Locked out of a Chicago lineup littered with offensive talent, Brandon Pirri joined the Panthers last March hoping for an opportunity to show he could play.
The Panthers were struggling, finishing out a season in which they fired their head coach in November and would finish next to last in the entire league.
Things are different this March as the Panthers battle for a playoff berth — and Pirri has been a huge reason they have stayed in the postseason hunt.
On Saturday, Pirri was the only scorer to lift Florida to a 2-1 shootout win.
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Although the shootout goal doesn’t count as an actual goal, lately Pirri has been racking the real ones up as well.
Pirri’s goal Thursday against the Red Wings was his 17th of the season and 14th in a run of 19 games.
Not only has Pirri been given the opportunity to play in Florida, he has been able to thrive.
General manager Dale Tallon drafted Pirri in the second round of the 2009 draft while he was running the Blackhawks and kept an eye on him over the years.
“This is awesome. I’m so thankful Dale believed in me and brought me here,’’ Pirri said Saturday night. “I’m just happy to be a part of this and have a role here. I’m building up trust with [coach Gerard Gallant] every game, and he’s giving me an opportunity. I believe in myself and I think the coaches and organization believe in me as well.’’
In parts of four seasons with Chicago, Pirri appeared in only 35 games with the Blackhawks all while showing off his scoring prowess at the AHL level.
In 2012-13, Pirri’s 75 points in 76 games led the league.
“I didn’t know much about him, but I know he’s always been a scorer,’’ Gallant said.
On March 2, 2014 — two days before Tallon would swing a blockbuster deal and reacquire goalie Roberto Luongo — Tallon sent a third- and a fifth-round draft pick to Chicago for Pirri.
“That was genius,’’ Shawn Thornton said when told the price it took to get Pirri.
In 60 games with the Panthers since making his debut in Boston on the day of the Luongo deal, Pirri has 24 goals.
“It’s hard to find scorers, but we drafted him and knew his background, knew he was blocked in Chicago,’’ Tallon said.
“It was a good deal for both teams. But we knew he could score, and that’s not easy to find. He’s been terrific.’’
Pirri is signed through next season and will remain a restricted free agent when his contract expires in 2016, so there’s no rush to get another deal done although that is coming.
There’s little doubt Pirri has become a core player the Panthers are building around.
“We have a deep team here and playing time isn’t a given,’’ Pirri said. “We have guys who have won Stanley Cups who are sitting out. But we’re all working together. I was just looking for an opportunity here and it has turned out great. I can’t say how thankful I am enough.’’
The Panthers signed collegiate free agent goalie Colin Stevens on Friday and assigned him to their AHL team in San Antonio.
Stevens, 21, participated in Florida’s development camp last summer after helping Union College to the national title. Stevens was a second-team All-American in 2014 after he tied for the NCAA lead with 28 wins and was second with six shutouts.
“The kid won a championship and has played well,’’ Tallon said. “We need depth in goal, and we think he’s going to be good for us.’’
The Rampage currently have three goalies with Sam Brittain likely to return to his starting post at ECHL Cincinnati.
Stevens signed a three-year, entry-level deal with the Panthers that kicks in next season.
▪ The Panthers will hold an open practice at the Coral Springs IcePlex on Monday at 11 a.m. before flying to Tampa for their game Tuesday night.