So far this season, the Panthers have been good at shutting down the best players the league has to offer.
On Saturday night, Florida’s defense was asked to keep not only Sidney Crosby but also Evgeni Malkin in check.
The Panthers did so — for a while, anyway.
Crosby’s deflection of a slick pass from Kris Letang in the third period proved to be the difference in Pittsburgh’s 3-1 victory over Florida.
With lots of fighting and physical play, Part II of this meeting should be nothing short of entertaining as they renew their new-found rivalry Monday night in Sunrise.
“They’re a good team, but if we play like that every night, we’re going to win more than we lose,” Panthers coach Gerard Gallant said. “I’m really happy with our group. We did a lot of real good things.”
Despite having eight players on the injury list for a variety of ailments including an outbreak of the mumps, the Penguins proved again they’re a team to be reckoned with this season.
Pittsburgh, atop the Eastern Conference, jumped to a 2-0 lead.
Nick Spaling opened things with a knuckleball shot from 55 feet out that clipped Roberto Luongo’s glove before trickling in before the two-minute mark.
A few minutes later, rookie Derrick Pouliot scored on his first NHL shot as he fired high from the right circle.
Luongo was right on after that, stopping 27 consecutive shots on goal before Crosby’s deflection and stopping Crosby and Malkin numerous times throughout the game.
“We battled hard,” said Luongo, who got physical himself when Patric Hornqvist appeared to pull off his mask. “It felt like a playoff game out there. The first period did us in. I have to be better than that on the first goal. Even though it knuckled in, I have to stop it. I can’t give that up right off the hop.”
During the first 30 minutes, Florida and Pittsburgh got up close and personal — something the Panthers might not have wanted to do because of this mumps business.
Florida was hit with a season-high 12 penalties for 32 minutes; the Pens were flagged 15 times for 44.
Steve Downie took a game misconduct for getting his punches in during his fight with Erik Gudbranson while officials were on top of him trying to break things up.
The Panthers weren’t very happy with some of the actions of the Penguins afterward.
“They were throwing punches after whistles and went hard to the net, forcing us to protect our goalie,” said Willie Mitchell, who got into one of Florida’s five fights in the first half of the game. “The linesmen would come in and their guys threw punches over the pile. We’re not going to take them in the face so we pushed back. Some guys over there get a long leash from the league.”
As far as hockey went, Florida trailed 2-0 before getting a nice goal from Pittsburgh native Vincent Trocheck, who returned to the lineup for the first time this week.
Trocheck broke Florida’s six-game slide without a power-play goal as he knocked in a shot from Jonathan Huberdeau with 12:29 left in the first.
Florida had numerous chances after that but couldn’t solve the exceptional Marc-Andre Fleury as he made one great save after another.
Even though Trocheck was back in the lineup Saturday against his hometown Penguins, Gallant said it was not because of where Trocheck grew up.
Trocheck had been a healthy scratch in the previous two games after Scottie Upshall and Aleksander Barkov came off the injured list and gave Florida two extra forwards.
“I’m trying to be a good guy and let him in, but he deserves it, deserves to play,” Gallant said. “If he wasn’t a good player, he wouldn’t be in there just because this is his hometown.’’
Trocheck had a large group of family and friends watching his first game at Consol Center.
“I had like 80 family members in the stands and was very excited to score a goal at home,” Trocheck said.