With no mathematical chance at the playoffs for the 11th time in 12 seasons, the Panthers have made it a point to just finish strong.
Florida’s opponents of late are aiming a little higher. Simply put, the Panthers just don’t have the firepower left to compete at that level. Just eight of the 18 skaters who dressed on Opening Night played Thursday.
Even though the Panthers were missing a few more regulars, the Rangers struggled to put Florida away — yet eventually did just that, scoring three goals in the final four minutes to win 6-1 at Madison Square Garden.
After the game, coach Kevin Dineen held a closed-door meeting with his players. After the meltdown in the third, it probably wasn’t the friendliest of chats.
“There’s always a big picture,” said Dineen, whose team has five games left before this season’s merciful end. “The game finished ugly. That’s the nature of it. [Playoff teams] are what we’re going to see from here on out. They are cookie monsters out there, hungry at the end of the game.”
As the win helped bolster New York’s playoff chances — the Rangers are eighth in the east — the Panthers look destined to finish last in the Eastern Conference for the second time in three seasons.
Prior to 2011, the Panthers had never finished last in the conference. With this recent slump, Florida is close to suffering the ignominy of 15th-place conference finishes wrapped around last season’s division championship.
If someone was writing a book about these Panthers, the title could be: From Worst to First to Worst Again.
“It’s not easy to beat teams hungry for the playoffs,” Tomas Fleischmann said. “You could tell their will to win was bigger than ours. We pushed for half a game. We went had for part of the third. It didn’t work. It ended bad for us.”
The Panthers found themselves in a familiar hole as Derick Brassard and Rick Nash scored on power-play chances within the first nine minutes off Scott Clemmensen.
Florida rookie Jonathan Huberdeau cut the deficit in half with a slick goal, but with 4:43 left in the first, the Panthers could get no closer despite outshooting the Rangers 35-30.
New York took a 3-1 lead into the third thanks to Mats Zuccarello’s goal in front of Clemmensen then broke things open late. Florida had a number of chances against Henrik Lundqvist yet couldn’t get anything through.
At the end, Florida gave up three goals within a span of 3:25.
“We had a good pushback at the beginning of the third, then we started running around and got away from the game plan,” rookie Drew Shore said. “We were right there, but losing is losing, whether it’s 3-1 or 6-1.”
NEWS AND NOTES
The Panthers played their second consecutive game without forward Peter Mueller as he is back in South Florida after his wife Taylar gave birth to their first child, a boy, on Wednesday.
Mueller is staying with his family for the time being although he could come north at any time.• With Filip Kuba and Tyson Strachan out, Alex Petrovic was called up and made his NHL debut Thursday. Petrovic, a second round pick in Florida’s so-far successful 2010 draft, took No. 72 as he became the eighth Florida player to make his NHL debut this season.
“It’s pretty amazing to be in Madison Square Garden,” Petrovic said before the game, adding he sent a text message with the news to his entire contact list.• Defenseman Erik Gudbranson left Thursday’s game with over a minute left after going into the boards. Gudbranson’s wrist/hand injury needs to be evaluated, Dineen said.