The Panthers said their goodbyes Monday night as the team split up for the Christmas break.
They did so with smiles on their faces and momentum on their side.
With wins in four of their past six and eight in 13, the Panthers are in the thick of the playoff race closing in on the halfway point.
“I like where we’re at,” coach Gerard Gallant said, “but we have to keep going. … We have 50 games left. We have a long way to go.”
Victories haven’t come easily, but they sure have been dramatic.
On Monday, Florida held a 3-1 lead on the battered Penguins yet watched Pittsburgh score two quick goals to force overtime.
In the shootout, Roberto Luongo and Marc-Andre Fleury battled through six scoreless rounds. Luongo made the seventh save, Fluery did not as Aleksander Barkov made a slick move by going forehand-to-backhand to fool Pittsburgh’s all-star goalie.
Barkov’s goal gave Florida its fourth consecutive shootout victory. The Panthers have played in more overtime games (14) and more shootouts (nine) than any team in the league.
“I haven’t seen anything like this. It’s like a little miracle down here,” Scottie Upshall said.
“This is really something to build off of and we’ve got some good vibes going. But it is a little exhausting doing this every night.”
The Panthers hope to enjoy this extended holiday break with Gallant saying it’s a much needed one.
Florida has played three extended shootout games in its past four — including an NHL-record 20-round marathon with Washington last week — and has gone to overtime in five of its past six and six of nine.
“We’ve had a long stretch here,” Gallant said. “To be honest, I’m a little tired myself. I could use the break. The guys are competing and playing hard. I think this is a good time for a break.”
Things probably won’t get any easier.
The Panthers’ next game back in Sunday against the visiting Maple Leafs with three games (Toronto, Montreal and the New York Rangers) coming to town in a four-day span.
All three of those teams currently hold a playoff spot.
“The confidence in the room is growing, we’ve shown we’re a good team,” said Jimmy Hayes, who scored twice Monday. “We’re in the playoff pile and just need to get getting points, keep winning.”
On the mend
Forward Shawn Thornton has missed the past seven games with a troublesome groin injury he said has been affecting him since the start of the season.
“It’s been there basically since the first game of the year and it’s gotten progressively worse,” Thornton said. “I was going to take some time off there but we were short bodies and I played through it. Once guys got healthy, it would have been selfish for me to try and play through it. It’s time to get it healed for the playoff push.”
Thornton didn’t travel with the Panthers on their recent road trip and watched with envy as Saturday’s game in Pittsburgh turned into a slugfest.
“I was on the couch with a beer and was not a happy camper,” Thornton said. “My wife was like ‘are you going to be OK?’ And I wasn’t. I wanted to be out there. But the last seven or so games I was out there, I felt useless.”
Thornton’s foundation will host 18 families whose children are being treated at the Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital to a movie and Christmas party at a Hollywood multiplex on Wednesday morning.
Earlier this season, Thornton said this is an event he often looked forward to in Boston and hoped to bring it to South Florida.
“It was my wife’s idea a few years ago to host kids from local hospitals to a movie on Christmas Eve,” Thornton said last month.
“It'’s pretty cool. We buy presents for the kids and see a show. For the kids who are able to leave the hospital, it’s a real break to their everyday grind. I feel what they’re going through and it’s nice to see them smiling and enjoying themselves.”