“All’s well that ends well” goes the famous saying and that certainly rang true on Saturday night for the Panthers who earned their franchise-record 44th win of the season and 4th in their last 5 games, keeping them at the top of the Atlantic Division standings.
Not everything has come easy for the Panthers this season and Saturday night’s tilt against the Montreal Canadiens was no exception. The Panthers didn’t come out how they wanted in the 1st period and even part of the 2nd — something that has become a bit of a recurring theme over the past several weeks — but they stuck with it and got rewarded in the latter half of the middle frame as well as the 3rd period.
“It was a tough, tough start obviously,” said head coach Gerard Gallant after the 4-3 victory. “It looked like we didn’t get into the game until about 8 o’clock. We woke up and started playing real well.”
“Tough start” was probably an understatement as the Panthers allowed 3 straight goals by the Canadiens, 2 of which came within a minute and 19 seconds of each other at the halfway point of the 2nd period, but they got their scoring started shortly after that as a Barkov one-timer off a Huberdeau pass deflected off Jaromir Jagr and behind goaltender Mike Condon to make it a 3-1 game.
It initially appeared as though it was Barkov’s goal, but was later changed to Jaromir Jagr for his 26th goal of the season after it was determined that it puck glanced off of Jagr’s right leg. Jagr became the first Panther since the 2011-12 season to score more than 25 goals, but The 20-year old center, however, was convinced that it was all him, not Jagr, who made the goal happen.
“No, I think it hit his foot,” was what Barkov said when it was suggested that Jagr took the goal away from him.
Gerard Gallant explained to the media that he felt the turning point of the game was when Shawn Thornton took a big hit in the 2nd period, but stayed disciplined rather than getting called for retaliating.
“For me, the turning point in the game was when [Thornton] got hit hard…fortunately after that he didn’t take a penalty, he stayed disciplined and we come back, we got a big goal to make it 3-1…it sort of woke our guys up.”
Barkov wasn’t done though as 6 minutes later, he would score — between the legs of Andre Markov, mind you — while being surrounded by 4 Canadiens players in front of the net, bringing the Panthers within 1 goal of tying Montreal. This one was clearly Barkov’s goal and it would end up being his 25th of the season, giving the Panthers 3 players with 25 goals (Barkov, Jagr, Trocheck) for the first time since the 2005-06 season.
“Yeah, I wanted to score so…,” said Barkov when it was mentioned that he put his stick in between Markov’s legs to reach the puck.
After a comparatively lackluster power play in the 2nd period, the Panthers went on the man advantage again in the 3rd period and Nick Bjugstad stepped up big time, literally and figuratively. After receiving the puck on the left wing from Barkov, Bjugstad faked a shot, drove to the net, and slung a perfect backhanded, cross-ice pass to Jonathan Huberdeau on the right side who put it into the mostly empty net.
Bjugstad finished the night with a team-leading 8 shots on goal and looking impressive with Jussi Jokinen and Reilly Smith as his wingers. He finished top-3 on the team with a Corsi For % of 69.44 as he was on the ice for just 11 shot attempts against and 25 shot attempts for.
Jaromir Jagr had glorious chances all night long and he even missed out on one of them after trying to do make an extra move late in the game, so of course he was somewhat upset at himself for that.
“It’s funny, I always tell [Huberdeau], ‘Hey, don’t deke anymore, it doesn’t work…shoot the puck,’” said Jaromir Jagr. “And today I tried to deke…it’s so stupid. And the first thing I was thinking, ‘%#$&, seriously, telling the other guys and I’m doing the same $%&#.’”
For Huberdeau, the goal gave him a career-high 5-game goal streak — during which he was 6 goals — and the team a chance to take the lead with the next goal. The young winger is also on a 5-game point streak which has 8 points since the start of.
“He’s been great for all 3 years I’ve been here,” said Barkov of Huberdeau. “He’s a pretty skilled player, he knows what to do on the ice. I love to play with him, he’s a great linemate, a great teammate.”
“Yeah, I guess [the puck] is going in,” said Huberdeau of the goal streak. “I mean it was a nice pass by [Bjugstad] to throw it back door. I think our line has been playing well.”
With just 29 seconds left in the 3rd period and the game surely headed to overtime, the Panthers were hungry for more. An Ekblad shot from the point hit perfectly off the stick of who else, Aleksander Barkov, went directly behind Mike Condon, and found its way into the net. Ekblad finished the night with two assists, both of which came on the two Barkov goals.
And with that goal, Barkov finished off the night with 4 points, giving him a solid 9 goals and 5 assists in 11 career games against the Canadiens, and he completed the comeback to get the Panthers the 2 points they so desperately needed — and wanted — to remain in 1st place after Tampa defeated the Devils. The Finland-native now has 9 points in his last 5 games and an incredible 55 points in 62 games this season.
“We have a lot of confidence in this room and we were ready to go in the 3rd period,” said Barkov. “We were thinking about tying the game…we wanted to win this game; that’s why we won.”
“It started in the locker room…we didn’t play well in the 1st period. Then in the 2nd period we let the score a couple more goals. Then we came back, it was 3-2, we were thinking we were gonna come back in the 3rd period, we’re gonna win this game and that’s why we won.”
So in the end, how did Huberdeau feel about scoring a goal and beating his hometown team, the one he rooted for as a child?
“I’m glad I did, I hate them now,” Huberdeau said jokingly.
With the playoff spot just about on the horizon, the Panthers are beginning to to turn their focus towards winning the Atlantic Division title.
“We just need to win every game and I think we are ready to do that,” said Barkov.