The late and great Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra said it best:
“It’s getting late early.”
And so it is with the Florida Panthers, who enter Saturday’s home game against the Vancouver Canucks with the fewest points (one) in the Eastern Conference. The Panthers have only played two games — some rivals have played as many as five — so there’s a l-o-n-g way to go.
But even so, the Panthers know they came up one point short of the playoffs last season, and these October games count just as much as the ones in February.
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The Panthers also know that their Hall of Fame goalie, Roberto Luongo, is out with a knee injury, likely for a month, and a lot is riding on backup James Reimer, who gave up five goals in Thursday’s 5-4 home loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets.
“We win and lose as a team,” Panthers coach Bob Boughner said when asked about Reimer. “There’s no talking about goalies or individual play.”
Coaches generally don’t talk about goalies only when they’re not happy with the performance.
Here are five Panthers take-aways as they enter the Canucks game:
▪ 1: Captain Aleksander Barkov’s first line — with Evgenii Dadonov and Nick Bjugstad on the wings — is clicking. On Thursday, Dadonov had one goal and two assists, Barkov had one of each, and Bjugstad had one goal.
“Daddy, Barky and Bjuggy were flying,” Boughner said.
Barkov and Dadonov are each averaging four shots on goal per game this season, and Bjugstad had four on Thursday.
Barkov, however, isn’t focused on the stats.
“We scored a couple of goals, but we lost, so it doesn’t matter,” he said. “We’re playing really well in the offensive zone. But we need to learn how to block shots at the end — those small things that win games.”
▪ 2: The power play is 0 for 7 in two games and has also allowed a short-handed goal. That’s not what was expected from a team with high-octane scorers such as Barkov, Dadonov, Mike Hoffman and Jonathan Huberdeau.
On the other side, opponents are 2 for 6 against Florida’s penalty-killers, although one of those goals came after Columbus was awarded a two-man advantage for 90 seconds.
“It’s pretty much in the back of your net when you take a 5-on-3,” Boughner said of the penalties called on Frank Vatrano and Mike Matheson. “Special teams have to get better.”
▪ 3: The Panthers are still a dangerous offensive team. They outshot the team favored to win the 2019 Stanley Cup, the Tampa Bay Lightning, 43-29, in the opener. The Panthers then outshot a playoff team, Columbus, 42-31, on Thursday.
“It’s just a matter of execution,” Boughner said, “bearing down on our chances.”
▪ 4: Reimer, coming off his worst season in five years in terms of his goals-against average and save percentage, is under intense pressure to steady the team while Luongo is out.
So far, Reimer has failed to protect third-period leads in both games.
Against Columbus, Reimer gave up just one soft goal, failing to adequately protect the near post on a power-play shot by Anthony Duclair. Other than that, Reimer gave up a 5-on-3, a break-away goal after a Keith Yandle turnover, another one that went in off Yandle’s stick and a final goal on a mad scramble in front of the net.
Even so, Reimer needs a game where he is absolutely dominant to get his team on track.
▪ 5: It will be interesting to see if Boughner starts third-string goalie Michael Hutchinson against Vancouver.
Hutchinson, 28, signed a one-year, $1.3 million contract in July with the Panthers, who wanted his experience for just this type of scenario, especially since Luongo has become more injury prone now at age 39.
In 102 NHL games, Hutchinson is 43-39-11 with a 2.65 GAA and a .910 save percentage. He was also brilliant with the Panthers’ AHL affiliate this season before getting the call to the big team.