The Panthers redefined the meaning of “March Madness.”
After winning just 4 times in their previous 15 games, the Panthers pulled out a 7-0 shutout of the perennial Stanley Cup-contending Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday night.
Jonathan Marchessault, a bargain-bin, free-agent signing in July, scored three consecutive goals for his first career NHL hat-trick en route to the most decisive home victory in the Panthers’ 24-year history. The Blackhawks – who entered the night having already clinched a playoff spot while holding the top spot in the Western Conference – had no answer for the Panthers.
The 26-year old Marchessault’s first marker of the game came just past the half-way point of the 1st period as one-timed a cross-ice feed from Aleksander Barkov past the short side of goaltender Corey Crawford.
He lit the lamp again just 4:59 into the 2nd period as he converted on a 2-on-1 feed from Colton Sceviour before netting the hat-trick goal less than 3 minutes later on a slap shot from the left circle off a rebound.
Crawford was pulled after Marchessault’s second goal which gave the Panthers a 4-0 lead and Scott Darling would go on to allow 3 goals on 6 shots the rest of the way.
“I think everybody should be feeling good right now,” said Marchessault. “That’s not just any team on the other side that we just beat. It was an amazing game tonight for everyone.”
The hat-trick was the first of the natural variety for the Panthers since Steve Reinprecht scored three consecutive times back on October 30th, 2009, and it gives Marchessault a team-leading 28 goals on the season.
James Reimer turned aside all 25 shots sent his way as he notched his 15th career shutout and first as a Panther.
“Reimer’s bailed us out a lot of nights just like [Roberto Luongo] has, so it was good that the guys played for the goaltender and got him the shutout,” said head coach Tom Rowe.
Aleksander Barkov set the tone for the Panthers by scoring just 17 seconds into the middle frame before Jonathan Huberdeau joined on the offensive act by making it 2-0 with a goal of his at 10:21 of the same period. The two notched 3 points and 4 points respectively by the time everything was said and done with Barkov reaching the 50-point mark for the second consecutive season.
The Panthers reached a half-dozen on the night when Nick Bjugstad deflected home a point shot from Colton Sceviour 40 seconds after the hats rained down for Marchessault, and Reilly Smith made it a touchdown less than 4 minutes later with his 13th of the season.
Bjugstad threw both of his arms in the air in relief as his goal ended a month-long scoring drought; he last found the back of the net on February 24th.
“I was joking with someone that that was probably a bit excessive for the sixth goal [of the game],” Bjugstad said “But at this point in the season, and for myself, that was instinct. Just thank God, basically. I had a lot of shots tonight and it finally went in. Yeah, I’ll take it.”
Vincent Trocheck finished with 2 assists on the night, giving him a new career-high of 30 after recording 28 last season, and the Panthers limited Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane to just 1 shot each.
Even after Saturday’s victory, they remain 7 points back of tying the Boston Bruins for the second wild card spot in the East, meaning their playoffs odds – which Sports Club Stats has to be 0.2 percent – are no better than they have been for the past couple of weeks.
The win gives the struggling team a confidence booster with 8 games left in the season and not much to look forward to aside from early tee times.
“The team, owners, fans, everybody needed a feel-good day,” said Rowe. “We said let’s take it one at a time and see what happens.”
The Panthers are set to head out onto their final long road-trip of the season with the 4-game set starting on Monday against the Buffalo Sabres who are also just about out of the playoff hunt.