Panthers prepare for Stars without G Luongo

SUNRISE, Fla. — The Florida Panthers, nearly crippled with injuries before the season even started with the losses of Jonathan Huberdeau and Nick Bjugstad, had finally gotten healthy … until Thursday.

That’s when goalie Roberto Luongo went down with a lower-body injury and could not complete what became a 2-1 road shootout loss at the Philadelphia Flyers.

The Panthers (29-23-11) return home Saturday night to face the Dallas Stars (25-29-10).

At this same pace, neither team would be in the playoffs, and now the Panthers — who are running out of time with just 19 games remaining — must carry on without Luongo, likely for at least one week.

However, the Panthers, as per usual for them, were incredibly upbeat after their loss on Thursday, which was their fourth defeat in their past five games.

“It was a great hockey game, fun to be a part of,” Panthers interim coach Tom Rowe told the media. “Things are going to go right down to the wire.”

Rowe may be right about the playoff race going down to the wire. The Panthers (69 points) started Friday one point behind the New York Islanders and Toronto Maple Leafs for the final wild-card playoff berth. Florida would have to beat out both teams to qualify for the postseason.

Fortunately for the Panthers, they have a competent backup goalie to fill in for Luongo. James Reimer, 28, has, in fact, outplayed Luongo at times this season, compiling a 12-8-4 record with a 2.47 goals-against average and a .919 save percentage.

Reimer has been a solid goalie the past two years, compiling a record that is seven games above .500.

The Stars, meanwhile, have struggled with their goaltending this season. Antti Niemi, who played Thursday in a 5-4 loss to the New York Islanders, is 11-10-4 with a fat 3.22 GAA and just a .897 save percentage.

Niemi gave up a 3-1 lead to the Islanders on Thursday, allowing four straight goals in roughly 15 minutes.

“If we defend better, we should (at least) be going into overtime,” Stars coach Lindy Ruff told the media. “There’s no excuse for how we defended a couple of those goals.”

The Stars also got bad luck. One shot bounced off the end board and went in off of Niemi’s skate.

“You watch that and think, ‘What’s going to happen next?'” Ruff said.

In other story lines regarding Saturday’s game:

— Forward Thomas Vanek, 33, made his Panthers debut on Thursday, getting 15:31 of ice time, including 2:22 on a power play that went 0 of 2. Vanek failed to get a point and was minus-one for the game. He will make his Panthers home debut on Saturday.

Vanek, who scored 15 goals this season for the Detroit Red Wings before being traded, replaces rookie Denis Malgin on Florida’s third line. Nick Bjugstad, who like Vanek is a former University of Minnesota standout, and Jonathan Marchessault are the other members of that third line.

— Panthers center Aleksander Barkov has two shootout goals in the past two games. He also very nearly had the game-winning goal with 18 seconds left in regulation against the Flyers. With the score tied 1-1, Barkov whistled a shot that Flyers goalie Steve Mason was somehow able to glove.

— Panthers Aaron Ekblad scored his ninth goal of the season on Thursday, making a steal followed by an impressive deke and shot. He later joked that he “blacked out” on the play because it was not a customary-type move for him.

— Stars forward Ales Hemsky (right-hip injury) should be ready to go after playing just his second game of the season on Thursday. Hemsky got two shots on goal in 10:07 of ice time on Thursday.

— Stars forward Antoine Roussel left Thursday’s game with an undisclosed injury and is likely out for the season, Ruff said.