SUNRISE, Fla. -- Just when you think you have this Florida Panthers team figured out and know where they're headed, moments like Saturday night and the previous two weeks crop up that leave you scratching your head.
After the Nashville Predators finished off Florida 3-1, handing the Panthers its fifth loss in its last six home games, fans have to wonder exactly what they're watching at the BankAtlantic Center these days.
Is the real Florida club the one that has led the Southeast Division for one lengthy 92-day stretch from Nov. 19 to Jan. 15, proving the doubters from north of the border wrong? Or perhaps the team that on bad nights early on somehow found a way to earn a point in overtime or shootout?
Or are the genuine Panthers the ones that can't pull away from the division despite having games in hand over second-place Winnipeg (two points down) and has watched Washington (three points back) struggle with its worst team in five years, and now has to watch out for fourth-place Tampa Bay, a mere four points behind? Or is Florida the team that suddenly can't defend its home-ice and plays much better on the road (never mind that 7-0 shellacking Thursday in Winnipeg)?
The loss to the Predators made those questions even more befuddling, but Florida head coach Kevin Dineen said the main difficulty stemmed from the stellar goaltending of Nashville's Pekka Rinne.
"Our goaltending was very good tonight and I don't say this in a sarcastic or negative way, but goaltending was the difference tonight," Dineen said. "It had nothing to do with what went on at our end. Certainly Pekka Rinne earns his keep every time he goes out. He had to come up very big for them. He seems to do that every single game."
Added former Predator Jerred Smithson, "I've shot tons of pucks on (Rinne) and haven't figured him out."
But Rinne or not, Florida is struggling because it lacks a go-to player who can regularly provide scoring. In its last six losses, the Panthers (30-22-12) have scored just six goals and been shut out twice, not numbers a team in the playoff hunt wants to post. Leading scoring Kris Versteeg has been sidelined recently, but linemates Stephen Weiss and Tomas Fleischmann, who has hit the post in three straight games, haven't picked up the slack. And it's not for lack of effort: Florida outshot Nashville 40-23.
The likely answer to these questions, however, comes down to one point: Florida simply has no difference-makers out there firing pucks and striking fear in opposing goalies. That's it. Weiss, Fleischmann and Versteeg are nice players with some shake-and-bake and occasional sizzle, but secondary scoring has been mediocre. A number of Panthers, including former 20-goal scorer Mike Santorelli, have not duplicated previous performances or lived up to expectations. Oddly, the best offensive threat right now may be the newest Panther -- Wojtek Wolski.
While Florida's goaltending and defense have been above average, it hasn't been lockdown, shutout strong like the Blues, Rangers, Kings or Red Wings, who can routinely win games with a single goal. Florida's last shutout, its third, was Dec. 8 in Boston by Jose Theodore, who has two, while Scott Clemmensen has one. By way of comparison, the Blues have 12.
Over the next five weeks, Florida must find the answers to putting the puck in the net or it will discover that the division, which is continuously collapsing and expanding like an accordion, will have consumed the Panthers.
By Bill Whitehead
Florida Panthers Credentialed Correspondent
Photo credit: Getty Images