If the Panthers had any thoughts of getting back into the playoff hunt, a regulation win over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday night had to happen.
So, you’re saying there’s a chance?
The Panthers got two goals from Jonathan Marchessault, a career-high four assists from Thomas Vanek and James Reimer made 28 saves against his old crew as Florida rolled to a 7-2 win at BB&T Center.
Not only did the Panthers snap a five-game winless streak but picked up two points on at least one of the teams in their way for the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference.
Florida came into the night with losses in eight of nine.
While the Panthers are still deep in the weeds, Tuesday’s win at least meant they didn’t lose any more ground as has been the case the past few weeks. And, with 14 games left, Florida still has the opportunity to make this thing interesting as the suddenly hot Lightning has.
So, with the win, the loud music was back on in the postgame locker room and the barber shop cape was back out in the open.
The Panthers were feeling good for the first time in a while.
“In the short time I have been here, the wins haven’t been here, but for the most part ... we probably deserved more,” said Vanek, who got the cape for the first time as Tuesday marked Florida’s first victory since trading for Vanek on March 1.
“We came out hard [Tuesday] and I thought it was a great game. It didn’t feel like we were playing that bad but sometimes, when good teams struggle, they try too hard and go backward.”
Said Reimer: “We have been working hard, doing the right things and the puck wasn’t going in for us. We knew if we stuck with it, we could do this.”
Tuesday, the Panthers took the lead for good a mere 18 seconds in when Sasha Barkov crashed the net – coach Tom Rowe had been working his team hard on this deficiency of late – and knocked a shot from Jonathan Huberdeau past Frederik Andersen.
Midway through the period, Toronto turned over the puck deep in the Florida zone on a power play and Mike Matheson found Colton Sceviour racing up the ice.
Sceviour had a step on two Toronto defenders and when Nikita Zaitsev broke down and fell, Sceviour walked in on Andersen and went top shelf to make it 2-0.
“That was unbelievable; that’s a lethal power play,” Rowe said. “They pressured the puck like we talked about and got a lucky bounce. Sceviour finished it.”
Marchessault got the first of his two goals to make it 3-1 with 5:39 left in the first before making it 4-1 at the 4:38 mark of the second off Curtis McElhinney who replaced Andersen to start the period.
Reilly Smith, in Rowe’s doghouse not long ago, made it 5-1 by sticking with the attack and pouncing on his own rebound with 3:38 left in the second.
After Toronto got its second goal of the night, Jussi Jokinen got a power play marker with 26.2 seconds left in the period off a pretty pass from Vanek — who got his fourth assist of the night when Keith Yandle made it 7-2 early in the third.
The four assists in a single game are a career high for Vanek as it has been done eight times in franchise history. Brian Campbell had Florida’s previous four-assist game in 2011.
“He’s a great player and [Tuesday] showed how good he is, he is an amazing guy,” Marchessault said of Vanek.
“We have the team, should be a playoff team. It’s time we show it. We know it’s getting late, but we needed that one win.”