SUNRISE, Fla. — Florida Panthers captain Willie Mitchell knows what it takes to win in the NHL.
A student of three-time Stanley Cup champion Scott Stevens during his rookie season with the New Jersey Devils, and having hoisted two Cups of his own with the Los Angeles Kings, the veteran defenseman could easily pen a lengthy novel on how to succeed in hockey’s top league.
Yet, after Saturday’s 6-4 loss to the visiting Calgary Flames, the Panthers look as though they are beginning to stray from the style of play that would likely to fill the pages of Mitchell’s book. Not far removed from a seven-game point streak that highlighted a promising start to their 2014-15 campaign, the team has now lost back-to-back games by a combined score of 10-5.
One of the few Panthers who lingered in the dressing room after the defeat, Mitchell, still visibly dejected, pulled no punches in dissecting his team’s performanc
"That was a horse [bleep] game by us," said Mitchell, who led the team with a plus-3 rating for the game. "That’s not our game. We’re too young of a hockey club. That’s not our game. As you evolve and learn to play the right way maybe you can play a little more offense, but the best teams in this league, you don’t play in 6-4 shootouts, that’s not how it’s done.
"The teams that have won cups play they play good defense. You’re going to be in every game and give yourself a chance."
Midway through Saturday’s game, it appeared as if the Panthers dressing room was destined to be filled with the booming sounds of victory rather than the silence that would eventually greet both players and media.
Led by two goals from forward Scottie Upshall, the Panthers had built a comfortable 3-1 lead as the clock approached the 10-minute mark of the second period. Having allowed just 16 goals in their previous nine games, the early two-goal cushion looked to be insurmountable.
It was at this point that the Panthers seemingly forgot their identity.
Beginning with a shorthanded goal from defenseman Mark Giordano at 9:44 of the second period, the Flames would climb back to even the score 3-3 on a soft goal from forward Jiri Hudler before Panthers forward Jimmy Hayes stopped the bleeding with a go-ahead goal to make it 4-3 at 13:31 of the period.
One of the league’s best defensive teams through the first month of the season, the Panthers had let a two-goal lead slip through their fingers as the allure of offense bred mistakes on both ends of the ice.
"It wasn’t our best," said Upshall, who finished the game with two goals and one assist. "We’ve had a really good stretch of games where we’ve been holding teams to one or two goals. We had trouble finding goals tonight and when we found the goals we let off our defense, which is just a sign we weren’t ready to play a full 60 minutes."
"It’s tough to play hard hockey and commit yourself for 60 (minutes), but tonight we definitely didn’t play our best."
Taking a 4-3 lead into the third period, the Panthers once stalwart defense was their undoing as they allowed Flames forward Sean Monahan to net an easy tip-in goal to tie the game 4-4 with just 4:53 into the final period.
From that point on, both teams buckled down, looking content to play for overtime until another defensive lapse by the Panthers created an odd-man rush that led to a game-winning goal from Flames forward Lance Bouma with 2:18 left in the game. Rookie Johnny Gaudreau would later add an empty netter on a power play to ensure the victory.
It took just over 30 minutes of play for a 3-1 lead to become a 6-4 loss for the Panthers.
In a game that looked to have the makings of their most impressive victory of the season, an incomplete effort gave way to the team’s worst defensive outing of the season.
"I sure hope we learned our lesson," said Mitchell. "Maybe it’s because we were all in shock that we scored three or four goals or something like that and thought that we were better than we were offensively. You have to play the same way for 60 minutes."
Once pacing the league in fewest goals allowed per game, Mitchell hopes that Sunday’s collapse will serve as a wakeup call to his teammates.
Still very much alive in a wide-open Eastern Conference with a 4-4-4 record, the Panthers could easily ascend the standings if the team gets back to playing the type of game they are suited for. For as much attention as lightning the lamp may garner, the Panthers see their best results when scoring is kept in check and the power stays off.
"Stanley Cup’s not won on 6-4 track meets, it’s won on 2-1 hockey games," said Mitchell. "Early on in the season we’ve managed that pretty well. The last couple games we’ve let that slip. Maybe we need a good slap in the face here like we did tonight where we should have had two points, to reset the dial and make sure that we play the right way."