The Florida Panthers had every reason to struggle as they began their current homestand on Feb. 12.
Especially on the defensive end, where the Panthers were depleted and relying on young players from the AHL.
So as injury-riddled Florida prepared to play four straight games against teams holding playoff spots, the Panthers’ hold on first place in the Atlantic Division seemed tenuous.
But hang on, they did.
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Though Florida lost its first pair of games to St. Louis and Nashville by a combined 10-3 score, the Panthers rebounded against Pittsburgh and San Jose to earn three of the next four available points. And with Boston, Tampa Bay and Detroit chasing down the Panthers’ division lead, those points were crucial.
Despite missing the physical presences of center Sasha Barkov and defenseman Erik Gudbranson, coach Gerard Gallant said he didn’t see his team slip too much on the defensive end.
“Not the last three games,” said Gallant, including Saturday’s 3-1 win over Winnipeg. “No, the team played hard. Like I said, there were some games, we had a tough weekend with St. Louis and Nashville, obviously, and that’s gonna happen when you’re missing two physical, big, strong guys that play real good defense for you.”
Improvement on the defensive end led to a 2-1 shootout win over the Penguins and a 2-1 shootout loss to the Sharks. In the Feb. 15 win over the Penguins, Al Montoya saved 31 of 32 shots, and the Panthers held onto a game in which they appeared overmatched.
The defensive performance against the Sharks was much more impressive. San Jose, which ranks fourth in the NHL in goals per game, was limited to one goal on just 18 shots. The Panthers also killed four Sharks power plays.
Unlikely contributions were a big part of the Panthers’ success.
Gudbranson said young players who have been called up in recent weeks “stepped up and started playing really well.”
Defenseman Brent Regner made his NHL debut in early February and spent seven games with the Panthers before being sent back down to Portland. First-year defenseman Mike Matheson played 15 minutes in his first game with Florida on Saturday.
Florida’s win over Winnipeg on Saturday handed the Panthers two more points. In all, the Panthers allowed just three total goals in its past three games.
But even as Barkov and Gudbranson return to cap the homestand on Thursday against Arizona, the Panthers remain without a key defenseman.
Willie Mitchell, whose injury is now listed as “upper body,” remains a missing piece. He hasn’t played since Jan. 18.
After Monday’s practice, Gallant said Mitchell “is doing OK. He’s doing a lot better. He’s coming.”
A return to game action, however, doesn’t appear imminent. Although Gallant said Mitchell has spent time on the ice on his own, he has yet to skate with the team.
“That’s my game to take care of our end,” Gudbranson said. “Same with [Mitchell], if you take those pieces out of the equation, it kind of changes the group a little bit.”
At least in the short term, this Panthers group seems to be doing just fine.