Scottie Upshall has been doing the professional hockey thing in the NHL or AHL for a decade. Though there’s the same number of points available in this road trip through Detroit, Boston, Toronto and Columbus as there would be in any four-game road trip, Upshall sees an extra importance in games 52, 53, 54 and 55.
“I’ve always thought, in an 82-game schedule, games 40 through 60 are always a grind where the good teams find ways to win the games,” Upshall said. “You get tough schedules, you get injuries. It’s just a rough part of the year. It becomes a man’s game. It becomes a game where the teams that rely on their system, rely on hard work, those are the teams that end up taking these points.”
Tough scheduling, yes. The Panthers finished a three-game trip, came home just for Friday night’s game against Colorado, then head back on the road. That single home game in that situation often feels like a hybrid home/road game with the worst of both worlds. Find a heavy business traveling puckhead gambler and you’ll find someone who would’ve gone in against the Panthers on Friday with both arms despite their wins against Pittsburgh and Buffalo.
Injuries, too. Leading scorer Aleksander Barkov will remain behind for the start of the road trip with whatever lower-body injury he sustained at the end of the last trip in Buffalo.
And center Nick Bjugstad said Thursday that the team’s goal is to even its record at .500 by the Olympic break. Getting into position to be in position for a playoff push. The Panthers sit four games under .500 with seven games left before the break.
Panthers coach Peter Horachek decreed Saturday’s practice optional for on-ice activity and, in fact, didn’t take the ice himself. Yet, 20 skaters and both goalies took the ice, which is how hockey players react to a disappointing first 25 minutes such as in Friday’s 3-2 loss.
“The emphasis was in the meeting room,” Horachek said. “The emphasis was on the mind-set, how we want to play, as far as being competitive for 60 minutes.”
And the meeting really only restated what players stated in the locker room after Friday’s game and lived during the game: The Panthers got up late, got on the road in the second period and got down to serious Kool Moe Dee work in the third period but were down 3-0 by that point.
The inconsistency, night to night and period to period, is typical of a young team — note that Colorado’s kiddie corps seemed to run out of attention span after two periods Friday. But the Panthers actually are a hybrid of young (too all over the place) and old (feeling the midseason dog days).
Conventional NHL wisdom puts a forward or defenseman’s prime at age 24 to 30, maybe moved a bit later for defensemen. The Panthers roster, including those on injured reserve, includes eight players under 24 and also eight who are 31 or over.
“It’s got to be a big, desperate push by our group to be a better team consistently, to have a more complete game,” Upshall said.