SUNRISE, Fla. — The water-cooler question coming into Thursday night’s NHL slate? Along with conference leaders Tampa Bay and Nashville, which team is the hottest in their last 10 games?
That would be the Florida Panthers at 8-1-1. Given the last rites to make the Eastern Conference playoffs before the All-Star break, the Panthers climbed back into the wild-card mix with three games in hand and four points behind both current wild cards – New Jersey and Columbus. Thursday’s game marked the first of four meetings against the Bruins in the final weeks of the season.
The Bruins came to South Florida after a 6-0-0 homestand. After Sunday’s loss to the Blackhawks in Chicago, the B’s bounced back with a come-from-behind win over the Hurricanes Tuesday to go 7-3-0 in their last 10. They play nine of their last 13 games on the road and play every other night or back-to-backs until the final game
Here’s what we learned as Florida handed Boston its second shutout of the season and first since a 4-0 loss to Colorado in the second game of the season on Oct. 9.
Bruins can’t always come back
The Bruins nemesis – giving up early goals – was once again front and center at the BB&T Center when defenseman Aaron Ekblad won a puck-batting match to Bruins goalie Anton Khudobin’s right while the Bruins were in scramble mode and put the Panthers up 1-0 at 6:25.
That was followed by a foot race, won by the Panthers at 9:06 when Evgenii Dadonov and Nick Bjugstad went center ice to crease before Bjugstad’s perfect tip-in to Khudobin’s left gave Florida a two-goal advantage.
“I knew I didn’t have him,” the Bruins’ Nick Holden said. “I was trying to knock the puck out of the air.”
With five minutes left in the second period and Rick Nash in the box for goaltender interference on James Reimer, Vincent Trocheck put a 15-foot bullet top shelf far side for the 3-0 lead.
There would be no comeback wins like the recent Chicago and Carolina affairs with four and five-goal third periods – despite Boston outshooting Florida, 46-28.
“It was not our night in the offensive end,” Boston coach Bruce Cassidy said.
“There were a lot of opportunities, it was everywhere,” Khudobin added. “We’ve played in these types of situations before and expect to be back in the game but unfortunately this wasn’t that day.”
Roster losses add up
“There’s always a point in the season with injuries to key players,” Bruins forward Rick Nash said. “It gives more ice time for guys to step up.”
That didn’t happen Thursday.
Torey Krug returned, but Zdeno Chara and Jake DeBrusk – both with upper-body injuries – joined the missing-in-action for the Black and Gold along with Patrice Bergeron and Charlie McAvoy.
That created a new third line of David Backes centering Tommy Wingels and Brian Gionta – until Backes was thrown out of the game.
Florida’s first two goals came against Boston’s first line of Riley Nash centering Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak, who put up nine combined points Tuesday; they ended a combined minus-5, while the makeshift top pair of Nick Holden and Kevan Miller put up a minus-4 on defense.
“It’s up to someone else to come through,” Cassidy said about his first line.
Backes back on suspension?
With 2:04 left in the first, Backes was ejected for a high hit on Trocheck. Mike Matheson dished out a few retribution shots before the penalties were handed out.
The ejection could lead to a review by the NHL Department of Player Safety and a possible second suspension for Backes who was back for just his first game Tuesday after sitting out three for a high hit on Detroit’s Frans Neilsen on March 6.
“I didn’t think it was that bad,” Cassidy said. “I don’t know what will come of it but that’s the next question. Clearly, it’s not the road you want to go down coming off suspension.”
“He cut to the middle and turned on me,” Backes added. “I hit him right through the shoulder. He’s much smaller than I am. Probably good thing is he’s back out there and finished the game. We’ll see what happens from here.”
Classic 4-pointer next in Tampa
With Thursday’s loss on Florida’s east coast, all eyes go to the west coast for Saturday’s showdown against Tampa Bay for tops in the Eastern Conference. The Bruins enter that game four points behind the Lightning and have one game in hand. Tampa was routed by Ottawa, 7-4, to Tuesday night at home.
A win would keep the Bruins in the hunt for the top seed in the East. A loss could put Boston six points back.
“We scored a lot of goals to win hockey games,” Cassidy said. “It’s probably going to come around the other way pretty soon. You’re not going to score six or eight or seven on a regular basis. We’ve got to get goals down to a natural number.”
“Games are going to get tighter and tighter trying to catch Tampa,” Holden said.