SUNRISE, Fla. — Panthers coach Kevin Dineen admitted after Thursday night’s 6-3 victory over the Winnipeg Jets that his team realized how dire of a situation it had already found itself in.
Losers of five in a row, Florida had sunk into the NHL’s cellar, scoring only one third-period goal over the course of the season’s six games. On Thursday, the Panthers busted out of their slump with five in the comeback win.
“We always try to say the right things when you’re in the dark, but we were in the deep end there,” Dineen said.
Florida twice answered Winnipeg goals in the final period when the Jets had taken the lead. Clawing its way back into games is reminiscent of last year’s team.
Last season, the Panthers surprised many in hockey by reaching the postseason for the first time in a decade, even winning the Southeast Division over the Washington Capitals. They took the eventual-Eastern Conference champion New Jersey Devils to seven games.
But injuries have plagued Florida so far in this lockout-shortened, blitzkrieg season.
Both captain Ed Jovanovski (knee) and assistant captain Stephen Weiss (groin) missed Thursday night’s game. Center Marcel Goc made his debut, fully recovered from an ankle injury he suffered while playing in Germany. Defender Erik Gudbranson continues to nurse a shoulder injury he got in a non-hockey-related injury, which placed him on the non-roster/suspended list.
Four rookies, as a result, have made their debuts already this season: centers Drew Shore, Jonathan Huberdeau and Quinton Howden, as well as defender Michael Caruso.
“We knew they were going to play hard,” Jets goalie Ondrej Pavalec said. “They lost five in a row, but it doesn’t mean anything in this league. The game is 60 minutes and it doesn’t matter how you did before. It’s about the game, it’s about how you play right now. They played really well. They had a good start. We led twice in the third, but we couldn’t close the game.”
Though attendance was announced at 15,731 of a maximum 19,250, South Florida — already known for its fair-weather fans — seems to have already lost interest in a struggling team.
In Coral Gables, the University of Miami men’s basketball has stolen headlines with its recent surge into the Top 15. On Biscayne Boulevard, the NBA Champion Miami Heat continue to pace the Eastern Conference.
The Panthers embark on a four-game road trip that begins Sunday in Buffalo and culminates Feb. 9 in Washington. How they fare during this stretch could decide the future of the 2013 season and beyond in terms of personnel.
“I’ll take the two points any day,” said center Peter Mueller, who has scored in three straight games. “It’s nice and a good feeling in the room. It’s what we needed. We needed this buzz, this jump to get going, and hopefully this is a little bit of something we’ve got.”