It was hard to tell the Panthers have lost six of their past seven games based on the end of practice Friday afternoon.
The team laughed and seemed to enjoy their final moments on the ice before heading back to the locker room to pack their gear and head to the airport for a quick flight to Tampa.
“We’re a game under .500, we’re not happy about losing [Thursday], but it was a good, hard game and sometimes you don’t win those,’’ said coach Gerard Gallant, whose team is coming off a 3-2 loss to Buffalo. “You have to wake up the next morning and start working it back up. You can’t stay down, you have to have some fun and work hard.”
Florida has a pair of games against the rival Lightning coming up with a home-and-home series starting Saturday at Amalie Arena and concluding Monday night in Sunrise.
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The Panthers’ recent rough patch is no reason for panic, players and coaches say, although they are well aware this is a pivotal stretch to their season.
“There’s a difference between panic and a sense of urgency,’’ goalie Roberto Luongo said. “There’s a lot of hockey left, but every game is important. You want to fall too far back because it’s hard to come back.
“We have a good stretch of games against good teams, but we’re at home. We need to get some swagger back into our game. We know we can beat anyone on any night.’’
Gallant switched up some of his line combinations after a lethargic first period against the Sabres. The move seemed to work as Florida dominated the second period on the ice, although a late Buffalo goal gave it a 2-1 lead heading into the third.
“We had a very good practice, and I think we played good [Thursday] even though we lost,’’ Jaromir Jagr said. “We did a lot of good things, cycled the puck, had a lot of scoring chances. We just didn’t score. We just need to start winning. We need to regroup.’’
On Friday, Gallant’s line changes were back in effect as Jagr remains on the second line with Vincent Trocheck and Jussi Jokinen. Reilly Smith took Jagr’s slot beside Nick Bjugstad and Jonathan Huberdeau.
“I just wanted to switch it up, we were just a little blah,’’ Gallant said. “I thought we played a little better. Sometimes you have to change things up to change momentum. I thought it worked.’’
The Panthers came into Friday four points back of the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference but only three points behind Tampa Bay and third place (and a playoff spot) in the Atlantic Division.
Expect quite a battle for the four points available to both Tampa Bay and Florida in the coming days.
“We’re not happy with the results the past few games,’’ Gallant said. “You have to keep playing, get back in the race. Do what you can do.”
▪ Center Sasha Barkov apparently met with the team doctor Thursday as Gallant was told he was cleared for full practice Friday.
Barkov worked as an extra on Florida’s third line and could be back in the coming days.
There is a chance Barkov could return from a hand injury sustained Oct. 22 in one of the games against Tampa Bay.
“I’m not expecting him Saturday,’’ Gallant said, adding Barkov would likely go back to centering Jagr and Huberdeau. “We’re looking at Monday, although I can’t say he’s not playing Saturday because I don’t know.’’
▪ Gallant has been very successful on his coach’s challenges this season and won Thursday’s video review in which Tyler Ennis’s goal was taken off the board after it was determined he was offside coming into the Florida zone.
“We get the information from our video coach, Tommy Cruz, and he relays it to our goalie coach, Robb Tallas,’’ Gallant said. “They look at it quickly and give you the best opinion they have. They’ve been pretty good with it. It’s not easy because it happens real quick. We’re confident they’ll make the right calls.’’
Saturday: Panthers at Lightning
When/where: 7 p.m.; Amalie Arena, Tampa.
TV/radio: FSFL; WMBM 1490, WMEN 640.
Series: Florida leads 58-49-10.
Scouting report: This is the first of five meetings between the cross-state, divisional rivals with two games in a span of three days. Florida is trying to win its first in Tampa since 2013. The Lightning has won seven of the past 10 against the Panthers on home ice.