Florida Panthers

Panthers continuing to evaluate forward lines early in season to find right pairings

Florida Panthers forward Mike Hoffman (68) celebrates his goal during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Buffalo Sabres, Friday, Oct. 11, 2019, in Buffalo, N.Y.
Florida Panthers forward Mike Hoffman (68) celebrates his goal during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Buffalo Sabres, Friday, Oct. 11, 2019, in Buffalo, N.Y. AP

The Florida Panthers’ forward lines were spinning Friday night in Buffalo.

After going down two goals early in the third period against the unbeaten Sabres, coach Joel Quenneville opted to play three lines down the stretch instead of four — and he mixed and matched with his top nine forwards in the process.

It worked, as the Panthers overcame that deficit with goals from Evgenii Dadonov with 13:45 left in regulation and Mike Hoffman with about 10 second left to force overtime in their eventual 3-2 shootout loss to begin a three-game road trip.

Quenneville has been playing with his four forward lines early this season, trying to find ways to maximize his 12 players each night.

Changes very well could come up again on Saturday when the Panthers play the New York Islanders for the second game of this three-game road trip.

Take Dadonov as the prime example. Last year, Dadonov was a mainstay at right wing in the Panthers’ ever-dominant top line that also included Jonathan Huberdeau at left wing and Aleksander Barkov at center. The trio combined for 103 of the Panthers’ 274 goals last year (37.6 percent) and had noted chemistry coming into this year.

But after Dadonov struggled early in the season, Quenneville inserted red-hot Mike Hoffman to the top line midway through Tuesday’s 6-3 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes and moved Dadonov down to the second line.

Dadonov then started Friday’s game as the third line’s left wing, working with Denis Malgin and Jayce Hawryluk. Hoffman held onto that top-line spot while Frank Vatrano moved up to the second line with Vincent Trocheck and Brett Connolly.

And then, late in the third period with Quenneville mixing things up once more, Dadonov was paired up with Huberdeau and Malgin when he scored his goal at the midway point of the third period.

He took a pass from Huberdeau near center ice raced toward the net and flicked a shot past goaltender Linus Ullmark with defenseman Marco Scandella right behind him.

Dadonov has now scored twice since being taken off the top line. He had a power-play goal late in Tuesday’s loss to the Hurricanes.

Quenneville kept that grouping together for a few more shifts after the goal.

“Sometimes, that’s how you discover things,” Quenneville said.

By game’s end, though, the top two lines were back to their original forms: Huberdeau-Barkov-Dadonov on the top line, Hoffman-Trocheck-Connolly on the second line

Barkov and Dadonov were the first forwards on the ice in the five-minute three-on-three overtime period.

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No stick? No problem

The Sabres came crashing in against Panthers goaltender Sergei during the final minute of overtime, trying desperately to end the game before the winner-take-all shootout.

But even without his stick in hand at one point, Bobrovsky kept the Sabres off the board over that final stretch.

Bobrovsky, the two-time Vezina Trophy winner, saved two shots in the final 50 seconds and saw two more attempts hit the goal post and the crossbar.

Overall, the 31-year-old goaltender finished with 30 saves on 32 shots-on-goal, including four in overtime and all 13 shots he faced in the opening period.

“Bob made some huge saves for us,” Quenneville said, “and we had some good looks ourselves. There was a lot more quality in that game than the score indicated.”

Jordan McPherson covers the Miami Marlins and high school sports for the Miami Herald. He attended the University of Florida and covered the Gators athletic program for five years before joining the Herald staff in December 2017.