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Even Tua Cannot Help Florida Panthers Dig Out of Hole

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Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa pumps up the crowd before the start of the Florida Panthers’ game against Dallas on Thursday night. Florida went down 4-0 in the first period before losing 6-4. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

SUNRISE — Thursday was a crazy night for both the Florida Panthers and Dallas Stars, one that started with Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa getting the crowd fired up.

The fans may have been excited, but the Panthers certainly were not as they found themselves down four goals in the opening 20 minutes thanks to some pretty crummy defensive play.

Despite that deficit, Florida woke up and made it a game. It even had a chance to force overtime before Ty Dellandrea’s empty-net goal with 17.9 seconds left gave Dallas a 6-4 win at FLA Live Arena.

Both teams ended up using their backup goalies in this one only for very different reasons.

Sergei Bobrovsky was pulled after Florida’s shaky defense helped Dallas take a 4-0 lead into the first break.

In the second, Dallas starter Scott Wedgewood blocked a shot from Anton Lundell holding a 5-2 lead and apparently smacked his head onto the ice.

Although it initially appeared to be some sort of lower-body concern, Dallas coach Pete DeBoer called it an “upper-body injury.’’

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Regardless, it was a scary few minutes in Sunrise as Wedgewood was on his back and remained motionless as team trainers from the Panthers and Stars attended to him.

He ended up being placed on a backboard and carted off the ice by paramedics — but seems to be OK.

DeBoer said he would be evaluated in Dallas after flying home with the team but it does not look like he will play in the Stars’ next game.

“Obviously you never like to see that,” DeBoer said. “We found a way to get the win and we’ll cross our fingers here and hope Wedgewood is okay.”

Florida started the game without captain Sasha Barkov as he apparently has been dealing with a non-Covid illness he started feeling the effects of during Florida’s win over the Capitals on Tuesday.

The team found out its captain would not be able to play in Thursday’s game at 4 p.m.

“We have had a lot of guys run through it and it was a one or a two day thing and but we got to today and we were were expecting to have him,’’ coach Paul Maurice said. “We didn’t want to risk that putting him in the game.”

The Panthers faced two dilemmas with Barkov’s absence: They would be without their star player who brings elite play on both sides of the puck and would have to play shorthanded because their salary cap situation did not allow for them to carry any extra players.

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Roberto Luongo and Tua Tagovailoa share a moment — and a Dolphins’ jersey — at Thursday night’s game. // Photo courtesy @FlaPanthers

Maurice had to juggle the lines a bit to accommodate for that and it resulted in a disastrous start for Florida.

A series of miscues and defensive lapses from the Panthers helped Dallas jump out to a 4-0 lead by the time the buzzer sounded to end the first period.

The Panthers held a 13-11 lead in shots and were able to generate 10 scoring chances to the Stars’ 7 but self-inflicted wounds helped Dallas amass its big lead.

”There are just too many small pieces,” Maurice said. “We turned a bunch of pucks over, but worse than that, we did not react particularly well to the turnovers. We make a mistake — and every team does that in every game — but it was about how we reacted after the mistake. We gave up five Grade-A chances.”

Bobrovsky was pulled from the game after stopping 7 of the 11 shots (.636) he faced in the first period, but the Panthers do not feel like this was his fault.’

To say Florida’s defensive play was porous would be nice. Awful would be accurate.

”We didn’t do anything good in the first period,” Sam Bennett said.

“We got out-competed and out-skated and we really left [Bobrovsky] out to dry in the first period. It’s tough to do that because he has been so good for us.”

After Carter Verhaeghe and Roope Hintz traded goals near the midway point of the second period, the Panthers answered back with three unanswered goals.

Eetu Luostarinen matched Hintz’s goal just over a minute after he restored the Stars’ four-goal lead.

Bennett found him on an odd-man rush and fed him with a slick backhand pass that made it around a Dallas defender’s stick and right to his wheelhouse for the finish with 7:48 to go in the second.

Florida cut into Dallas’ lead once more when Sam Reinhart deflected an Aaron Ekblad shot on the power play with 1:33 left in the second period.

That made it 5-3 going into the third — and the Panthers had life.

Matthew Tkachuk brought the Panthers within a goal after receiving a feed from Bennett and sliding home a backhand shot as he was driving the crease with 6:03 to go.

It was Bennett’s second primary assist of the game and third overall on a night where the Panthers desperately needed him to step up in Barkov’s absence.

Maurice opted to put him on a line with Luostarinen and Tkachuk following the first period and they took off from there.

”He has been really good, but I think the interesting thing in all of this is that whomever I play Luostarinen with takes off,” Maurice said.

”After the first period when we switched and put Tkachuk there, we learned that there’s something there. They get on pucks and they are strong. There’s some speed on the left and the center and Matthew can make plays. We will take a look at that when Barkov comes back.”

Despite the comeback effort, it was too late for Florida.

Florida could not get the equalizer despite multiple good looks and Dellandrea wrapped it up with an empty-netter.

“When that first period was done, you don’t have a lot of options,” Maurice said.

”It is hard to do what we did tonight. To just slowly start to grind, get stronger, start to push back and to write your game. At 2-0 you are going to come back and play hard but when you are down 4-0, to find that grit to come back, those are the things you get to keep a little bit. We haven’t had those starts, that’s not our team, but how we handled it was very impressive.”

The Panthers trailed after the first period twice going into Thursday night, going 0-2-0, and while they added another loss to that record, it was a step in being able to overcome adversity.

“[We learned] how to handle it,” Maurice said.

“You are going to have hopefully a very small number of first periods where you are down four. If you don’t come out and play very well, can you right the ship? Do we have a plan for those periods when come into the second, can you get off the mat and fight your way out? That is the most important lesson.”

Spencer Knight stepped up in relief for the Panthers, stopping 16 of the 17 shots he faced since coming in to start the second period.

”We got a little more solid there in the second, so we did not ask for much from him later on,” Maurice said. ”But he was solid for sure.”

COLBY’S THREE STARS OF THE GAME

1. Roope Hintz, Dallas (two goals)

2. Sam Bennett, Florida (three assists)

3. Tyler Seguin, Dallas (goal, assist)

PANTHERS ON DECK

CALGARY FLAMES AT FLORIDA PANTHERS

  • When: Saturday, 4 p.m.
  • Where: FLA Live Arena, Sunrise
  • TV: Bally Sports Florida; NHL Network
  • Radio: WPOW 96.5-FM2; WBZT 1230-AM (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
  • Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932
  • Last season: Split 1-1
  • All-time regular season series: Calgary leads 22-11-3, 3 ties

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