It was almost like last season never ended for Jared McCann.
The 21-year old, acquired in a trade last May from the Vancouver Canucks, recorded a hat-trick in the penultimate game of the 2016-17 season for the Springfield Thunderbirds, the Panthers’ AHL affiliate.
And he did it again – four games later, technically – on Thursday night, supplying most of the offense for the Panthers in a 5-2 win -and third in a row – over the Tampa Lightning.
With one game left in the preseason, odds are McCann, with 4 goals in 3 preseason games, has solidified his chances of snagging one of the open spots on the Panthers’ roster, although he knows nothing is set in stone just yet.
“You can always do more,” said McCann. “I feel like I kind of passed up some opportunities tonight to shoot the puck. It’s something to learn from and I’m going to move forward and learn from it.”
Head coach Bob Boughner seemed to think differently.
“He was physical, he finished hits, he won a lot of battles in the D-zone, he won his fair share of faceoffs,” said Boughner of McCann’s performance. “Then, obviously, the goals. Guys like that, offensive players, need to get on the scoresheet and he did. He took the most of his chances tonight, that’s for sure.”
Just over 6 minutes after Radim Vrbata opened the scoring with a beautiful forehand, backhand moved on a sprawled out Peter Budaj, McCann fired home a rebound off an Alex Petrovic point from the low slot.
The Lightning countered with a goal by Alex Killorn, but McCann stepped up to the plate and delivered two straight goals, the first of which came Florida shifts in the defensive zone.
Jamie McGinn forced the issue behind the Tampa net, and the puck jumped out to the front of the net for McCann to laser short-side on Budaj, giving the Panthers a 3-1 lead in the middle frame.
McGinn took one shift early in the third period but left the game and did not return. Most of the Panthers’ regulars sat out in anticipation of Friday’s preseason finale.
Nine minutes in, Connor Brickley fed a perfect pass to a streaking McCann who skated in and wired a puck through Budaj, making it 4-1 Florida.
The last Panthers player to record a hat-trick during the preseason was Olli Jokinen way back on September 19, 2003 against the Carolina Hurricanes.
Vladislav Namestnikov scores with under two minutes remaining in the game, but the Panthers were awarded an empty net goal after a point shot by the Lightning ricocheted off the end boards and rolled the other way, right into their own net.
James Reimer made 34 saves on 36 shots.
“It’s always fun to win in preseason,” said Reimer, who made his 3rd start of the preseason. “The aim is that you want to show well and you want to get on your A-game from the start of the season. It’s good to battle as a team, good to win.”
The Panthers, who are now 4-0-1, will travel to Montreal to face the Canadiens on Friday. Head coach Bob Boughner expects to roll out “a pretty solid regular lineup,” meaning whoever plays could be on next Friday’s Opening Night roster.