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Ugly First Period Sinks Florida Panthers in Chicago

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Chicago’s Nikita Zaitsev celebrates his first-period goal with his teammates as Matthew Tkachuk gets off the ice in an eventual 5-2 loss on Saturday night. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

After playing one of their best games of the season in Detroit, the Florida Panthers played their worst two days later against the Chicago Blackhawks.

At least the worst period of their season.

The Panthers struggled to get things going and quickly faced a flurry of offense from the Blackhawks.

By the time it was all over, Chicago scored three goals in the opening 20 and celebrated a 5-2 victory to snap Florida’s four-game point streak.

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“We had a tough first,’’ Paul Maurice said. “We’re going to play 246 periods and hope that one was our worst. Give (Chicago) credit, they skated hard after having a tough one the night before and I think they got ‘em focused. Then, it was probably as dominant a two periods after as we have had.

“After the first break, there was nothing else for us to do but find a way out of it. You are going to have a tough period every once in a while in this league — and we had one. Loved the way they played after. We were desperate, determined, strong and dominant.”

But it was too late.

All because of that first period, one in which everything that could have gone wrong for the Panthers — did.

And they certainly did themselves no favors as Chicago skated around them for 20-plus minutes.

“It was uncharacteristic and an unfortunate start,” said Matthew Tkachuk, who scored his 500th point with a goal to make it 4-2 with 7:21 remaining. “The same thing happened here last year. They took it to us right away. They got three goals and then the fourth and that is too much to come back from. We made it close, had some chances but when you’re behind 3, 4-0, you put yourself in a terrible spot.’’

With their penalty kill on a 7-for-7 stretch over its past three games, the Panthers got tested early.

Only Nick Foligno stuffed in a Seth Jones rebound to break through and put the Blackhawks ahead 6:25 into the game.

The Panthers got their first shot on their first try on the power play just over a minute after falling behind 1-0.

That was until Carter Verhaeghe took a holding penalty 21 seconds into the man advantage on a collision with an already-falling Connor Murphy.

Maurice was not happy with the call, sharing pleasantries with the referees afterward.

On the ensuing 4-on-4, Nikita Zaitsev found himself wide open in the slot, where he uncorked a wrist shot that beat Anthony Stolarz to double Chicago’s lead 9:21 into the first period.

Taylor Hall jetted onto a partial breakaway and beat the 6-foot-6 goalie 5-hole with 7:21 to go in the first period to score his first goal of the season in his first game since Oct. 21.

Maurice blew up his forward lines to start the second period in an effort to inject some energy into his squad.

It worked, although the results were not seen until later.

The top-heavy line of  Carter Verhaeghe, Sasha Barkov and Tkachuk pinned Chicago in its own zone and created a couple of scoring chances in its first two shifts.

Yet on the very next shift, rookie phenom Connor Bedard jetted out on the rush and beat Stolarz with a quick snap shot to make it 4-0 just 5:29 into the second.

The Panthers controlled the pace of play overall in the second period, leading 1.51 to 0.55 in expected goals per Natural Stat Trick, but could not get one past Petr Mrazek.

That was until Oliver Ekman-Larsson finally got the Panthers on the board with a power play goal 6:31 into the third period.

The slap shot from the point was Florida’s first power play goal since Gus Forsling scored one in their last home game against the Seattle Kraken on Oct. 28.

They were 0-for-10 since they left for their three-game road trip and had the seventh-worst power play at a 12.1 percent clip going into the last of those three games on Saturday.

Tkachuk jammed in the rebound of a Verhaeghe shot with 7:31 to go to make it a 4-2 game.

The goal was the 500th point of his career.

But the late surge was not enough to right the wrongs Florida made in the first period.

“We had a spark and they were sitting back a little bit and it is hard to dig out of that hole,” said Tkachuk, whose team went 1-1-1 in its three-game road trip.

Phillip Kurashev scored an empty-net goal with nine seconds left.

Mrazek made 34 saves in the final two period against a surging Panthers offense and 40 saves total to secure the win.

He made the difference for Chicago.

Maurice was already looking ahead to the next one.

“We had enough energy tonight, just didn’t get the memo on the start time,” he said.

“I got the time wrong.”

PANTHERS ON DECK

COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS @ FLORIDA PANTHERS

  • When: Monday, 7 p.m.
  • Where: Amerant Bank Arena, Sunrise
  • TV/Streaming: Bally Sports Florida, ESPN+
  • Radio: WAXY 790-AM; WBZT 1230-AM (West Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); WCZR 101.7-FM (Treasure Coast); SiriusXM
  • Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932, NHL/Panthers App
  • Last Season: Florida won 2-1
  • This Season: @Florida Monday, Ap. 11; @Columbus Dec 10
  • All-time Regular Season Series: Columbus leads 26-17-4
  • Up Next for the Panthers: Wednesday at Washington (TNT), 7:30 p.m.

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