Playing five of six on the road could be the pivotal point of the Florida Panthers’ season, and coach Pete DeBoer might be hoping he’s discovered the winning formula.
The second-year coach will give Scott Clemmensen(notes) another start, and Nathan Horton(notes) will run the power play as the Panthers open a three-game trip against the last-place Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday night.
Florida (29-31-11) has dropped seven of nine on the road and lost two of three during its last trip through Canada in January. That trek started with a 3-2 loss at Toronto (26-34-12) on Jan. 5 before falling in Montreal and capping the stretch with a win over Ottawa.
This trip is identical as the Panthers begin a stretch of five of six on visiting ice before concluding the season with four of five at home.
A strong performance on the road could go a long way to helping Florida gain ground in the Eastern Conference playoff race. The team is 11th in the standings, seven points behind eighth-place Boston.
“Every one of these games is big,” DeBoer said. “We’re still in the hunt here. We’re not mathematically eliminated. The way we look at it, we’ve got to win maybe 10 or 11 in a row here. Stranger things have happened.”
DeBoer is turning to Clemmensen in net again after he made 29 saves in Sunday’s 5-2 win over Tampa Bay to end a three-game slide. Tomas Vokoun(notes), the Panthers’ No. 1 netminder and a contender for the Vezina Trophy, posted a 4.29 goals-against average in starting each game of the slide while getting pulled twice.
Clemmensen is 6-6-0 with a 3.41 GAA in 16 games.
“We’re trying to win every single game, so we’re going to go with whoever we think can win,” DeBoer said. “I thought Clem played a real good game against Tampa and he deserves to play again. If he plays well again and wins, I’m not adverse to going with him again.”
While DeBoer is going to ride the hot goaltender, he’s also expected to continue using Horton to run the power play after he scored on the man advantage Sunday. The right wing has a goal and three assists in three games since returning from a fractured tibia that sidelined him for 17 contests.
Florida’s power play ranks last in the NHL at 15.2 percent, and the Panthers are 1 for 45 over the last 12 road games.
“One of the issues with our power play has been zone time and having some patience in the zone to be able to create a little bit more room for ourselves,” De Boer said. “Nathan Horton has that patience and skill level to distribute the puck. It seemed to have worked.”
The Panthers have dropped two of three against the Maple Leafs, but won the last meeting 2-0 at home on Jan. 23. They had won three in a row at Toronto before the defeat Jan. 5.
The Maple Leafs may be all but eliminated from playoff contention, but they’ve won three in a row against teams in the playoff race, including Saturday’s 3-2 shootout victory over the Canadiens. They haven’t won four in a row since Feb. 22-28, 2009.
“We’re seeing that some of these kids, they look like they can play,” coach Ron Wilson said. “They’re playing in live-fire situations right now against teams that are really battling.”