If things had ended up the Panthers way Tuesday night, the talk would have been all about how their “Kid Line” had their biggest game of the season in a much-needed win over a division rival.
Instead, the Panthers coughed up a two-goal lead late in the third period and lost 6-5 to the Capitals in overtime.
The great story line of the continued emergence of rookies Jonathan Huberdeau, 19, and Drew Shore, 22, as well as 24-year-old Peter Mueller was completely overshadowed by Washington’s comeback win.
In Tuesday’s game, Huberdeau scored twice off assists from Mueller, and Shore scored Florida’s final goal to make it 5-3 with 13:35 left.
“Things were clicking, and the puck was bouncing our way,” Mueller said. “It was a tough one to swallow, but thank goodness for the shortened season because we have 48 hours to focus on our next opponent.”
The Panthers’ philosophy since general manager Dale Tallon and assistant general manager Mike Santos took over hockey operations in 2010 is to not rush the organization’s young players.
In the past, the Panthers threw top prospects such as Stephen Weiss, Nathan Horton, Jay Bouwmeester, Rostislav Olesz and Dmitry Kulikov into the NHL fire soon after drafting them with mixed results.
“This is our natural progression,” Santos said. “We are developing our players at the right time and the right pace. You see the patience we’ve had is paying off.”
Although Florida now has what some hockey experts consider the top prospect pool in the NHL, the Panthers have shown patience.
Erik Gudbranson, Tallon’s first draft pick in Florida, was sent back to the juniors for another year of seasoning in 2010 before being brought up last year. Huberdeau also had to go back to junior for an extra year. Mueller said Huberdeau has “all the talent in the world,” and Florida fans are starting to see that firsthand.
“He has a nose, a knack, whatever you want to use. He can smell opportunity and create a chance,” coach Kevin Dineen said.
The Panthers feel they have an emerging star in Huberdeau, who scored his fourth and fifth goals of the season Tuesday night.
Shore, who left the University of Denver after a junior year in which he led the Pioneers in scoring for the second season in a row, made his pro debut last spring with the AHL San Antonio Rampage and started the season there as well.
The Panthers had him up for an abbreviated training camp, but he lost out in the numbers game. Shore was back less than a week later and made his NHL debut at the Bell Center in Montreal on Jan. 22.
The Panthers weren’t sure how long Shore would remain with the Panthers, but he has made sure he isn’t going anywhere.
“He’s been solid on both ends of the ice,” Mueller said. “You like to see that out of young guys who have been called up.”
Shore has been fantastic since coming up from the minors as he has created chances and been strong in the faceoff circle.
On Tuesday, he finally got his first NHL goal — on his 24th NHL shot on goal — when he batted down a bouncing puck in front of the net. It sure wasn’t a pretty goal — but it still counts. The Panthers’ equipment managers saved the puck and will present it to Shore in the coming days.
Shore had to sweat it out for a few minutes as the play was reviewed by Hockey Central in Toronto to see if Shore batted the puck down with a high stick. He didn’t.
“I thought, ‘Finally I get a little break,’ but I was pretty confident the stick wasn’t high,” Shore said. “I was watching the replay the entire time.
“I just wanted to get the first one because I had a lot of chances.”
Versteeg played 18 shifts and 13:38 on Tuesday but was given Wednesday off. Dineen said Versteeg was questionable for Thursday’s game against the Canadiens.
Dineen replaced Versteeg for a few shifts Tuesday with Shawn Matthias — who picked up his second goal of the season during the game. “I thought [Matthias] was very straightforward, north-south with some good puck protection,” Dineen said. “He took the cute out of his game. When the puck got on his stick he’s looking to shoot the thing.”