SUNRISE – Late Thursday morning, Panther defenseman Jay Bouwmeester mused, “Nothing is easy this time of year.”
Especially returning to play the red-hot Penguins off a nine-day road trip.
Looking a step slow against the rejuvenated Penguins, the Panthers allowed three, third-period goals and were torched once by Sidney Crosby as they lost 4-1 at BankAtlantic Center.
Crosby, who had missed the previous four games with a groin injury, tied the game at one in the second period by splitting Panther defensemen just 24 seconds after Radek Dvorak had given the Panthers a 1-0 lead.
The Panthers never recovered as Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 31 shots and Tyler Kennedy had two, third-period goals. It also didn’t help that Nathan Horton and Keith Ballard both hit posts.
“It’s pretty deflating,” said defenseman Jassen Cullimore of Crosby’s goal with only 1:47 remaining in the second period. “You’re sitting on the bench and they come right back while they’re announcing your goal.”
On the other bench, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said Dvorak’s goal “could have been a deflater.”
“But the captain answers right back,” he said of Crosby. “The telephone was ringing and that was a big answer.”
The Panthers, Rangers and Penguins all have 74 points, good for places sixth-through-eighth in the Eastern Conference. They’ve opened up three points on ninth-place Buffalo.
Mayors is the Official Jeweler of the Florida Panthers, please visit www.mayors.com or your local South Florida Mayors location.
Panther goalie Tomas Vokoun, who faced 47 shots by the Penguins, said; “You’ve got to give them credit. They outplayed us. We just weren’t able to compete.”
Coach Peter DeBoer, whose Panthers Jan. 3 beat the Penguins 6-1 agreed.
“Give credit where credit is due,” he said. “I thought they were very good. They’re a different team from the last time we played them. I thought their best players were outstanding tonight – (Evgeni) Malkin, Crosby, (Jordan) Staal. They had good legs and a good jump and beat us to a lot of loose pucks. We looked like a team that just came off a nine day road trip. We hung in there for a little while, Tomas gave us a chance to hang around, but the better team won and we got what we deserved.”
The Penguins, who came into the game on a four-game winning streak and winners of six of their last seven, showed from the opening minutes they had good jump. And Fleury, making his 15th consecutive start, was involved from the start making big saves on Ville Peltonen and David Booth in the first period.
After a scoreless first period, the game opened up in the second period and, at the 10 minute mark, it became a series of exciting, back-and-forth rushes. The Panthers cashed in first when Gregory Campbell circled behind the net and tried to back-hand the puck into the net. Fleury made the save, but Dvorak took the rebound and got it past Fleury for his 11th goal of the season and a 1-0 lead.
But the Penguins, who fired 19 shots on the Panther goal in the second period, came back just 24 seconds later when Crosby took a pass at the blue line, split Bouwmeester and Karlis Skrastins, and fired a wrist shot past Vokoun’s stick side to tie the game at one.
“It was a tough one to give up,” DeBoer said. “I’ve seen Sidney Crosby do that to a lot of teams and a lot of people. A great player made a great play.”
And the Penguins stormed the Panthers early in the third period. Kennedy scored his first goal of the final period at 2:24. Just 2:13 later, Kris Letang beat Vokoun with a wrist shot. And at 15:34, Kennedy scored his second goal of the game on a two-on-one with Malkin.
With his team coming off a nine-day road trip, DeBoer called Thursday’s game a “trap game,” and said team’s first games back are usually “hit or miss.”
But he also said the Panthers will have to be better when they play host Saturday to the St. Louis Blues before hitting the road next game to play these same Penguins.
EMINGER MAKES DEBUT
Defenseman Steve Eminger, acquired at the trade deadline Wednesday from the Lightning, took 18 shifts and played 13:45. He had three hits, three blocked shots and two penalties.
“I thought he was all right,” DeBoer said. “It’s going to take some time. We threw a lot at him today, different systems and different ‘D’ partners. But he can skate and he can move the puck and battles hard so I’m sure he’ll fit in.”
The Panthers haven’t lost consecutive games in regulation since Dec. 29-31…Crosby won 17 of 23 faceoffs…Bouwmeester had five blocked shots…Keith Ballard prevented a Malkin breakway in the third period…Ville Peltonen had four shots in the first period…Nathan Horton had five hits…In the house: Pavel Bure and Mario Lemieux…Bill Guerin, playing his first game for the Penguins after being acquired Wednesday from the Islanders, was paired with Crosby and Chris Kunitz…Guerin’s assist on Crosby’s goal was his 800th NHL point, making him one of only 14 U.S., born players to reach the 800 level…Nick Tarnasky and Nick Boynton were the Panthers healthy scratches…