If the Florida Panthers are going to make the playoffs and erase an eight-point gap to the final wild card spot, Saturday's game against the Carolina Hurricanes showed the blueprint of how it will be done: opportunistic scoring, solid defense and quality goaltending.
The Panthers got all three in a 2-0 shutout of the Hurricanes in front of 11,790 at PNC Arena, courtesy of former Canes netminder Dan Ellis, who recorded his first whitewashing of the season and his first since playing with the Dallas Stars on February 1, 2014.
Neither team was all that interested in possessing the puck in the first period. Despite the Canes firing 15 shots on Ellis, most of them resulted in garden-variety saves. At the other end, Cam Ward denied Brandon Pirri on a power play by flashing the glove against the momentum of the rest of his body, but otherwise had little work to do in making eight saves of his own. Jordan Staal had the best chance of the period, firing high halfway through with Ellis out of the net and the target empty, but his shot going into the protective netting summed up a lethargic and uneventful period.
Every once in a while in the second period there was a shot that caused some aggravation for one of the goaltenders, but it was largely more of the same. The Canes' best chance came halfway through, when Nathan Gerbe and Brad Malone both crashed the net and Ellis was trucked by his own defender, but neither player could elevate the puck and put the Canes on the board.
They came to regret that at 16:20, when Pirri, the Panthers' best player, went nearly coast-to-coast on a power play and beat Ward with a soft backhand that bounced off the goaltender's shoulder and into the net. The goal was the sixth the Canes have surrendered on the penalty kill in the last four games, and it was enough for the Panthers to carry a 1-0 lead into the locker room despite Andrej Nestrasil trying his luck at a backhand that went just wide a minute after Pirri scored.
Speaking of the suddenly-cold penalty kill, Canes coach Bill Peters is confident that his team will figure it out despite seeing their season total dropping by three full percentage points over the past two weeks. "It's been interesting here for the last little bit. We'll look at things and get it figured out. It isn't the same as it was earlier in the year and that's something that can be fixed."
At times in the third there was a fleeting thought that the Canes only needed one goal to make things interesting. But just as quickly as those thoughts popped up, the puck would slide off someone's stick and you'd be left wondering if even one goal was asking too much.
It didn't seem like it would be asking too much starting with about six minutes left. In the span of 30 seconds, Ron Hainsey hit the post and Chris Terry knocked one off the crossbar. The Canes were buzzing, and Peters took advantage of the momentum by pulling Ward with more than three minutes to go. However, that didn't go according to plan when Justin Faulk was forced into making a desperation stick save on Derek MacKenzie with 2:30 left, then Faulk turned the puck over trying to move it up with 40 seconds left and Dave Bolland fired it into the empty net.
It was a tough result, said Eric Staal, who felt his team deserved a better fate. "They played a patient game. We had a tough time executing and making passes. We carried the tempo in the third and just weren't able to get it."
Suddenly 1-5-1 since the trade deadline, and with only three points from a homestand that Peters repeatedly emphasized the importance of over the past two weeks, the coach was unequivocal in his assessment of how the team came out of the stretch.
"I would have thought we would have had a better homestand and come out with more points," said Peters. "Now we know what we're up against and what we have to work with."