The Panthers haven’t been as good as they’d like on home ice this season, but you wouldn’t know that just by watching Saturday night’s 3-0 shutout of the Sabres in the season’s home finale.
And for 39-year old Shawn Thornton, it wasn’t just the last home game of the season; it was also the final game of his NHL career.
After 705 NHL games and 605 in the AHL, Thornton called it quits and threw his skates in the trash after Saturday’s victory of which he was named the first star.
“I’m not going to be using them any time soon,” Thornton said.
Thornton, who has spent the past three seasons with the Panthers after signing as a free agent when the market opened in July of 2014, is expected to remain in the organization but in a business role rather than a hockey-related one.
The transition was expected to take place after last season, but the tough, veteran winger was offered a one-year deal and went on to play in 50 games this season, recording 2 goals and 2 assists from the 4th line.
“It’s a little weird,” said Thornton of the feeling that he won’t be playing in the NHL anymore. “It’s starting to sink in a little bit. I tried to block it out all day. Obviously you’ve got a job to do. It’s starting to sink in a little bit right now.”
“It’s weird. You feel like you’re still probably capable of playing and healthy, but I’m very aware of the situation and very excited for the next chapter. It’s a mixed bag of emotions, for sure.”
The Panthers were inspired by Thornton and broke out after a scoreless opening period
Nick Bjugstad scored his 7th goal of the season on a sharp angle snap shot that found its way between goaltender Robin Lehner and the post.
Jonathan Huberdeau scored twice – once in the 2nd period and another in the 3rd – to put the Panthers up 3-0, a lead which would be enough to seal the deal. Huberdeau’s first goal came as he fell backwards into the net while simultaneously backhanding the puck over the goal line.
His second of the game and 10th of the season was another odd one as his shot from the side of the net deflected off the ankle of a Buffalo defender and through the pads of Lehner, who was noticeably shaky all night long.
“With it being [Thornton’s] last game, we wanted to play hard and get a win for his last game,” said Huberdeau. “We played, you know, pretty good. I think it was good for us, for our confidence.”
Not to be lost in the shuffle, James Reimer made 30 saves on 30 shots en route to his 16th career shutout and second in his last 5 appearances. He was also perfect on March 25th as the Panthers dominated the Blackhawks in a 7-0 victory.
The game was centered around Fan Appreciation Night as the Panthers handed out a variety of free gifts – like big screen TVs, concert tickets, autographed items, and bluetooth speaker – to lucky fans at each stoppage in play.
The win gives the Panthers just their 6th in the last 23 games while ending a 6-game losing streak.
Michael Sgarbossa left the game early in the 2nd period with a lower-body injury and did not return. Rookie defensemen Mackenzie Weegar and Ian McCoshen both played their second career games in the NHL while Jason Demers sat out.
Entering the night, Demers was one of just 6 players on the Panthers to play in all 80 games.
The Panthers will close out the 2016-17 season Sunday against the Washington Capitals at 7:00 PM.