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Andrew Brunette has typically kept a measured approach to his postgame chats. There are sheepish smiles after nine-goal outbursts and milestone victories. There’s a search for positives after those all-too-common narrow losses on the road. He knows his Florida Panthers are good — maybe the best in the NHL, when fully healthy — and he strikes a tone accordingly: One regular season game can only mean so much in the hunt for a Stanley Cup.
Another loss the Seattle Kraken on Sunday was enough for a departure.
“The start of our games,” the interim coach said Sunday, “is unacceptable.”
Although the Panthers left the first period with a lead Sunday, the Kraken, an expansion team with the fourth worst record in the league, fired 13 shots at star goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. It helped Seattle beat Florida, 5-3, to sweep the season series and it fit in with a larger trend during this five-game road trip, which concludes Tuesday at 8 p.m. against the Winnipeg Jets at the Canada Life Centre in Manitoba.
On Tuesday, the Calgary Flames had 10 shots in the first period and went on to blow out the Panthers. On Thursday, the Edmonton Oilers had 17, only for Bobrovsky bail out his teammates by stopping them all to set up Florida for a blowout win. Even on Friday, the Vancouver Canucks only had eight shots in the first period, but scored once, forcing the Panthers to come back to get a shootout win.
“We just need to start better,” star center Aleksander Barkov said Sunday. “We need to get ready, mentally and physically.”
One of Florida’s few flaws this year is the way it has played on the road, losing 11 of its last 15 away from Sunrise, and it has particularly struggled when forced to play from behind, unable to replicate the comeback magic it has so often mustered at FLA Live Arena. In six of their seven road wins this season, the Panthers scored first, which prevents teams from packing in defensively against the highest scoring team in the Eastern Conference.
Florida’s style, which freely lets defensemen push up and join the attack, is supposed to lead to long possession, but carries with it an inherent risk: Defensemen are, by design, often out of position and opponents inevitably generate high-danger chances in transition. On this road trip, the Panthers, who allow 12.1 high-danger chances per game, have allowed 20 in the first periods alone and created only 14 of their own. The trade-off Florida bases its offense upon isn’t working and Barkov — while adding the caveat of saying “maybe” three times — wondered if his Panthers are overestimating themselves and their ability to shake off slow starts.
“Obviously, we’ve been winning games and maybe, maybe, I don’t know, maybe,” the captain said, “we think that we’re going to keep winning them by not playing the really good way.”
Although it has split the first four games of this road trip, Florida has been outshot overall and hasn’t played a single team currently sitting in playoff position. The Jets (17-14-7) are another non-playoff team the Panthers will have to try to get up to play.
In the chase for the Presidents’ Trophy, these are games Florida has to win. In the chase for the Cup, the Panthers will have to be able to win on the road.
Although this road trip ends Tuesday in Winnipeg, Florida has played fewer road games than anyone else in the league, which means the second half of the season will be filled with them. Brunette knows it’s their most glaring weakness and his team has to solve it soon.
He saw it for a moment in the second period Sunday, when the Panthers erased a two-goal deficit by dominating the second half of the period.
“We kind of got mad,” Brunette said, and Florida finally started to play well.
If only his Panthers could do it across a full 60 minutes.
“We were flat,” he said, “again.”