Recap: Panthers @ Kings: Tale of two bubble teams—Panthers surge upward, Kings flop downward

Panthers win seven of their last eight games; it is their first win in Los Angeles since 2002.

After playing unimpressive .500 hockey to start the season, the Florida Panthers have been on a tear, winning six of their last seven games before yesterday’s game against the Kings.  The winning trend has not only put the Panthers back in the playoff picture, but has featured victories against impressive teams such as the Anaheim Ducks (two wins), San Jose Sharks, and Nashville Predators.  The one loss, however, was against the Kings, a 6-3 loss on February 9.

Despite the Kings’ dominance ten days ago, the Florida winning trend prevailed. Aleksander Barkov‘s goal only 15 seconds into the third period was the dagger in a 3-2 win.  It was the Panthers’ first win in Los Angeles since November 27, 2002, a game in which Mathieu Schneider and Ziggy Palffy scored.  More importantly, the win puts the Panthers at third place in the Atlantic Division.

The Kings, in contrast, have lost four of their last five games, giving up an uncharacteristic 21 goals (4.2 per game) over that stretch.  They are also two points behind the Predators and the Calgary Flames for the wild card spot.

The first period was like the start of a boxing match, with mostly jabs to test each other’s defense.  Jaromir Jagr continued his age-defying play.  With powerful leaning and puck protection, he escaped Brayden McNabb and powered into the front of the net, but was stopped by Peter Budaj.  Earlier, Budaj solidly stopped a shorthanded attempt using superb tracking and positioning.

Around 14 minutes into the first period, the Kings established their sustained possession game in the offensive zone, keeping the Panthers at bay with several shots.  But the momentum was killed, as a delayed penalty by Marian Gaborik (no goals in last six games) was followed by a perfectly aimed wrist shot by Jonathan Huberdeau from the faceoff circle.  The shot was lasered just over Budaj’s shoulder but just under the crossbar—the shoulders can’t shrug that fast—for a 1-0 lead.

Early into the second period, another wrist shot from the faceoff circle zinged past Budaj.  Adrian Kempe looked undecided and reluctant to get physical on defense, allowing the Panthers to take the puck down low.  Reilly Smith dished the puck to Jussi Jokinen who was wide open for a wrist shot:

Though Jake Muzzin was screening Budaj’s view, and though Huberdeau’s goal was perfectly aimed, the two goals raised questions as to whether Budaj has lost the magic that almost gained him All-Star status this season.  The two goals were medium-distance wrist shots, much like the two goals by the Arizona Coyotes two days ago that kept that game out of reach for the Kings.  Commentator Jim Fox defended Budaj, saying that the area between the faceoff dots is the prime scoring area and that Budaj is not completely responsible.  But he qualified that assertion by saying that sometimes teams need stops.  It must be added that Jeff Zatkoff has not started a game since January 23.  Darryl Sutter’s sparing use of Zatkoff, even on February 5 against the Washington Capitals, the second of back-to-back games, is a glaring vote of no confidence in the backup goalie.

The Kings, never a team to quit, clawed back.  Dwight King scored after a puck battle in front of goaltender Roberto Luongo, the result of persistent offensive play.  Florida challenged, but officials ruled that Mark Pysyk checked Nick Shore into the net, negating any goaltender interference.  And later, Tanner Pearson received a precision pass from a Jeff Carter breakout.  Pearson displayed some star-caliber skill with stick work that mesmerized the crowd and schooled defenseman Jason Demers, causing Luongo to open his legs at the last second.  The puck slid in five-hole to tie the game:

But alas, only fifteen seconds into the third period, Aleksander Barkov scored the game winning goal, which was assisted by Jagr and Aaron Ekblad.  Carter desperately attempted to defend from behind, but Barkov outskated the entire Kings team.  Budaj, anticipating a centering pass, failed to seal the goal post, allowing Barkov to sneak a backhand from a sharp angle at the last moment to win the game.

The Kings never strongly threatened again.  Instead the Panthers defended systematically and sustained a forecheck, as the Kings could only manage jabs.

The power play was an urgent area of concern for the Kings.  They had trouble making solid entries into the offensive zone, giving Florida not only time and space to clear, but also too many shorthanded shot attempts for Sutter’s comfort.

Los Angeles next plays the Anaheim Ducks at Honda Center on February 19.