have been a statement game for the Panthers against a backup goaltender, they fell short.

Takeaways From the Week

Slow Start to the Season

Wasn’t this season supposed to pick up where last year left off? The Panthers are tied with three others for the least amount of games played thus far. One might want to argue that it could just be them taking a minute to get their feet under them, but the NHL waits for no one. What will the excuse be in March when the Panthers have four sets of back-to-backs? They are well-rested, and there is no better time to pounce than right now.

Kiselevich Settling In

Kiselevich looked solid against Vancouver. He made good defensive plays with both his body and stick. While one might normally say that a defenseman has a successful game if he goes unnoticed, Kiselevich’s intelligence and tenacity stuck out. Meanwhile, his defense partner, Alex Petrovic, has not stuck out in his three games this season, which is an improvement from last season, but it is curious why the Panthers are so attached to him after MacDonald enjoyed such a strong start.

Power Play Struggles

The Panthers have gone goalless on twelve opportunities so far on the man advantage. They toyed with a five-forward unit in their first two games, but split Ekblad and Yandle among the two units for the game against Vancouver. A bright spot in their bleak power play is Hoffman.

Panthers left wing Mike Hoffman
Mike Hoffman has had a strong couple of games with his new team. (Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports)

Though he has yet to score, it is only a matter of time. He is firing the puck every time it reaches his tape, and he’s generated quality chances. The Panthers are attempting some fast paced one-touch passes that you see from the league’s best power plays, but ultimately have had difficulty keeping the puck in the zone.

Michael Haley

A final point worth mentioning regards forward Michael Haley. He has entered the NHL/NHL Players’ Association assistance program and will be out indefinitely. The Panthers have not said much other than to offer support to Haley. For now, this is one less obstacle for the likes of Lammikko and Mamin to have the opportunity to earn a regular role within the Panthers’ lineup.

Final Bite

Overall, the Panthers are off to a disappointing start after such a promising end to last season. Barkov and Trocheck have played up to the standard they have set for themselves, but they cannot do this alone. They had to call upon Hutchinson sooner than they had hoped, but that’s what he’s there for. Luongo is expected to miss two-to-four weeks with injury, and if the Panthers hope to stay above water, they will need improvements from the entire roster. This week, the Panthers are in Philadelphia against the Flyers on Tuesday, then have a back-to-back with the Washington Capitals and Detroit Red Wings on Friday and Saturday.