SUNRISE — The Florida Panthers came out in what was the team’s biggest game of the season to that point and laid a massive egg.
Florida desperately needed a win over a Buffalo Sabres team that was hot on its tail and it fell flat on its face to the tune of a 3-1 loss on Friday night.
A two-goal performance by Jeff Skinner handed the Panthers their fourth loss in their last seven games to stack the deck against their playoff hopes.
Craig Anderson stopped 53 shots to sink a flat offense that was missing some key pieces.
Right when they got a big boost into the lineup with Anthony Duclair coming off of long-term injured reserve to make his season debut, the injury bug was back tenfold.
Florida had to go without top centers Sasha Barkov and Sam Bennett in a crucial matchup with a Sabres team that entered the game two points behind them with four games in hand.
That lead in the standings evaporated by the time the night was over.
The Panthers had several chances to establish an early lead — with Nick Cousins missing an empty net seconds into the game and Grigori Denisenko hitting the post on the breakaway a few minutes later — but they could not break through.
After ending the first period scoreless, Florida let Buffalo run away with a 2-0 lead early in the second and they did not look back since.
Florida caught a bit of a break when a successful offside challenge took a Henri Jokiharju goal off the board 6:25 into the second period, but Alex Tuch got it right back just over two minutes later.
Duclair brought the Panthers some life with an assist with 11:36 to go in his return to the lineup, finding Carter Verhaeghe near the face-off circle who wired the feed past Anderson for his 31st of the year.
Skinner swung that momentum right back the other direction and sank Florida with his second goal of the night two minutes later.
The Panthers have little margin for error with 21 games remaining in the season.
As things stand right now, they are chasing the Sabres and the red hot Detroit Red Wings for the final wildcard spot in the East.
Riding wins in six of their last seven, Detroit sits in a tie with the Sabres with the same number of points as Florida (64) and four fewer games played.
With no points cushion left to separate them from the pack, the Panthers will need to be near perfect for the rest of the season to hold on.
GOALS OF THE GAME
- Sabres 1, Panthers 0 (3:51, 2nd): Jeff Skinner slides a sleek backhand feed from Tage Thompson past Sergei Bobrovsky to jump ahead.
- Sabres 2, Panthers 0 (8:44, 2nd): Alex Tuch ripped a wrist shot from the circle past Bobrovsky on the power play.
- Sabres 2, Panthers 1 (8:24, 3rd): Carter Verhaeghe wired a wrist shot from the face-off circle past Craig Anderson off of a feed from Anthony Duclair.
- Sabres 3, Panthers 1 (10:36, 3rd): Thompson picked off Gus Forsling behind the Florida net and set up Skinner for his second of the game.
COLBY’S 3 STARS OF THE NIGHT
1. Craig Anderson, Buffalo (53 saves)
2. Tage Thompson, Buffalo (three assists)
3. Jeff Skinner, Buffalo (two goals)
PANTHERS ON DECK
FLORIDA PANTHERS AT TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
- When: Tuesday, 7 p.m.
- Where: Amalie Arena, Tampa
- 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
- Season Series (Tampa Bay leads 2-1): Lightning 3, @Panthers 2 OT (Oct. 22); Lightning 4, Panthers 1 (Dec. 10); Florida 7, Lightning 1 (Feb. 6)
- Last season: Split four regular season games; Tampa won second-round playoff series 4-0
- All-time regular season series: Florida leads 74-50-19, 10 ties
- Up Next for the Panthers: Thursday vs. Nashville, 7 p.m.