The Florida Panthers dressing room is located on the south side of the BB&T Center. It is decorated with phrases taken from the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team. Its locker stalls are wooden, its carpet red, and during the Panthers' 6-4 win over the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday night, it received two unwelcome visitors.
During the second period of Thursday's game, Panthers franchise centers Aleksander Barkov and Vincent Trocheck disappeared down the tunnel behind Florida's bench, sounding alarm for a team already without its starting goaltender and top-line right wing. Trocheck's absence was brief and he returned to the Panthers bench quickly.
But Barkov's was extended. During a Panthers' power play just past the halfway mark of the second period, Barkov exited the game after a hit from Winnipeg's Jacob Trouba. He sat on the edge of the bench, hunched over. After a few minutes, Barkov left the bench at 8 p.m. He did not return to the game with an upper-body injury.
Barkov's scare underscored a night on which Florida snapped a three-game losing streak by beating the high-flying Jets. The Panthers jumped out to a two-goal lead in the first period, blew it by the end of the opening frame, and ultimately won the game when Micheal Haley tipped in the game-winning goal with 10:02 left in the third period.
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Haley, most known for his fighting and not his goal-scoring, has two goals in the last nine days. He entered the season with five career goals in 130 NHL games.
Florida also killed six of seven Winnipeg power plays on Thursday night, including two 5-on-3 chances.
The Panthers suffered a huge blow to their season when Roberto Luongo suffered a lower-body injury on Monday night against the New York Islanders. Florida coach Bob Boughner has described Luongo as the team's best player since returning from a previous hand injury. Luongo will miss "an extended period of time" that could dip past a month.
So James Reimer was pushed into the starting role once again. The Panthers gave Reimer an early 2-0 lead behind goals from Mark Pysyk and Aaron Ekblad. The two goals came just 29 seconds apart and boosted Florida to a two-goal cushion just 3:17 into the game.
But Winnipeg fought back in the last five minutes of the first period. Nikolaj Ehlers was the beneficiary of a deflected puck from Ben Chiarot's stick. Chiarot directed a shot towards the goal, it went off Denis Malgin's stick, off the ice, off Patrik Laine's skate before Ehlers got the final touch to beat Reimer.
Adam Lowry scored 21/2 minutes later on a nice centering feed from Brandon Tanev. The Florida edge was gone, and Winnipeg took a lead in the second period when Blake Wheeler scored on the power play after Mike Matheson gave the puck away in the neutral zone.
For Reimer, the game marked the start of another opportunity to prove himself in the NHL. He was best known as a longtime backup in Toronto before signing a long-term with Florida last offseason. He filled in admirably for Luongo down the stretch last season, but was inconsistent earlier this season when Luongo's hand was hurt.
Reimer made 30-plus saves in his first four starts. His last two ended with him on the bench after allowing nine goals in less than 60 minutes. Before Thursday's game, Reimer said his approach would remain the same even though was now the starting goaltender.
"The puck's the same size," Reimer said. "The net's the same size."
Reimer was an obvious replacement for Luongo. But should Barkov miss a sizable amount of time, Florida does not employ a player that can do what he does. He entered Thursday leading all NHL forwards in ice time. He was on pace to smash his career-high for points in a season by 20. He anchors Florida's penalty kill. He drives its power play.
Barkov's injury conjures sore memories from last year, when the 22-year-old Finn missed 21 games due to injuries and the Panthers flounder a season after capturing the division title. Through the first third of the season, with Barkov blossoming into the star the Panthers picked No. 2 in the 2013 draft, Florida still entered Thursday five points out of a playoff spot.
The uphill climb would become much steeper without Barkov.
"We know we're not happy where we are," Reimer said. "We got to step up and hopefully string some wins together."