WINNIPEG, Manitoba -- In this lockout-shortened 48-game NHL season, every game seems to have just a bit more weight to it.
The losses hit just a bit harder, and every win feels like a corner turned.
And so here the Panthers find themselves hovering somewhere in the middle of those two opposites, looking to put a frustrating 3-2 overtime loss Tuesday to the Winnipeg Jets in the rearview mirror while knowing full well what lies ahead could very well be — even just nine games into the campaign — season defining.
A miserable 1-5-0 start to the season was soothed slightly by back-to-back wins last Thursday and Sunday, but Tuesday was another setback.
Thursday the Panthers will be in Philadelphia to take on the Flyers, never an easy task but perhaps a bit less daunting considering Philly’s unimpressive 4-6-0 start. Saturday it’s off to Washington for a Southeast Division clash with the Capitals, themselves mired in a 2-7-1 start that has them in the division basement.
“Every game is that way this year,” Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said of placing heightened importance on any games. “Philly’s the next one, then we’ve got Washington after that in Washington, so I think we’re all — coaches and players across the league — putting a major priority on every single game.”
Winger Kris Versteeg said the Panthers gained confidence from back-to-back wins over Winnipeg and Buffalo last week, but the bigger boost comes from seeing his team getting healthy.
Center Marcel Goc recently returned from an injury and played in his third game Tuesday night, and center Stephen Weiss, the team’s second-leading scorer last season, has appeared in only five of the team’s nine games.
“With regards to the health of our team, it’s always nice to get wingers back but … I think any team in the league will attest that when you get your centermen back, and you have guys like Weisser and Goc come back, that helps out more than anything,” Versteeg said.
The Panthers were the better team for the first half of Tuesday’s defeat, twice holding one-goal leads before letting the Jets, and their raucous faithful, back in the game in the second period and into the third.
Defenseman Erik Gudbranson was in Winnipeg but he sat out Tuesday and still has yet to play this season after offseason shoulder surgery. Dineen was noncommittal about the status of the former first-round pick for the rest of the trip.
“We’ve been happy with the way our ‘D’ have been going,” Dineen said. “It’s like everything else: We’re not looking to make changes just to make changes. We’ll give [Gudbranson] a good skate [Wednesday] and see where he is for Thursday.”
Scott Clemmensen made his third appearance of the season in Winnipeg and stopped 18 of the 21 shots he faced. Dineen didn’t sound overly wowed by Clemmensen’s effort but said the team in front of him didn’t bail him out much either.
“I thought he was all right,” Dineen said. “I think he would have liked to have the shot off the wing back [the Jets’ first goal] and we had our opportunities to try and score, and we didn’t have much help from the power play.”