The Panthers’ month-plus hold on first place is getting tenuous.
Florida’s demoralizing 5-0 loss to the Nashville Predators at BB&T Center on Saturday night was the Panthers’ second defeat in a row, both at home and both coming in the span of 27 hours.
In the meantime, the Boston Bruins, who have a game in hand, beat the Minnesota Wild 4-2 on Saturday and trail the Panthers by just four points. The Panthers have led the Atlantic Division since Jan. 2 and are also being closely chased by the Detroit Red Wings (five points back) and Tampa Bay Lightning (six back).
Aside from the defeat, the Panthers lost centers Brandon Pirri (ankle) and Quinton Howden (upper body) to injuries on hard hits that were not penalized.
Panthers coach Gerard Gallant, who was ejected while arguing the non-calls, said he was “sure” the league would do something about those hits.
“If that is not a head shot, I don’t know what is,” Gallant said.
The Panthers were already short-handed with injuries to centers Sasha Barkov and Dave Bolland, and defensemen Erik Gudbranson and Willie Mitchell, among others.
“It looked like it tonight — I’m not saying it did, but it looked like it,” Gallant said when asked if the injuries have taken their toll.
Saturday’s loss continues some disturbing trends for the Panthers (32-18-6), who had emerged as one of the best defensive teams in the league. The Panthers have allowed three or more goals in six consecutive games and are 2-3-1 in that stretch. They have allowed 23 goals during that span.
The Panthers trailed 2-0 after Saturday’s first period, the second game in a row they faced a two-goal deficit after the opening 20 minutes.
Goalie Roberto Luongo, lifted after allowing three goals in the opening period of Friday’s 5-3 loss to the St. Louis Blues, was not sharp again on Saturday.
The Panthers defense didn’t help much as Predators skaters got in on Luongo for the first two goals. Nashville’s third and fourth goals were on the power play, which went 2 for 3 on the night. And the fifth goal came short-handed.
“[Luongo] hasn’t been as sharp as he was,” Gallant said, “but it’s our team [that wasn’t sharp]. We’re missing some depth, but when nobody plays well that’s what hurts your team.”
Offensively, the Panthers went 0 for 4 on the power play, including two consecutive man advantages in the first period that lasted 3:44. The Panthers had a two-man advantage for 16 seconds and got just one shot on goal during that stretch of nearly four minutes.
The Panthers had trouble solving a Nashville defense that has struggled this season, ranking last in the NHL in save percentage.
Predators starting goalie Pekka Rinne, who had started 45 of Nashville’s previous 54 games, was given the night off, and that proved to be unfortunate for the Panthers.
Carter Hutton, who had not played since Jan. 27, made several outstanding stops and now has a personal three-game win streak. He has allowed a combined one goal in his past three games and made 22 saves against the Panthers.
“We had a lot of problems,” Gallant said, indicating it was more than just Hutton. “We weren’t too good at all.”
▪ Panthers center John McFarland made his NHL debut and nearly scored in the second period. The 23-year-old, who was the 33rd overall pick in the 2010 NHL Draft, got in behind the Nashville defense, but his shot went right of the goal.
McFarland is the fourth Panthers player to make his NHL debut this season, joining defenseman Brent Regner, right winger Logan Shaw and left winger Connor Brickley.
Four other Panthers have shuttled between Portland of the AHL and BB&T Center this season — Garrett Wilson, center Corban Knight, right winger Rocco Grimaldi and defenseman Dylan Olsen.