There are three ways to look at the Panthers’ situation going into Tuesday night’s back end of a home-and-home with Washington: three points out of first place in the Southeast Division, three points out of eighth place in the Eastern Conference or one loss from last place in the East.
However you look at it, the game marks the quarter pole of a shortened season in which the margin for error sits thinner than a stick blade. So the 5-0 loss to Washington on Saturday, common at the end of long road trips, doesn’t get brushed off as easily as it would in an 82-game schedule.
“Sometimes, your legs aren’t there,” Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said. “Physically, your legs aren’t always going to be there. But that’s when we need to be sharp on our systems and hockey IQ. Your legs may be tired, but your brain has to be right on.
“For us, I think we made some preventable mistakes that really were the difference in the hockey game. The score was accurate, but at the end, I thought we played a solid first period after we settled down and received their initial push, which we had expectations they would do after a tough run for them.”
Dineen did some line juggling Saturday and made Alexei Kovalev the healthy scratch among the 13 forwards (the Panthers are carrying only six defensemen, so all dress). At Monday’s practice, Kovalev was back on a line with Marcel Goc and Tomas Kopecky and the Tomas Fleischmann-Stephen Weiss-Kris Versteeg line was reunited. Judging from the line combinations, the forward out Tuesday could be Jack Skille, Jerred Smithson, Shawn Matthias or tough guy George Parros, who dropped the gloves early Saturday in an attempt to energize the Panthers.
On defense, Erik Gudbranson, 21, will be in his third game since coming back from a shoulder injury sustained during the lockout and doing a conditioning stint in the AHL. Gudbranson played 21:01 in 25 shifts Thursday in Philadelphia, then 21:41 in 24 shifts in Washington.
Though Gudbranson came out of the Philadelphia game with an even plus/minus and the Washington game with a minus three, he thought his second game was better.
“Those games in the American League definitely were necessary,” he said. “I got some big minutes there, and it certainly helped me out a long way. You can’t say a step to the NHL is seamless, but I do feel good out there. First game, I kept my plays really simple. Just tried to take a couple of hits and move the puck quickly. I think gradually I got better. Definitely, the second game I was making more consistent plays.”
“He’s been all right,” Dineen said of Gudbranson’s conditioning. “I think he was a little tuckered out after the first game. I think he’s slowly moving in the right direction. He got caught out there for a few long shifts [Saturday], and I look back at those plays and it was not because of his decision making. I think there were better decisions to be made as forwards.”