SUNRISE — The Florida Panthers just could not get the job done without Matthew Tkachuk on Thursday night.
Florida’s 25-year-old superstar was the latest player ruled out with a non-COVID illness and the Panthers had to play shorthanded for the fifth time this season as a result.
They fell to 1-3-1 while playing down a man with a 4-2 loss to the red-hot Pittsburgh Penguins who have now won their past seven.
Tkachuk was tied for sixth in the NHL in points coming into Thursday’s game and holds the Panthers’ team lead in points by a 15-point margin.
“He is one of the best players in the league and on our team, so any time a player like that goes down, it hurts,” Ryan Lomberg said.
”But we have a lot of great guys in here who can step up so we have got to get the two points.”
The Panthers have had an illness going around the locker room since Barkov first felt sick in Nov. 15’s win against the Washington Capitals.
With rotating pieces coming in and out of the lineup, they have gone 5-7-3 since.
The Panthers have picked the effort back up in their last two games after feeling gassed recently, winning 4-0 against Columbus on Tuesday and playing a strong 5-on-5 games, but it was special teams that killed the Panthers this time out.
“The bigger challenge was the matchup more than anything else because they have three dominant lines and two that you kind of have to hold [Sasha] Barkov and [Sam] Bennett for and you kind of end up running guys really hard underneath,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said.
“When you take your leading scorer out, you are going to miss him but that can’t be the reason for losses. We’ve gotta find a way to stay out of the box, be tighter on our penalty kill and make more of our power play because we are not getting any of these guys back anytime soon. It’s not one and out because every time a guy comes back in another goes out.”
A shorthanded goal by Kris Letang got the Penguins into the game while a two power play goals helped put them finish the job. Letang, by the way, was playing his third game since returning after sustaining a stroke late last month.
Florida was 1-for-3 on the penalty kill and 0-for-3 on the power play.
“The effort was there,’’ Maurice said. “They played their asses off 5-on-5 but the Penguins put some pretty good power play players on the ice and we got victimized by it. ”
Lomberg cashed in on an Eric Staal rebound 5:30 into the first period to put the Panthers up 1-0.
Florida found itselves with an opportunity to extend the lead with a power play early in the second, but it was Pittsburgh which ended up taking advantage.
A turnover by Aaron Ekblad sparked an odd-man rush where Bryan Rust fed Letang for a shorthanded goal 4:17 into the second.
Jake Guentzel gave the Penguins the lead with a deflection of an Evgeni Malkin shot off his foot on the power play with 8:18 to go in the second period.
Guentzel looked to have moved his foot in a slight kicking motion on the deflection but the Panthers chose not to challenge the play.
“That play is automatically reviewed by the league,” Maurice said.
”There is no coach’s challenge there, so my opinion does not weigh on the referees. It looks like it [was kicked in] but once that puck is in the net they are not reviewing it.”
The Penguins struck again on the power play with 11:55 to go on a goal that may end up stinging for them a bit more long-term.
Sidney Crosby corked up a booming slap shot that got Malkin right in the knee and bounced past Sergei Bobrovsky for the goal.
Malkin had to be helped to the Pittsburgh bench as “Geno” chants erupted from Sunrise and he did not return to the game.
It does not appear to be as serious as it looked.
“It’s a funny way to score, but a goal is a goal,’’ coach Mike Sullivan said. “The preliminary prognosis is positive so that is a positive sign.’’
Sam Reinhart brought the Panthers back within a goal less than two minutes later with a blast of a one-timer off a feed from Carter Verhaeghe.
Florida got an opportunity to tie the game on the power play with 8:02 to go after Brandon Montour drew an interference penalty but they could not get anything going.
Guentzel sealed the deal with an empty netter with 1:18 to go in regulation.
Sergei Bobrovsky stopped 35 of 38 shots in his second-straight start with a save percentage of over .900 in a season that has seen him struggle mightily.
Bobrovsky is now 2-3-0 with a .921 save percentage since taking over in relief for Spencer Knight in a 5-2 loss to the Winnipeg Jets on Dec. 6.
Tristan Jarry countered that with a 37-save performance to backstop the Penguins to their 12th win in the last 14 games and their seventh straight to start December.
”Both guys tonight made great saves,” Maurice said.
”[Bobrovsky] has been that good right from Winnipeg We have lots of faith in the guy, and in Spencer, but we are in a position where they can cover off some of the guys we are losing up front and we need it.”
COLBY’S THREE STARS OF THE GAME
1. Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh (goal, assist)
2. Kris Letang, Pittsburgh (goal, assist)
3. Jake Guentzel, Pittsburgh (two goals)
FLORIDA PANTHERS ON DECK
FLORIDA PANTHERS AT NEW JERSEY DEVILS
- When: Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
- Where: Prudential Center, Newark
- TV/Streaming: Bally Sports Florida; ESPN+
- Radio: WPOW 96.5-FM 2; WBZT 1230-AM (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
- Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932
- Last season: Florida won 2-1
- All-time regular season series: Devils lead 56-33-7, 7 ties
- Up Next for the Panthers: Monday at Boston Bruins