Battle of last season’s best pits Avalanche vs. Panthers

Last season, the Florida Panthers and Colorado Avalanche were the top seeds in their respective conferences and on a path to meet in the Stanley Cup Finals in June.

The Panthers, who finished with a league-best 122 points, were unceremoniously swept out of the second round by Tampa Bay, the team Colorado beat to win the Stanley Cup.

Florida’s hangover from that disappointing finish has lasted into this season. The Panthers are buried in the Atlantic Division with 40 points and are coming off a 5-1 loss at Dallas on Sunday. Now the Panthers are readying to play the third of their four-game road trip at Colorado on Tuesday night.

Florida won an NHL-high 58 games last season and will be lucky to reach 40 this year. The team has been in a month-long swoon, having dropped 10 of its last 16 games, but there is still optimism within the locker room despite only one player — newcomer Matthew Tkachuk — having scored 20 goals at this point.

Tkachuk came to the Panthers in an offseason trade with Calgary and has delivered what Florida expected out of him. He’s on pace for 40 goals and leads the team in assists (29) and penalty minutes (61).

He had an assist on the lone Panthers goal in the loss at Dallas, and while it wasn’t a close game, forward Aleksander Barkov is encouraged by what he is seeing.

“We’re not where we want to be,” he said. “Over the last two weeks — maybe the last four games — we’ve been talking a lot and we’ve been working a lot harder in the games. Our effort has been really, really good in those games. We’ve just got to stay with that.”

Florida catches an Avalanche team that rallied to win in overtime at Edmonton on Saturday night to end a five-game losing streak. Colorado has been hit hard by injuries this season but was doing well until the recent slide.

It looked like the Oilers were going to make it six straight losses when they went ahead 2-0, but Nathan MacKinnon, only recently back from an upper-body injury, scored a highlight-reel goal to start the comeback, and All-Star defenseman Cale Makar won it in overtime.

“It was a big win for us. We needed that,” Colorado coach Jared Bednar said. “It gets a little tense when you lose five in a row and you feel like you’re playing well, then you go down 2-0, but the guys were really focused.”

The Avalanche are hoping defenseman Josh Manson can return soon from his lower-body injury. He has missed the last 17 games but started skating last week and has increased his activity level.

Forward Valeri Nichushkin has missed the last six games after aggravating his surgically-repaired ankle, an injury that cost him 17 games earlier this season, but Colorado expects him back soon.

When and if the Avalanche can use their entire roster — left wing and captain Gabriel Landeskog has yet to play this year — they have the potential to be a dangerous playoff opponent. They play three of their next four games at home, with the only road contest at rebuilding Chicago on Thursday.

–Field Level Media