The Florida Panthers won their first eight games of 2021-2022, and they finished the regular season with the best record in the NHL.
This season has been a struggle by comparison. The Panthers didn’t win three straight games for the first time until Thursday.
That says it all for the Panthers, who will play host to the reigning Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche on Saturday night in Sunrise, Fla.
The Panthers are 6-1-0 in their past seven home games, and they believe they have finally turned the proverbial corner. In fact, they have outscored their past three opponents by a combined 15-5.
“We know we need to get on a bit of a run here,” Panthers forward Sam Reinhart said after scoring twice in Florida’s 4-1 win over the visiting San Jose Sharks on Thursday. “We’ve got to take care of home ice, especially with all of the opportunities we have ahead of us.”
The Panthers won on Thursday without their captain, Aleksander Barkov, who is one of the best two-way centers in the NHL. Barkov suffered an injury to his right hand in Florida’s win over Tampa Bay on Monday, and he is questionable to return on Saturday.
In Barkov’s absence, Eetu Luostarinen dished two assists for just his second multi-point game this season.
A 24-year-old native of Finland, Luostarinen has 25 points — one short of his career high.
“He’s such a smart player,” Reinhart said of Luostarinen. “I don’t know many guys in this league that are going to fill in for ‘Barky,’ but his game has really elevated this season.”
Matthew Tkachuk leads the Panthers in assists (44) and points (71). Carter Verhaeghe tops Florida with 28 goals, and Brandon Montour is No. 1 among Panthers defensemen with 44 points.
Montour had a 10-game points streak — a record for Panthers defensemen — snapped on Thursday. Tkachuk had a seven-game points streak snapped on Thursday.
Meanwhile, the Avalanche, who have lost two straight games, have played this entire season without Gabriel Landeskog, who is due to return soon from knee surgery. It’s a big loss given that Landeskog has posted at least 20 goals in five straight seasons.
Colorado’s Cale Makar, who won the Norris Trophy last season as the league’s best defenseman, missed Thursday’s game due to an upper-body injury.
The Avalanche also lost forward Evan Rodrigues (11 goals) in the third period on Thursday when he took a puck to the face and did not return. Josh Manson and Darren Helm, two primary penalty-killers, are out due to lower-body injuries.
In addition, Nathan MacKinnon, who scored 32 goals last season, has just 14 goals this season while missing 11 games due to injury. MacKinnon still leads Colorado with 41 assists.
Colorado has flopped since returning from the All-Star break, scoring just one goal in two losses. The Avalanche were blanked 5-0 by Tampa Bay on Thursday.
“We’ve had two bad games,” acknowledged winger Mikko Rantanen, who leads Colorado in goals (34) and points (61). “Offensively, we have to be better.”
If the first-string goalies play on Saturday, the matchup would feature Colorado’s Alexandar Georgiev against Florida’s Sergei Bobrovsky.
Georgiev, in his first season with Colorado after five years playing for the New York Rangers, is 20-12-3 with a 2.67 goals-against average.
Bobrovsky is 14-13-2 with a 3.09 GAA. He is 7-2-1 in his past 10 decisions.
–Field Level Media