It's not been often in the checkered history of the Florida Panthers franchise that you could truly say they were the talk of the entire NHL. Coming into tonight's contest, however, the Cats were on a 10 game winning streak and had made a surprise claim to the top spot in the Atlantic Division at the season's midway point. The Panthers may not finish the season with the second best record in the Eastern Conference, but they're precisely the kind of team the Sens will need to beat out in order to make the play-offs this season. Tonight's contest, though a disappointing result, was proof they might yet be able to do just that.
The game started off about as well as the Senators could have hoped, with sustained pressure from all four lines and several grade A chances. Only several spectacular plays from Roberto Luongo kept the game scoreless, his save on Kyle Turris just past halfway through the first period being the highlight:
Unfortunately, as the old adage goes, moments after this big save at one end the Panthers got a goal at the other. It was one of those goals where it's awfully tempting to assign blame to one player or another, but honestly the whole sequence stemmed from a broken play in the neutral zone followed by a laser beam wrister through a screen by Reilly Smith. It was disappointing that the Sens were down 1-0 after such a promising start, but the game was less than 15 minutes old and there was plenty of time to mount a comeback. Then the second goal happened.
If the first Panthers goal was something of a run-of-the-mill affair, the second Panthers goal was a horrific blunder by Fredrik Claesson plain and simple:
After that goal, Dave Cameron called a time-out and proceeded to rip into his squad. The Sens got the message and closed the period strong, though they were unable to find the equalizer. The shots after one period were 9-4 in favour of the Sens.
The Sens opened the second on a power play and quickly gained a two-man advantage when Willie Mitchell took a delay of game penalty for flipping the puck over the glass. Again, the Sens couldn't quite capitalize despite some strong pressure. At this stage, it started to feel like one of those games where the team desperately needed a bounce or two to find a way past a red-hot goalie despite a strong game from virtually every player up and down the line-up.
Just over five minutes into the second, the Sens would get the break they so desperately needed when Max McCormick picked off a pass in the offensive zone slot and ripped a shot past a helpless Roberto Luongo for his first career NHL goal. McCormick's play with Jean-Gabriel Pageau with Curtis Lazar was solid, if unspectacular; something that hasn't been said much about the team's third line this year. The trio looked quick and forechecked well. It was a delight to see Dave Cameron roll his lines with impunity.
Despite the continued strong play, the Sens couldn't find the equalizer; shots were 20-10 Sens after two periods.
The third period yielded more of the same: all four Senators lines generating offensive zone time but were stymied time and again by Luongo. Though it was the Reilly Smith line that had scored the first two goals for the Panthers, the only line that had generated consistent pressure for the Florida outfit was the trio of Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov and Jaromir Jagr. Many, many people have written on the remarkable season the seemingly ageless Jagr is having so it was only fitting that he would set up the goal that effectively iced the game:
Fredrik Claesson again found himself at the centre of a goal against as his cross-ice pass to Cody Ceci was picked off in the offensive end and the two defensemen, along with Shane Prince, got their signals crossed and butchered what should be a 3 on 3. Milan Michalek would get one back halfway through the third to make the last ten minutes interesting, but the last gasp push was cut short when the Sens took two penalties in the last two minutes to salt the game away for the Panthers.
Though tonight's result won't sit well, it was ultimately a game in which the Senators actually played very well. It seems like small solace now, but outshooting the Panthers 32-16 is no mean feat. Most encouragingly of all, the opportunities were spread out across the line-up: only the pairing of Mark Borowiecki and Marc Methot finished seriously in the red when it came to shot attempts. Even the much-maligned Cody Ceci and Patrick Wiercioch pairing were impressive in their territorial dominance. So yes, we'll mourn the two points lost but I take this game as much more of a sign of good things to come.
Honourable Mention: Erik Karlsson
The captain was his usual fantastic self tonight and he was rewarded with an assists on the Michalek goal. He's been the team's MVP through and through this year, and tonight was no different.
Honourable Mention: The Fourth Line
Zack Smith has come under fire from Sens fans for his deployment on the team`s top line, which is frankly no fault of his own. Back on the fourth line, with Chris Neil and Shane Prince, Smith and co. looked fantastic.
Honourable Mention: Patrick Wiercioch
It feels strange to have so many honourable mentions in a game the Sens lost, but there truly were some standout performances tonight. Wiercioch set up several excellent scoring chances, led clean break-outs and was generally solid in his own end. The Sens were an otherworldly +26/-9 in shot attempts when he was on the ice tonight, and he and Ceci were full marks for their strong play.
Sens Killer: Roberto Luongo
Not hard to pick this one: Luongo was spectacular in stopping 30 of the 32 shots he faced, many of the very difficult variety. Luongo may be nearing the end of his career, but he sure didn't look like he was done tonight.