With a chip on their shoulder and a new-found belief that anything is possible when working together, the Panthers are rolling.
They're marching up the division standings. They’re beating teams ahead of them in the Conference. And, yes, in the past week they’ve become one of the hottest teams in the league.
The Panthers continued their march up the division standings Thursday night at BankAtlantic Center when they used two goals scored 35 seconds apart by Gregory Campbell and Keith Ballard to carry them to a 2-1 victory over the Sabres.
Craig Anderson, making his fourth consecutive start in goal, stopped 45 shots as the Panthers continued making the most of their chances through hard work.
“We’re playing as a team,” said Stephen Weiss. “That’s the key. Everyone is pulling in the same direction. We’re all on the same page. That’s it. It’s not a magic formula.”
Playing without four of their top offensive threats in David Booth, Cory Stillman, Nathan Horton and Richard Zednik, the Panthers Thursday left BankAtlantic Center having won three consecutive games for the first time this season.
But there’s more.
They’ve now taken 10 of a possible 12 points in their last six games.
They’ve outscored their opponents in the second period of those six games 10-2.
In their last three games they’ve scored goals 12 seconds apart (Rangers), 1:09 apart (Capitals) and 35 seconds apart (Sabres).
Last in the Eastern Conference two weeks ago, the Panthers are a point out of the eight spot, currently held by Carolina, and only six from Southeast Division-leading Washington.
Coach Peter DeBoer, who stressed the importance of his role players stepping up, has gotten his wish. Campbell, who had five goals (18 points) in 81 games last season, has six goals through 20 games and 12 points. He also has a three-game goal scoring streak and seven points in his last six games. Radek Dvorak, who picked up an assist Thursday night, has seven points (two goals) in his last four games.
Anderson, who is 6-1-3 this season and has stopped 105 of 109 shots he’s faced in the last three games, gave credit to his teammates for taking care of rebounds and clearing pucks.
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“It was just one of those nights where they were just throwing everything at the net,” said Anderson, who is 14-3-3 since January. “Our guys did a terrific job of cleaning up a lot of the rebounds. I gave the other team extra shots.
“On the good side of it, my guys let me see almost every single shot. I’d rather (face) 100 shots that I can see rather than 10 shots I can’t see.”
Anderson did make key saves on Maxim Afinogenov and Teppo Numminen. And when the puck did elude him, as it did in the first period off a shot from Toni Lydman, Karlis Skrastins and the other Panther defensemen were there to clear it out of trouble.
The Panthers, who played a strong opening 15 minutes before sagging in the final five minutes of the first period, came out well in the second period and were rewarded not once but twice within 35 seconds.
The Panthers’ two goals happened fast, and it started at 15:42 of the second period when Jay Bouwmeester (10 points in the last nine games) jumped into the rush and skated into the Sabres’ zone. Bouwmeester slid the puck to Michael Frolik, who sent a backhand pass across the ice to Campbell, who wristed the puck past Ryan Miller for a 1-0 Panthers lead.
Just 35 seconds later, before the crowd could settle back into their chairs, the Panthers made it 2-0 on a wrist shot from Keith Ballard on assists from Dvorak and Campbell.
It all seemed to be working for the Panthers. Heck, an odd-man Sabres rush that looked dangerous never materialized when the horn blew to end the second period.
The Panthers did get a bit sloppy in the third when Nick Tarnasky and Jay Bouwmeester took penalties and afforded the Sabres a 5-on-3 for 1:01. Just nine seconds into the two-man advantage, Ales Kotalik scored to make it 2-1.
But the Panthers kept chipping the puck deep and working low. With only 2:45 remaining in the game, Lydman took a slashing penalty giving the Panthers breathing room until the final buzzer and a roar from the crowd.
So what is it about these Panthers? Depleted with injuries, a team with nine draft picks on the roster Thursday evening, including rookies Shawn Matthias, Kenndal McArdle and Frolik, managed to continue what has become an exciting two weeks.
Veteran defenseman Jassen Cullimore said the Panthers’ two losses last week at home – one in overtime against the Devils and one in a shootout against the Rangers – might have helped turn things around.
“I think the turning point was those two games we lost here at home, in the shootout and overtime,” he said. “We were behind 2-0 in both and we came back. I think that’s big for the confidence of a team. When you’re losing sometimes, games like that make you think you can’t give up. That’s what we’ve been doing lately. We have the sort of mentality we have to work hard for our goals, we have to grind them out, and that means a lot of chipping in.”
Weiss said the injuries motivated the team.
“I think a lot of people, once we had some injuries, might have wrote us off,” he said. That’s a scary thing. You don’t want to do that to teams. We believe we can win, and if we don’t win we’re going to compete as hard as we can and leave it all out there.”
The Panthers will try to run their winning streak to four Saturday evening when the Bruins come to town.
WELCH ASSIGNED TO ROCHESTER
Noah Welch was assigned Thursday to Rochester for a conditioning stint. Welch, 26, played in 14 games this season with the Panthers and had a goal and assist…
Ballard and Skrastins had three blocked shots each…The Panthers recorded 30 hits Thursday evening compared to 18 for the Sabres…Kamil Kreps won 14 of 21 facesoffs, Weiss took 11 of 17…A night out with Gregory Campbell: One goal, one assist, five hits…Matthias played 9:27, McArdle 5:56...
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