Florida Panthers

Florida Panthers dig early hole, fall to Penguins 5-1 in return home

Florida Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo (1) is unable to stop a shoot by the Pittsburgh Penguins' Conor Sheary during the first period of an NHL hockey game in Sunrise, Thurs., Dec. 8, 2016.
Florida Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo (1) is unable to stop a shoot by the Pittsburgh Penguins' Conor Sheary during the first period of an NHL hockey game in Sunrise, Thurs., Dec. 8, 2016. dsantiago@elnuevoherald.com

Thursday night could have gone worse for the Florida Panthers.

Hard to imagine, but it could have.

In their first game back from a tough road trip in which their coach got fired, the Panthers watched the defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins jump to a way-too-early three-goal lead before rolling to a 5-1 victory at BB&T Center.

Florida trailed 2-0 before the five-minute mark after a loose puck bounding off the back boards hit Roberto Luongo’s skate and went in. Just three minutes later and it was 3-0.

It was that kind of night.

“Our start was probably the main thing that broke us down,” said defenseman Keith Yandle, who played in his 579th consecutive game despite having an injured foot.

The Pittsburgh Penguins led 3-0 before the 10 minute mark of the opening period and rolled to a 5-1 win over the host Florida Panthers on Thurs., Dec. 8, 2016.

“Against a good team, any team, it’s tough to battle back when you’re down like that. ... Luongo played great for us, made a ton of great saves. But that’s one of those things.

“We’re waiting for one of those bounces to go for us.”

The Panthers, now 1-2-3 since general manager Tom Rowe took over for Gerard Gallant, cut into the Pittsburgh lead when Jaromir Jagr — who won a pair of Stanley Cups with the Penguins before the state of Florida had an NHL franchise — scored off a great feed from Sasha Barkov 7:34 into the second period.

Yet that was about it for Florida highlights, save for Evander Holyfield giving the Panthers their very own championship belt to Shawn Thornton in the third period. By then, the Penguins held a 4-1 lead.

Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby (as usual) opened the scoring with a wrister past Luongo 3:06 into the game.

Moments later on a 4-on-4, Crosby boosted the puck from when Jakub Kindl and Jason Demers collided and went in for a 2-0 rush.

Conor Sheary shot wide and the puck bounced off the board and came rifling back. Luongo, facing forward, never saw the puck as it bounced off both of his skates and bounced behind him and went into the net.

Florida challenged Pittsburgh’s third goal at 7:34 of the first when Scott Wilson’s shot clipped Tom Kuhnhackl camped in front of Luongo and went in.

Replay officials denied Rowe’s challenge not long after Florida’s interim coach was booed by fans when shown on the center ice scoreboard.

The Pens took any hope Florida had of bouncing back away in the third on Matt Cullen’s goal off a rebound with 14:12 left.

“We’ll be fine,” Rowe said. “The thing is, we played so well in Philly [on Tuesday], I thought we would come out the same way.

“It’s a work in progress right now.”

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