The Panthers missed an opportunity to climb into one of the two Eastern Conference wild-card positions on Saturday night and needed a win in Pittsburgh to maintain pace with the Bruins, who knocked off the Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday afternoon.
Penguins’ goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury had other ideas in making 34 saves in leading his team to a 5-1 victory.
Coach Gerard Gallant wanted to see a stronger effort from his team on Sunday and he got it, at least early on.
“The first 391/2 minutes we played real good hockey,” Gallant said. “A lot of good chances to score and Fleury was the difference the first part of the game and then obviously that second goal was a killer for us, and then they get the third goal the first shift of the third period, and that was really tough.”
The Panthers came out hungry in the first period outshooting the Penguins 16-8, but Fleury was perfect.
That dominance by the Penguins’ goaltender allowed his team to pick up some momentum and reel off five unanswered goals before Scottie Upshall broke the shutout at 12:23 of the third period.
Al Montoya did his best to match Fleury, and it looked like he might do that as he made a number of sparkling saves, including one on Sidney Crosby, but the 30-year-old wasn’t able to keep pace and was trailing 1-0 after one and 2-0 after two.
“I thought we played well in the first period,” Upshall said.
“The second they started to pick it up. Both teams played [Saturday] night, so it was important to have a good start, which we did. I thought Monty played great.”
For as good as the Panthers looked in rolling up 35 shots on goal, they continuously had issues breaking out of their own zone, and the Penguins took advantage of that situation throughout the game.
Penguins defenseman Kris Letang picked off a Dmitry Kulikov pass to Tomas Kopecky to set up the opening goal scored by Patric Hornqvist at 9:18 of the first period.
The Panthers also had a tough time handling Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin, who scored two goals, including one with less than a minute remaining in the second period.
Malkin also added an assist.
“Their key guys made key plays and scored big goals, and that’s the difference,” Upshall said. “The score doesn’t really resemble the game, but we were right there.
“I thought we played well. Key plays in key parts of the game are really the difference.”
The Panthers have now lost two games in a row, but there weren’t many hanging heads in the locker room. They realize that they ran into a hot goalie in Fleury and were satisfied with their play through most of the evening.
Upshall was a part of the Panthers team that last made the playoffs in 2011-12, and he knows that winning at this time of year requires a 60-minute effort, especially as they are locked in a race with Bruins and maybe even the Philadelphia Flyers who are now just one point behind them.
“We look ahead, we know Boston’s three points ahead of us now and those are the teams that we gotta catch. It gets tough. Guys in here realize that this time of year is when the men come out and the men play hockey. Every play is magnified and the games are won by one goal, and it’s the difference of one simple play. You just gotta be consistent and you got realize the opportunity that it is.”