The Panthers earned their first regulation win in 3 weeks on Saturday night when Erik Gudbranson returned to town for the first time since being traded to the Canucks in May.
The newly-formed top line of Seth Griffith with Aleksander Barkov and Jaromir Jagr got the scoring going early in the 1st period with a gritty play off the forecheck. Jagr was fighting for the puck when Griffith swooped in, picked it up, went around the other side of the net, and fed Barkov in front of the net for a chip shot past former Panthers draft pick Jacob Markstrom.
“I was obviously a little nervous, you know, playing alongside Jagr,” said Griffith. “I watched him growing up. It was a lot of fun. Once the jitters were out, I think I just settled down and started playing. Good things happen when you work hard. I think we really worked hard tonight.”
Derek MacKenzie netted his 3rd goal of the season in the 2nd to give the Panthers a 2-0 lead after Colton Sceviour through the puck towards the crease following a dogged effort in the slot. Paul Thompson created a rebound in front for the captain to put home as he pushed the net off its moorings.
The Panthers went up 3-0 in the 3rd when Aaron Ekblad scored his 7th goal of the season on a back-hander off a wrist shot by Jagr, who tallied 2 points tonight to pull within 5 points of 2nd place on the all-time points list. Barkov also earned an assist, giving him 12 points in his last 12 games, good for 6th-most in the NHL since November 19th.
After that, the Panthers allowed 2 straight goals, including one on a rush out of the neutral zone by Jack Skille who split the defense and went top shelf in tight on Roberto Luongo, and another by Daniel Sedin who tipped in a shot from Troy Stecher to get within one.
Vincent Trocheck sealed the deal with an empty-net goal off a nice toe drag move inside the offensive zone blue-line as the Panthers improved to 8-0-2 when scoring 3 or more goals in regulation this season while snapping a 4-game losing streak. The win was the first on home ice for interim head coach Tom Rowe who has gone 2-2-3 with the Panthers in the 7 games he has coached since taking over on November 28th.
“A bunch of teams lost in our conference today so we gained a little bit of ground on everybody in front of us, so that’s always good,” said Rowe.
Of the many positives on Saturday night was the performance of Seth Griffith who the Panthers elevated to the top line with the hope of sparking some offense for the goal-deprived team. He created several chances off the rush and around the net in the 1st and 2nd periods and appeared reborn after spending just about all of his time in the bottom-6 since being claimed off waivers by the Panthers nearly a month ago.
“We wanted to see what Seth could do with those guys,” said Tom Rowe. “I thought he played a great game, really good. It’s just one game, but they played really well.”
Dylan McIlrath drew into the lineup in place of Jakub Kindl for the first time since November 17th, and even though he only had 6 minutes and 31 seconds of ice time, he played well and had a big hit in the 1st period that got the Panthers’ bench going. Defensively, the Panthers were certainly better than Thursday night against the Penguins; they hardly allowed any odd-man rushes and positional awareness was much improved in the defensive zone.
Griffith was filling in for Jonathan Marchessault who missed his 4th consecutive game with a groin injury, although he has practiced the past 2 days and could return on Tuesday when the Panthers face the Minnesota Wild for the first time this season. Denis Malgin was a healthy scratch as Rowe stated before the game that he’s still young and adjusting to a more tedious schedule, therefore he deserved some rest from the action.
The Wild will face the St. Louis Blues on Sunday before Tuesday’s game against the Panthers. Entering Sunday, they’ve won 5 of their last 8 games including each of their last 3. Charlie Coyle leads the team in scoring with 9 goals and 18 points and Devan Dubnyk has allowed just 5 goals over his last 3 games.