Florida Panthers

Florida Panthers finally back home, greeted by Stanley Cup champion Penguins

Florida goalie James Reimer makes a save as Pittsburgh center Sidney Crosby waits for a rebound in the Pens’ 3-2 win on Oct. 25 in Pittsburgh.
Florida goalie James Reimer makes a save as Pittsburgh center Sidney Crosby waits for a rebound in the Pens’ 3-2 win on Oct. 25 in Pittsburgh. AP

It has been a rough couple of weeks for the Florida Panthers.

Things aren’t getting any easier.

After losing five games on their recent six-game road trip, the Panthers return to Sunrise on Thursday only to find the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins waiting for them.

Tom Rowe, now in his second week as coach of the Panthers, says despite the losses things are looking up for a Florida team which came into Wednesday three points out of a playoff spot despite everything that has transpired.

“There’s too many positives to get down,” Rowe said he told his team following Tuesday’s 3-2 overtime loss in Philadelphia.

“Keep building on what we’ve started. ... We are moving on. We’re moving forward. It’s a great group of guys, great players. A lot of fun to coach and we have a lot of great days ahead of us.”

The Panthers took a well-deserved day off on Wednesday to try and regroup and get ready for what’s ahead.

Florida didn’t play poorly on its road trip, but the Panthers were definitely challenged.

The trip opened with a 3-2 loss in Carolina, one in which the Panthers jumped to a 2-0 lead only to watch the host Hurricanes score three quick goals in the second and hold on.

Not long after the loss, coach Gerard Gallant was fired and replaced by Rowe — Florida’s GM — at least through the end of the season.

The way Gallant’s firing went down is still being talked about in national hockey circles over a week after going down.

It’s a distraction the Panthers have had to deal with since opening their locker room to the media the following Tuesday in Chicago.

“It felt like a one month trip,” Jussi Jokinen said Tuesday. “I think it will be nice to go home and spend [Wednesday] with the family, and get our thoughts away from hockey. That will probably be good for all of us.”

Even though the Panthers won just one game on their trip, there appears to be plenty of build on.

While the Panthers have struggled to score at times — the Panthers were held to two goals or fewer in five of the six games — Florida found late goals in Boston and Philadelphia to force overtime and secure at least one point in the standings.

Florida’s lone win of the trip came in Detroit after Jason Demers tied the score at 1 in the first period and Sasha Barkov snapped a 22-game goal scoring drought in overtime.

Barkov scored again on Tuesday, his third goal in four games.

Florida ended up with points in four of the six games and dominated play Tuesday in Philadelphia yet struggled to beat goalie Steve Mason despite being all over him. Florida not only took 44 shots on goal, but had 85 shot attempts to Philadelphia’s 51.

The Panthers outshot Philadelphia 42-23 through regulation including a 17-4 onslaught in the third period which saw Jokinen tie the score with 4:46 left.

“It was amazing how we came at them,” Rowe said. “Hey, we got a point and a lot of good stuff is happening.”

The Flyers won it with 8.6 seconds remaining on a goal from Jakub Voracek. Before losing in Boston, Florida had been 5-0 this season in games decided in the 3-on-3 overtime.

The Panthers are now 5-2 in such games.

“Certain times, you feel like you deserve more,” Reilly Smith said, “especially when you have over 40 shots in a game and only score a couple goals. That's tough. There are definitely a lot of positives, and I think we got to work off of those.”

Thursday: Penguins at Panthers

When/where: 7:30 p.m.; BB&T Center, Sunrise.

TV/radio: FSFL; WQAM 560, WMEN 640, WMYM 990.

Series: Pittsburgh leads 46-36-4.

Scouting report: Pittsburgh heads to Sunrise winners of its past three and four of five as the Pens are second in the league by averaging 3.3 goals per night. Evgeni Malkin in third in the league with 28 points with captain Sidney Crosby fourth with 27. The Panthers haven’t won a game in regulation since beating the host Senators on Nov. 19 and have lost six of the past eight (2-3-3).