The Panthers don’t necessarily believe that three is a magic number. Not after three losses and three forwards, their No. 1 line from last year, missing from Friday’s practice and questionable for Saturday’s game against Philadelphia.
While missing left wing Tomas Fleischmann (cut foot), center Stephen Weiss (undisclosed lower-body injury) and right wing Kris Versteeg (groin) won’t help an offense that has put up two goals in the last three games, perhaps actually getting a practice in would. Friday was the first normal practice since Sunday.
The Panthers weren’t on the ice long, about 35 minutes.
“We weren’t out there long, but everything we did had a purpose,” Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said. “We followed that up with some work off the ice. It is a work in progress. The good thing about it is the players are very aware of it, too.”
Though statistics point to goal scoring, the Panthers’ problems start with defensive responsibility and in one-on-one battles along the boards. They haven’t shown enough of the former and lose too many of the latter.
And although the 4-1 loss in Montreal looked like an extended power-play and penalty-kill drill, teams that win board battles and don’t give up odd-man rushes tend to stay out of the box.
“Quality defense will lead to good offense,” Dineen said. “The other way, there’s a responsibility when we’re in the offensive zone to not just be a one-way hockey team. We seem to be trying to play downhill and leaning toward offense, and what’s happened is they’re coming back at us in waves. It’s happened for a few games. I think our recognition that it is happening is good. I think the players understand that.”
Left wing Scottie Upshall does.
“You can’t create offense if your defense isn’t solid,” Upshall said. “For us as a group, when we’re successful, we’re really playing well in our own end, and that leads to chances. And when we trade opportunities, that’s when we get in trouble. That’s when we find that we have to rely on our goaltender like we have to keep us in games.”
He said Friday’s practice was spent on the unglamorous details — board play, driving the net, etc.
“It’s a big effort for us right now to find ways to create offense,” he said. “But if we just look after our own zone and try to play 1-1, 2-2 games and try to get those extra points in shootouts and overtime, that’s how we’ll be successful.”
Injuries to the top line prompted a Friday phone call to San Antonio for some minor-league help, in case any or all of the aforementioned injured forwards can’t play. That would be Scott Timmins, but he has a back injury. Quinton Howden, 2010 first-round pick, wound up being the call-up.
It’s four games into a 48-game season, about the equivalent of seven games into a normal 82-game season. That’s too early to panic. But, every year, a team misses the playoffs by a smidgen not because of games it didn’t pull out near the end, but points it left on the table in the first third of the season.
“Before the season started, I think you heard every team, every interview talk about how important the start is,” Dineen said. “Now, we’re in the muck. It’s a little bit of a foreign territory for us. I don’t think we had a streak like this last year where we didn’t get a point. Maybe early in the season, but we had a level of consistency overall last year.”