As the puck dropped to begin Friday’s tilt with the Buffalo Sabres, it was clear the Panthers had one thing on their mind.
And that was winning.
It was something they hadn’t done since blowing out the Anaheim Ducks 8-3 to kick off a season-high five-game homestand over two weeks ago on October 26th.
Injuries and defensive struggles seemed to pile up with each passing game until the Panthers found themselves in second-to-last place in the league standings with five straight losses in their rear view mirror.
It seemed like a different team hit the ice to face the Sabres, or maybe it was the one that we saw glimpses of to start the season.
“Overall, it was just a complete team effort,” said Bob Boughner, who earned just his fifth win as an NHL head coach. “It’s nice to win a tight game. I think that’ll help us mentally moving forward.
The Panthers dominated the game in just about every category. They allowed just three high-danger shot attempts while generating 10 of their own at 5v5 while controlling scoring chances and the pace of play.
Most of the Sabres’ shot attempts came from the perimeter – their lone goal was a point shot tipped redirected by Kyle Okposo on the power play in the first period – while the Panthers continued to get chances from high-percentage areas.
Evgenii Dadonov finally broke through for the Panthers in the second period as he put home a loose puck at the side of the net for his seventh goal of the season.
On the goal, Jonathan Huberdeau would earn his first of three assists in the game en route to the fifth such outing of his career.
Huberdeau’s 19 points are the most by a player in franchise history through the first 15 games of the season, as are his 14 assists.
The Panthers’ top line played probably one of its best games of the season, hemming the Sabres in their own zone every chance they could get. They combined for seven points and produced two of the Panthers’ four goals.
Ian McCoshen scored the eventual game-winning goal, the first of his career and third marker of the season, less than four minutes into the third period before Aleksander Barkov and Vincent Trocheck notched empty-net goals within 17 seconds of each other before the clock hit zero.
Trocheck now has goals in four straight games while leading the team with eight total on the season.
“We played a smart game,” said Barkov, who recorded a goal, an assist, and a +4-rating.
Forward Dryden Hunt skated 10:03 in his NHL debut after being called up by the Panthers from their AHL affiliate, the Springfield Thunderbirds, on Thursday.
The 21-year old started the night on the fourth line with Micheal Haley and Derek Mackenzie, but was bumped up to the second line with Trocheck and Radim Vrbata by the second period.
“First game, I thought he played a heck of a hockey game,” said Boughner. “He did a lot of little things right. I like what I’ve seen tonight.”
He finished with three hits, one blocked shot, and one attempted shot at 5v5 while doing a good job on the forecheck and setting up plays in the offensive zone.
Jared McCann missed his second straight game with an injury, which opened a spot up front for Hunt. Mike Matheson (illness) returned to the lineup, forcing Alex Petrovic to sit out for the fifth time this season.
Another big story was Roberto Luongo, who, after many attempts, finally earned his 455th career victory, giving him sole possession of fourth place on the all-time wins list.
He didn’t seem too phased by the milestone, however.
“Not much right now,” said Luongo when asked what it means to him. “It’s nice, but for me it’s about getting wins and getting into the playoffs. These accomplishments are for a rainy day when you’re sitting at home and not doing much.”
The 37-year old, who played in his 500th game as a Panther on Tuesday against the Carolina Hurricanes, didn’t have to face many shots but stood tall nonetheless, recording 24 saves.
“I think it was probably our best defensive game of the year,” said Luongo. “We kept them really quiet for about 50 minutes, obviously they had a little flurry there which was expected, they were gonna have a push to try to tie the game up but we were able to weather that.”
His biggest stop came as he robbed Sam Reinhart of what looked like a yawning cage late in the third period with the Panthers up 2-1.
Down on the ice just above the blue paint, he stuck his glove and stick into the air to deny a high wrist shot from the second-overall pick of the 2014 Draft and preserve the Panthers’ lead.
It was just the third time this season that the Panthers allowed fewer than three goals, with the last such game being a 4-1 win over the Capitals nearly three weeks ago.
Unfortunately, there won’t be much time to celebrate the win as the Panthers will head to New Jersey face the Devils on Saturday night.
Despite losing their last four games, the Devils sit atop the Metropolitan Division with nine wins and 20 points.
It won’t be an easy matchup, but it will be a test to see if the Panthers can carry over their solid play and begin to string some wins together.
“We don’t have much time to enjoy it,” said Boughner of the win. We gotta get back and get back to work tomorrow but it was nice for the guys. I know they’ve been working hard, it hasn’t been for a lack of effort, there’s been some execution issues, but tonight it all came together, and hopefully we can draw off that tomorrow.”
- The Panthers completed an AHL trade on Friday afternoon, sending defenseman Reece Scarlett to the Dallas Stars in exchange for defenseman Ludwig Bystrom.
- The 23-year old Bystrom isn’t known for his offensive abilities, but possesses good puck skills and doesn’t shy away from physical play. Scarlett was originally acquired by the Panthers from New Jersey at the 2017 trade deadline in exchange for forward Shane Harper.
- Bystrom will report directly to the Panthers’ AHL affiliate.