|Defenseman Dmitry Kulikov celebrates his third period goal against the Pittsburgh Penguins (Getty Images)|
The Panthers continued to play some good hockey in their recent road trip, stopping a couple of impressive streaks by opponents in the process.
In winning 4-3 at Buffalo Tuesday night, the Panthers became the first opponents in Ryan Miller’s last 18 starts to beat him more than three times. That came one night after the Panthers ended Pittsburgh’s 13-game home winning streak when they handed the Penguins a 5-1 defeat.
The two victories improved the Panthers’ record to an impressive 13-7-2 since Dec. 5 as they continue to claw their way back into playoff contention. For perspective, the 13 victories are tied for second-most in the Eastern Conference during that span behind only Pittsburgh’s 15.
The Panthers stand today with an overall record of 20-23-7. Defenseman Brian Campbell said a few weeks back that the goal was to get back to .500 by the end of January. That could be tough to swing considering the Panthers have only four games left this month — Friday against the Colorado Avalanche at the BB&T Center, and on the road against Detroit on Sunday, Boston on Tuesday and Toronto on Thursday — so perhaps a more realistic goal would be to get to .500 by the Olympic break.
The Panthers have four games in February before their 20-day hiatus, and being able to get back to .500 at that point would get them positioned for a playoff push down the stretch.
Beyond the impact on the standings, the really positive news of the last two nights was the balance the Panthers showed.
After being carried by the Killer B line of Brad Boyes, Aleksander Barkov and Sean Bergenheim for a few weeks, the Panthers got contributions from a lot of different sources against both the Penguins and the Sabres.
Standing right at the front is right wing Jesse Winchester, who has made quite a splash in his return to action after missing 14 games because of an upper-body injury. Winchester clearly provided a spark against Pittsburgh on Monday night when he finished with a career-high three assists. One of those was particularly impressive because it came at the end of a shift where Winchester and Jonathan Huberdeau battled relentlessly near the Pittsburgh net before Winchester finally emerged with the puck and fed Drew Shore for Shore’s second goal of the game.
In that game, Huberdeau stopped his goal-less drought with his rather bizarre goal, which came after he was shoved into the net and the puck bounced off him. It was well deserved, however, because Huberdeau had begun playing much better over the recent games. His assist at Carolina on Saturday night on Marcel Goc’s goal was nothing short of spectacular and he added an assist in Buffalo to push his point streak to three games (1-3-4).
|Right wing Jesse Winchester has four points (1-3-4) in his two games since returning from injury including a career-high three points against Pittsburgh (Getty Images)|
Having Huberdeau regain his form would rank right up there with any positive development for the Panthers on the just-completed three-game road trip.
Huberdeau, Winchester and Goc actually have formed a very effective line the past two games in the absence of veteran forward Tomas Kopecky.
While he got attention for his plus-5 ratio on Monday night, defenseman Mike Weaver deserved major kudos for his tremendous performance in the Panthers end. No doubt every Panthers fan noticed Sidney Crosby having a rare off night and getting very frustrated, and no one was more responsible for that than Weaver. It’s in games like these where you really appreciate his ability as a defensive specialist.
It’s also been nice to see Ed Jovanovski with an offensive “explosion,” with two two-point performances in the Panthers’ last five games. Not that it’s anything the Panthers should start relying on, but it’s still fun to see, especially given the magnitude of Jovo’s comeback from hip surgery.
In reality, the Panthers’ performance at Buffalo wasn’t without some disappointments, starting with the high number of good scoring chances allowed in the third period when they were trying to protect a lead but the defense and penalty kill units, led by the great goaltending of Tim Thomas.
Of course, it also was disappointing to see Barkov have to leave the game after the first period because of a lower-body injury, but the comments of head coach Peter Horachek in his postgame media session were encouraging. Horachek said Barkov could have gone back in, but the team decided to err on the side of caution.
That leaves hope that Barkov could be in the lineup against Colorado, which would give South Florida hockey fans the chance to see the top two picks in the 2013 NHL draft — the Avalanche’s Nathan MacKinnon and Barkov — go head-to-head. More importantly, having Barkov in the lineup increases the chances of the Panthers being able to continue the nice little run they’re on.
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