Playing against the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins, the Panthers built a two-goal lead by way of a solid opening 30 minutes of hockey and appeared well on their way to their first road victory of the season Tuesday.
An inadvertent high stick, some Penguins’ stalling tactics and some inexplicably poor coverage on a penalty kill flipped the momentum.
Sidney Crosby, who made his season debut after missing the first six games of the season because of a concussion, scored on the power play at 13:41 of the second period, and Carl Hagelin and Eric Fehr scored 3:06 apart early in the third period as Pittsburgh came back to hand the Panthers a 3-2 defeat.
Reilly Smith and Mark Pysyk scored for the Panthers, who seemed to have everything going their way — until Gregg McKegg took an offensive-zone penalty with 6½ minutes to play in the second period and the Panthers ahead, 2-0.
Standing a few feet from the opponent’s net, McKegg’s stick slipped up into the face of Trevor Daley and a penalty was called. Two-time NHL MVP Crosby was on the ice, so he went to the bench during the ensuing television timeout that followed.
But Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury requested help with a skate issue, allowing Crosby enough of a breather to come back onto the ice for the faceoff that began the power play.
“(Crosby) shouldn’t have been on the ice,” Panthers coach Gerard Gallant said. “It was an extended timeout, it looked like to me.
“I didn’t think it was right. I thought they waited too long. You see those plays happen all the time when they’re stalling for time, and he obviously had a skate problem, and some people waited for him and it looked like it was a two-and-a-half-minute timeout instead of a two. That’s what I saw.”
The Penguins had just emerged from a stretch in which they were held to just one shot on goal over one span of more than 21 minutes.
“We were in control of the game up until that point, I thought,” Gallant said. “We played really well, and things happen in a game. That’s not the reason why we lost — but it’s disappointing to see that the way it happened.”
Almost as disappointing regarding that goal was the way two-time league scoring champion Crosby was inexplicably left wide open in the slot and able to fire a shot past Reimer.
Each of the four Panthers penalty-killers was to the right of the right-wing faceoff circle when Evgeni Malkin slid a pass to Crosby standing all alone between the circles.
“You want to make sure you put that one in when you have that much time,” said Crosby, who was playing his first game of the season after recovering from a concussion.
The Panthers had carried play to that point but the goal seemed to wake Pittsburgh up.
Hagelin and fourth-liner Fehr scored on odd-man rushes early in the third to give the Penguins the lead.
“It’s important for us to realize that when we have a lead like that, we need to play strong defensively, play tight defensively and not give away any chances,” Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad said. “They got way too many chances out there in the period.”
The poor third period ruined the chances for a first win with the Panthers for Reimer, who signed a five-year, $17 million contract last summer.
“It’s too bad; I thought we played a pretty solid game,” Reimer said. “Obviously, there were a couple saves I could have made, but that’s just the way she goes sometimes.”
The Panthers strong play in the first period — they had eight of the final nine shots on goal — was largely was attributable to three consecutive power plays. It took until the third one for them to score when Smith flipped a backhand rebound up over Marc-Andre Fleury’s pads with 1:58 to play in the first.
Pysyk made it 2-0 six minutes into the second off a feed from Shane Harper on a transition play into the Pittsburgh zone.
The sequence that led to the goal began with Jaromir Jagr getting the puck up out of his zone — and paying the price for it, absorbing a hit from Penguins defenseman Ian Cole.
Earlier in the day, the 44-year-old Jagr was given a plaque with his name and number on it by the Penguins, who drafted him 26 years ago. The plaque was made of melted steel from the roof of the now-razed Civic Arena, where Jagr played his home games from 1990-2001 — winning five NHL scoring titles — with the Penguins.