The hope in Sunrise is that left wing Thomas Vanek, in his first game at BB&T Center since being acquired at the trade deadline, can help stop the fading of the Panthers at home and center Nick Bjugstad on the ice.
As for the former, the Panthers entered Saturday night’s home game against Dallas with four losses in their previous five home games and needing a shootout to get that one win against wounded, woeful Carolina. A 14-10-8 road record, boosted by the 5-for-5 February Western Conference road trip, has kept the Panthers in the playoff race. A 15-13-3 home record has kept them outside a playoff position with 19 games remaining.
“After that road trip, we saw the talent we had in this room and what we could accomplish,” Bjugstad said. “There’s no reason we can’t do it at home. It shouldn’t make a difference what arena we’re in.”
Panthers general manager and interim coach Tom Rowe said: “We’ve already talked this morning about coming out with the same mentality [as in Thursday’s shootout loss in Philadelphia] — playing physical, playing fast, playing sound a lot more than we have at home lately.”
(If this sounds familiar, you’re a long-suffering Panthers fan. In 2002-03, before the shootout days, the Panthers went 16-15-6 with four overtime losses on the road. They missed the playoffs because they won only eight home games, two above the NHL-record low for a minimum 70-game schedule and one above four of the worst overall teams in NHL history: 1962-63 Boston, 1974-75 Washington, 1980-81 Winnipeg and 1983-84 Pittsburgh.)
Now here comes Dallas, trade deadline sellers, eight points out of a Western Conference playoff spot and the NHL’s No. 30 (out of 30) penalty kill overall and on the road.
“There’s a lot that goes into penalty killing, whether it’s situational stuff or goaltending, who knows,” Rowe said. “But they’ve got a ton of good players. We’re not looking at where they stand, as far as placement or percentages on special teams. Throw that out the window. They’ve got a good hockey team.”
At least a good first line, Jamie Benn, Jason Spezza and Tyler Seguin, who demonstrated their superlative skill to open the scoring. Spezza pulled up just inside the Panthers line along the left boards and threaded a pass through a few skates to Seguin in the right circle. With goalie James Reimer reacting hard to the right post, Seguin fed back across to Benn for the tap-in.
But Dallas Stephen Johns went to the box for tripping Jonathan Marchessault, it gave the Panthers’ power play its third chance of the first period. Or, rather, required the Dallas penalty kill to retake the ice. After the Stars failed to get control of a loose puck near the blue line, the Panthers’ French Jonathan Connection tied the game -- Jonathan Marchessault made a left boards-to-right circle pass to Jonathan Huberdeau and Huberdeau whistled in a wrister.
The second period featured no scoring after Dallas rang up a post and Bjugstad missed an open net the size of a ranch house living room on a two-on-one with Vanek. Colton Sceviour skated himself into a shorthanded breakaway, then inexplicably tried to feed Derek MacKenzie, a bad decision and worse pass. Sceviour’s next five-on-five shift found him in a two-on-one with Shawn Thornton. Sceviour slid toward the middle, then missed the net.
Rowe ran off Dallas’ forwards in the same tone of voice some people run off the Panthers’ less-established (outside of Vanek and Jaromir Jagr) but still talented forwards. Bjugstad is still considered one of those, though five goals and nine points in 35 games certainly doesn’t reflect that. Nor does his ice time — under 14 minutes in seven of the past eight games.
Rowe said that’s because Bjugstad isn’t getting power-play time but “just because he’s not on the power play now doesn’t mean he won’t end up there.”
The hope is that Vanek, who’s a hero in Bjugstad’s native Minnesota for his years starring for the University of Minnesota, helps jump-start the center.
“They know each other from Minnesota; they skate with each other in the summertime,” Rowe said.
“Putting Bjugy back in the middle was a big help to him. He was excited about it. When you’ve got two wingers like Vanek and Jonathan Marchessault, they’re going to create offense. That’s why we made the trade was to give us three balanced lines.”