Florida Panthers

Florida Panthers enter tough part of schedule

Florida Panthers right wing Brad Boyes (24) celebrates his goal with teammate Jussi Jokinen (36) against the Buffalo Sabres during the first period of an NHL hockey game, Saturday, Dec. 6, 2014, in Sunrise, Fla.
Florida Panthers right wing Brad Boyes (24) celebrates his goal with teammate Jussi Jokinen (36) against the Buffalo Sabres during the first period of an NHL hockey game, Saturday, Dec. 6, 2014, in Sunrise, Fla. AP

The Panthers played a solid game in Monday’s 4-2 loss to the host Blues.

Three of the goals St. Louis scored were deflected either by Florida players (twice) or a well-placed stick by a Blues forward in the slot.

The Panthers trailed 2-0 in the opening period on the two shots that hit their own players before finding the back of the net, yet, with less than five minutes left, the score was tied.

There is no such thing as a moral victory in the NHL, not if it doesn’t come along with a point in the standings.

With the schedule the Panthers are in the midst of, points are going to come at a premium.

Including Monday’s loss against the Blues — who hold second place in the Central Division — nine of Florida’s next 13 games come against teams currently holding a playoff position.

The Panthers went into Wednesday two points back of Boston for the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference.

Things are about to get interesting.

“Sometimes it’s easier going into games when you’re perceived as the underdog,” winger Jussi Jokinen said. “At the same time, we’re right there in the playoff picture. We need to start climbing and find a way to get as many points as we can.”

Coach Gerard Gallant likes how the Panthers have played against the NHL’s top teams so far.

Florida has gone 2-3-5 against teams currently holding playoff position.

Unlike the Blues, who play in the Western Conference, Florida’s next 11 opponents are all from the east. Four (Buffalo twice, Philadelphia and the Rangers) come against teams below the Panthers in the standings.

Up next is a date with the Red Wings on Friday in Detroit. Florida escaped Joe Louis Arena with a 4-3 win last week.

“I like the way we’re playing against good teams,” Gallant said. “We have to keep doing that and we’ll win some games. There are no bad teams in our league anymore. I think we rise to the challenge.”

Although the Panthers didn’t get a point out of St. Louis, it was their best showing against the Blues in some time.

Last year, Florida was ripped by the Blues 7-0 in the second game of the 2013-14 season. Later, St. Louis came to Sunrise and left with a 4-0 victory that wasn’t very competitive.

St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock noticed the difference from last year’s 29th-ranked Panthers and this year’s much improved version.

“Florida’s a lot like we are,” Hitchcock said. “They’re hard working. They’re determined. When we dialed it up in the first period, they didn’t have an answer, and when they dialed it up in second, we had a real difficult time. Their checking and their one-on-one determination on the boards in the second was very significant.”

Said goalie Martin Brodeur: “I think we survived. It wasn’t pretty but we got it done. … Florida’s a team that I’ve been watching a little bit. They are really good on the road and they showed why. They are just resilient. They didn’t quit after getting down 2-0. They have a good goalie that will make these big saves like he did in the second and early in the third for them to stay in the game.”

YOUNG GUNS

Florida’s two goals Monday came from two of its youngest and brightest stars as second-year center Nick Bjugstad and rookie defenseman Aaron Ekblad helped tie the score.

Bjugstad now has a team-high 12 goals after scoring 16 and leading the team in scoring last year.

Ekblad, one of the NHL’s three stars for last week, has hit the scoresheet in five consecutive games and has seven points during that span.

“He looks like he’s 25 years old,” Hitchcock said of the 18-year-old Ekblad.

“The maturity he’s shown in his play, his composure, is really impressive. We saw flashes of it last year at World Juniors. The stage doesn’t seem to scare him.”

▪ Forwards Scottie Upshall (ankle) and Aleksander Barkov (hand) are expected to join the team for Thursday’s practice in Detroit. Both are doubtful to play Friday against the Red Wings, however.

▪ Radio voice Randy Moller missed his third consecutive game Monday because of an illness.

After being replaced by Fox Sports Florida’s Craig Minervini and MSG’s Jiggs McDonald for home games last week, Fox Sports Florida’s Frank Forte filled in Monday.

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