The game had essentially already been decided by the time the Florida Panthers finally got comfortable Tuesday.
And signs of past early season struggles began to bubble up once again.
The first period against the Carolina Hurricanes at the BB&T Center had come to an end. The Panthers were already down four goals on their way to a 6-3 loss and a 1-2-0 start to the regular season.
The defense had trouble clearing the puck from their zone. The offense couldn’t capitalize on a 5-on-3 opportunity midway through the period or get any of their 10 shots on goal in the first 20 minutes past James Reimer — Florida’s former backup goalie.
Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky was pulled after the first period with Florida’s fate essentially already decided.
“That was terrible,” defenseman Anton Stralman said a day later. “We didn’t meet our standards. We weren’t accountable for the way we played.
“We screwed Bob over in that first period.”
For the Panthers, it’s not like early results like this are a new problem.
Slow starts out of the gate have suffocated this team for the better part of the past decade. This in turn has forced them to play catch-up late in the season just for the chance to fight for a spot in the Stanley Cup playoffs only to come up short.
The hope was that the franchise’s big offseason splashes — namely landing three-time Stanley Cup winner Joel Quenneville as their head coach and signing top goaltender Bobrovsky — would help remedy this problem.
A gauntlet start to the season — splitting two games against the Tampa Bay Lightning and Tuesday’s loss to the 2019 Eastern Conference runner-up Hurricanes — has already put a damper in that plan.
“We can’t be happy with what happened,” Quenneville said.
The question now is how the Panthers will respond. After all, the schedule isn’t getting any easier over the next four weeks and the Panthers won’t have the luxury of their home ice for most of the next month.
Eleven of the Panthers’ next 15 games are on the road, including six games against teams that made the postseason. Three of the four home games in that stretch are also against playoff teams from a year ago in the Avalanche (Oct. 18), Pittsburgh Penguins (Oct. 22) and Washington Capitals (Nov. 7).
First up is three away games in four days against the Buffalo Sabres on Friday, New York Islanders on Saturday and New Jersey Devils on Monday.
“It’s tough to win on the road in this league,” Stralman said. “Usually, the teams that find a way are very successful.”
The Panthers are about to find out if they’re one of those teams.
“We can’t just come here and expect that we’re going to play well all the time,” center and team captain Aleksander Barkov said. “It doesn’t matter how we approach the game. We’re not going to play well if we don’t work hard enough and that starts from myself, by not being ready in the beginning of the game. I know it’s the beginning of the season, but you have to be ready right from the start.”
That’s especially true for this Panthers team — a team that once again could see its high expectations slip away if the slow starts aren’t fixed.
“I think the message is loud and clear,” forward Brett Connolly said. “Guys know we need to play a full 60. Guys also know that it’s early in the year. We just have to be better.”