The Panthers go into Friday with the fewest points in the Eastern Conference, a spot they’ve held for some time now.
If this recent trend continues, however, the Panthers might not be headed to the penthouse although they could be leaving the basement.
Thanks in part to exceptional play in goal from 23-year-old Jacob Markstrom, the Panthers have won three consecutive games for the first time this season and have earned 10 of the past available 14 points.
Markstrom has allowed 14 goals in seven starts — with Florida winning five of those games. Expect Markstrom back between the pipes Saturday when the suddenly hot Capitals come to town.
“I didn’t start off the way I wanted to,” Markstrom said. “You can’t hide under a pillow and you sure can’t hide on the ice. You just have to grab the bull by the horns and work hard, make it work. Hard work does pay off. And we’re playing very well. I’m happy for the opportunity.”
The Panthers were forced into bringing Markstrom up earlier than they had hoped after Jose Theodore tore a groin muscle, ending his season.
Some within the Panthers organization had the “I-told-you-so” look when Markstrom struggled at times, although since sitting for back-to-back games in March, he has been terrific and looks like he could be Florida’s starting goalie for the foreseeable future.
Markstrom is 6-7-1 with a goals-against average of 2.57; he has made saves on 92 percent of shots he has faced.
“This has been perfect for him because this season, for him, is about building for next year,” goalie coach Robb Tallas said after Markstrom made 39 saves in Florida’s 3-2 shootout win Tuesday at Tampa.
“I want him to make mistakes and see the corrections he should make. He’s showing that right now. He’s coming into understanding how good this league is. Now he’s here. Before, he was being called up in small snapshots and we expected a lot out of him. Now you see what he’s capable of doing.”
NEWS AND NOTES
Jack Skille is expected to return to the lineup Saturday for the first time since leaving Florida’s game March 23 with a mysterious “upper-body” injury. Although general manager Dale Tallon inferred that Skille sustained a concussion, Skille refused to say what his injury was.
“You get a little stir crazy sitting out, but with this compressed schedule, I only missed four or five days,” Skille said after practice Wednesday. “I’m ready to go, play some hockey again.”
Greg Rallo was returned to the Panthers’ AHL affiliate Wednesday after scoring his first NHL goal Tuesday.
Officials originally awarded the goal to T.J. Brennan after his long slap shot on the power play beat Mathieu Garon.
During the second intermission, apparently after review, the goal was taken from Brennan and awarded to Rallo. During the first intermission, Brennan had his goal taken and given to Tomas Kopecky.
“The verdict is still out. I don’t really think it hit me,” Rallo said after Tuesday’s game. “In the heat of the game, you never know. I’m just glad we got the goal one way or another. They come hard. It was good.”
Said coach Kevin Dineen: “I couldn’t tell. I’m not sure. Greg didn’t think he touched the puck. It was a unique day to say the least.”
• Florida lost three spots in the lineup after trading Jerred Smithson (Edmonton), waiving Mike Santorelli (Winnipeg) and demoting Rallo. Those three will be replaced by Skille, Drew Shore (wrist) and Nick Bjugstad.
Bjugstad will make his NHL debut Saturday against the Capitals. The rookie from the University of Minnesota arrived Thursday in South Florida and will wear No. 27. The Panthers tweeted out a picture of his new red jersey.
“I want to get a feel for what the NHL is like,” Bjugstad said Wednesday. “Thankfully, the NHL is the opportunity I’m getting. It’s pretty crazy it starts on Saturday.”
• Bjugstad will be the center of attention Friday when the Panthers hold an open practice at the Saveology.com Iceplex in Coral Springs. The free practice starts at 10:30 a.m.