Florida Panthers

Panthers struggle, fall further behind after loss to Penguins

It was one of those nights where everything that could have possibly gone wrong for the Panthers ended up going wrong.

Starting goalie Roberto Luongo was benched halfway through the game, the power-play unit gave up two more short-handed goals, and they could not figure out a way to solve Pittsburgh Penguins starting goalie Matt Murray until it was too late.

When you put it all together it added up to a 5-1 loss to extend their current losing streak to three games, leaving the Panthers nine points out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

You could tell very early it was just not going to be a positive night for Luongo — or the Panthers as a team — when he surrendered two goals on the first three shots he faced.

Just 1:29 into the first period Penguins winger Tanner Pearson soared down the right side uncontested and ripped a shot that went through Luongo’s five-hole for the first goal of the game. Not even two minutes later, Bryan Rust scored his first of two goals on the night when he finished a slick backhand play that began with Jake Guentzel dancing around Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad at the blue line to set him up alone in front of the net.

From there, the Panthers spent the rest of the night trying to play catch-up. No matter what they tried to do, or how many shots they put on net, or how many opportunities they created, they were never really able to get close.

Part of that was due to the fact that Murray was sensational in the Pittsburgh net and shut down almost everything he faced, including a couple of highlight-reel saves in the second period. The best of the bunch may have been his stop on a between-the-legs effort by a wide open Aleksander Barkovas he streaked down the center of the ice.

Another part of it was due to some self-inflicted mistakes at bad times.

After successfully killing off a pair of penalties and starting to gain a territorial edge over the Penguins, it looked like the Panthers might be able to start clawing their way back into the game. A couple of power plays in the first eight minutes of the second period highlighted this opportunity. But it was then that one of their season-long issues made another poorly timed appearance: A pair of sloppy power plays resulted in short-handed goals for Rust and Riley Sheahan.

Sheahan’s tally at 8:56 was the ninth short-handed goal the Panthers have allowed this season in only their 41st game, tying them for the most in the NHL.

“Give their goalie credit, he played well,” Panthers coach Bob Boughner said after the game. “Ours didn’t.

“You have two shorthanded goals and it is unacceptable. We won the draw on the one, we go down for a breakout, get it picked off and it’s in the back of your net. Next one it’s the same thing. Those guys have been good all year on the power play and tonight when we need them the most, we’re in a playoff push, you have two or three guys that are just out to lunch.”

They only allowed five during the entire 2017-18 season.

It also ended

Luongo’s night after allowing four goals on 16 shots, continuing what has been a tough stretch for the veteran goalie.

With Tuesday’s loss he has now dropped four of his past five decisions, a stretch that has seen him record a save percentage of only .850.

For the season, his save percentage is down to .892, which would be by far the lowest mark of his career.

He was not the only big-name player that earned a seat on the bench. Jonathan Huberdeau and Mike Hoffman finished the game off the ice.

“The thing that disappoints me the most is our depth guys, our young guys, they played their asses off,” said Bougher. “The guys you depend on on a nightly basis that get paid the big bucks didn’t.”

“I was going to play the guys that wanted to play and the guys that were ready to play.”

Ekblad scored the Panthers’ only goal late in the second period when he ripped a shot from the blue line. The play had to withstand a Pittsburgh coach’s challenge, and it capped of what was an eventful night for the defenseman. Along with getting beat at the blue line on the Penguins’ second goal, Ekblad thought he scored another goal earlier in the game only to have it overturned on an offsides challenge by the Penguins.

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