Florida Panthers

Florida Panthers’ rally falls short as misery in Washington continues

Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin (8), from Russia, goes airborne as he collides with Florida Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo (1) in the first period of an NHL hockey game, Sunday, Jan. 4, 2015, in Washington.
Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin (8), from Russia, goes airborne as he collides with Florida Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo (1) in the first period of an NHL hockey game, Sunday, Jan. 4, 2015, in Washington. AP

The Panthers might not win here very often, but at least their games against the Capitals are usually quite entertaining.

On Sunday afternoon, Florida’s losing ways continued as it lost its 10th in a row in Washington, this one 4-3 at Verizon Center.

The Panthers had trailed by two before Nick Bjugstad scored with under two minutes left. Florida didn’t get any closer, however, and has now lost 13 of 14 in Washington dating to 2010.

“We weren’t good enough,” coach Gerard Gallant said. “We battled back and found a way to get close at the end, but we didn’t play hard enough. They were more physical, won the puck battles. That’s why they won.”

Sunday’s game sure wasn’t lacking for action. It featured a full-speed hit from power forward Alex Ovechkin on Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo; a three-player pileup at center ice leading to a Florida three-on-one break; even a puck lost somewhere on Capitals goalie Braden Holtby.

After being searched for a few minutes by NHL officials doing their best impersonation of TSA agents, the puck finally slid out of Holtby’s padding and the game continued — only it did so with Luongo on the bench.

Luongo was hit hard by Ovechkin in the first period, and he stayed down on the ice for a little bit. Luongo resumed playing and finished the first period and the entire second.

But the third started with Luongo in the training room and backup Al Montoya in net. Luongo said coming out was a “mutual decision,” although Gallant said the medical staff told Luongo during the second break that he wasn’t available.

“I wanted to keep going, but after what happened in the second (giving up three goals) we thought it best to sit out the third,” Luongo said.

“I was fine [in the second], but it wasn’t the kind of period I wanted to have. There was no injury or anything like that.”

Said Gallant: “It was just precautionary. The trainers came in and told me it was upper body, and we would see after the game.”

The teams played a tight first period, one highlighted by the collision between Luongo and Ovechkin.

Luongo came out of the cage and was leveled by Ovechkin as the two converged on the puck. The play continued with no goalie; Scottie Upshall saved a goal with an off-balance kick save.

No penalty was called, leading to a conversation between Gallant and the officials. Luongo said it was a “bang-bang play, and I didn’t think it was intentional.”

Said Gallant: “I don’t think he meant to hit Roberto but the puck was there, Roberto played the puck first and a second later he’s hit. They say to avoid the goaltender at all costs. It was clear Roberto played the puck first.”

In the second period, Ovechkin got the better of Luongo again with a power-play goal 1:16 in.

Moments later, Washington’s Jack Hillen and Mike Green collided at center ice, sending teammate Evgeny Kuznetsov into a spill.

With those three on the ice, Florida had the ice to itself with Vincent Trocheck, Willie Mitchell and Jussi Jokinen charging hard on Holtby.

The Washington goalie made the save on Trocheck’s first shot, but Mitchell whacked at it and left it alone for Trocheck to get a second shot. He buried that one to make it 1-1.

On Florida’s next shot attempt, Dylan Olsen scored on a wrister to give the Panthers their first and only lead of the day.

“We didn’t play so well in the first, and [Gallant] let us know we needed to pick it up in the second,” Trocheck said. “We just couldn’t get two in the third.”

Washington kept coming at Luongo and tied it with 7:47 left in the second before taking the lead back for good in the final minute of the period. The Capitals made it a two-goal game 5:42 into the third, and Florida failed to cut into the deficit despite a 5-on-3 power-play chance for 47 seconds midway through the period.

This and that

▪ With the assist on Bjugstad’s late goal, Aaron Ekblad set the Panthers’ record for points (22) by a rookie defenseman. Ed Jovanovski, bought out by the Panthers the day after Florida took Ekblad first overall last June, recorded 21 points in the 1995-96 season.

"It's not really that big of a deal,'' Ekblad said. "You just play hockey and hope for things like that to happen. I'm more focused on the loss. We didn't play the way we needed to.''

▪ Montoya was the first player out of the Panthers’ locker room Sunday — and for good reason. Montoya was racing to the airport to catch a flight back to South Florida, where his wife was expecting to deliver a baby.

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