If the Florida Panthers (3-6-1) were to fall to the Buffalo Sabres (1-9-1) on Friday night, there will be no excuse for it. The Panthers have defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins (7-2-0), overcame a two-goal deficit to tie the game against the Boston Bruins (7-2-0) despite losing in the final minute, and took a point the from Stanley Cup Champions, the Chicago Blackhawks (6-1-2), after again overcoming a two-goal deficit but this time falling in a shootout. While they haven’t walked away with wins in all of these games, the Panthers have stuck with some of the top teams in the league recently.
With goaltender Tim Thomas out of action again, Jacob Markstrom has to seize the opportunity to keep the Panthers momentum going. Markstrom needs to make the most of his opportunities this season, especially with Thomas coming in and out of Florida’s roster with injuries. Buffalo has struggled immensely this season, but still possesses one of the top snipers in the league in Thomas Vanek. If the Panthers can stifle Vanek, Buffalo’s offense is limited. Cody Hodgson leads Buffalo in points but is easier to contain than Vanek. One of Buffalo’s main issues is inexperience. Buffalo has two rookie defensemen in Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov, while also housing rookie forwards Zemgus Girgensons and Johan Larsson. Sophomores Mikhail Grigorenko, Mark Pysyk and Bryan Flynn round out the rest of their young core. Grigorenko who is seen as the top youngster on the roster, has zero points in nine games, while Flynn and Girgensons lead the rookies in points with two points each. Tyler Ennis is looking for a chance to break out this season as he’s been held to one goal this season. The Panthers need to keep tabs on Ennis. He has the hands and speed to make things happen.
Florida has gone up against the league’s elite in the past week and have held their own. While Buffalo’s goaltending tandem is their strong point with Ryan Miller and Jhonas Enroth, it’s the only sure thing in their game. Even without a lethal offense or defense, Buffalo should not be taken lightly. Buffalo sits at the bottom of the league right now and has lost their last three games. They are going to be hungry for a win and will do what it takes get it. The Sabres are still the team that almost squeaked into the playoffs last year.
The Panthers are beginning to get the ball rolling and are finding their game. With Sean Bergenheim returning to the lineup possibly against the Sabres, it will provide Florida a spark to get a win for Bergenheim, who is returning after missing an entire year due to injury. The Cats have been led by 18-year-old Aleksander Barkov, who has looked confident beyond his years, while the Panthers still are waiting for the Shawn Matthias of last year to show up. While Matthias has been strong defensively, he has yet to prove he is capable of replicating the 11 goals he scored last March. Head Coach Kevin Dineen has given young center Nick Bjugstad every chance to succeed so far. While he’s only registered an assist he looked good playing alongside Jonathan Huberdeau in their game against the Blackhawks. If these two young studs develop chemistry, they could become a formidable combination for Florida. Kris Versteeg and Tomas Fleischmann need to be a bit more consistent, and both being paired together again, with Barkov between them could bring good things to Panthers this season.
The truth is, the Sabres are a team with a lot of upside because of their prospects. Many of their key pieces are already in place playing in Buffalo, but have been given the steering wheel and don’t yet know how to drive the vehicle on their own. The Panthers have proven they are capable of holding their own with some of the most talented teams in the league. To fall to a team that is stuck in the basement of the NHL, it would be a major disappointment. The Panthers have gained some confidence by standing tall in big games and it would be a shame to lose that momentum to a team that is still looking to find itself.