With three games remaining before the Winter Olympics hiatus, Panthers coach Peter Horachek still waits for his team’s sense of urgency.
After dropping three in a row on the road, Florida sits 11 points out of a postseason spot and holds the second-worst record in the Eastern Conference.
“I absolutely think there has to be,” Horachek said. “We have to continue to push. We have to have more of a mind-set that this is more important than the other team feels it is important.”
In order to see better results, the Panthers must first play smarter and more structured on the defensive end of the rink.
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Over the past three games, Florida has been outscored 16-6 even though it outshot two of the opponents. It marked the third three-game stretch this season in which the team surrendered 16 goals.
Since taking a 2-0 lead over Toronto on Thursday, the Panthers have given up 10 goals and scored just two. As of Monday, they rank 26th out of 30 teams in goals-against average (3.07).
Horachek said that during Saturday’s 4-1 loss at Columbus, for example, Florida pulled within one in the second period by producing better scoring chances and shots. But the Panthers couldn’t capitalize on them. The Blue Jackets did.
“When you get scored on like that, there’s obviously a lot of breakdowns,” Horachek said. “That’s basically it. It’s as simple as that. We’ve got to eliminate the breakdowns.”
Tim Thomas, who was in net for two of those games, said that stretches like these occur over the course of a season. Despite a come-from-behind shootout victory in Detroit to start the four-game trip, issues were overshadowed by Florida’s ability to overcome them.
The Panthers also caught a pair of streaking teams: Boston had scored 12 goals over two games and Columbus had come off a 5-2 win over Washington.
“I had a real good December and most of January and just the last few games hasn’t looked good on the scoreboard,” said Thomas, whose .911 save percentage is his lowest since 2006-07. “Anytime it looks like that, I’d like to be keeping more pucks off the scoreboard.
Defenseman Erik Gudbranson, who returned to the rink on Saturday after being scratched for three games, used his time sitting out to his advantage.
Gudbranson watched the team’s system and got a better understanding of it from an overhead view in the pressbox. He has already begun to play more simple and direct.
“From the couple of games I watched, I think we played a little bit on the perimeter,” Gudbranson said. “It’s easy for me to say — I wasn’t playing the games — but when we’re good we’re creating scrambles in front of the net, when we’re attacking the net, cutting through seams, creating space on the ice, moving our feet and we’re going to the net and being in those dirty areas.”
Safety has been at the forefront of Gudbranson’s mind since requiring surgery on his orbital bone in late December.
The 22-year-old, who had been wearing a cage for the past nine games and struggled to track the puck, opted for a visor upon his return on Saturday in Columbus.
“You don’t see any other players in the league willingly put one of those things on,” Gudbranson said. “It was for safety. I’m glad I kept it on. There were a couple of moments when I was playing where had it not have been there, I would’ve hurt it again. I’m glad I kept it on for as long as I did.
“... I think I’m going to make a serious effort to keep [the visor] on. It’s a little scary when a puck comes that close to your eye. You see how many injuries have happened. Hopefully I have a lot more of my career left, so might as well stay as safe as possible.”