The Panthers bandwagon was filling up quite nicely earlier this month as they set a franchise record with 12 consecutive wins.
Some fell off during the four-game losing streak that followed, of course, but after this weekend, the Panthers may have picked up a few more believers.
That will happen when you become the first team in over 25 years to beat the Stanley Cup finalists on consecutive nights.
The Panthers did so in impressive fashion, too, beating Chicago and Tampa Bay by a combined 9-2 score.
“We know we can beat any team in the league,” said Jonathan Huberdeau, who opened the scoring and assisted on Florida’s second goal in Saturday’s 5-2 thrashing of visiting Tampa Bay.
“We’re a really good team, and we can show we’ve had a struggle lately and we came out this weekend and showed the league that we’re a good team against a really good team, too.”
Said Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos: “I don’t know how they can be underrated; they’re leading the division. They had a 12 game winning streak so whoever is underrating them hasn’t been watching them play. They’re in first place for a reason.”
The Panthers are not only the first team to beat the previous year’s finalists in consecutive games since the 2013 Islanders, but are the first to win such a matchup on back-to-back nights since Calgary dropped Boston and Edmonton during a two-day span in 1990.
“We had to play great hockey to beat those two teams,’’ coach Gerard Gallant said. “It was a good challenge because we hadn’t played very good in the games prior even though we won a few of them. ... They played their tails off.”
Regardless of what happens Tuesday night against visiting Toronto, the Panthers will head into the All-Star break atop the Atlantic Division.
On Sunday, Florida held a five-point lead on both Tampa Bay and Detroit, but things are tightening up as New Jersey — which holds the final playoff spot — is just six points back.
According to sportsclubstats.com, the Panthers have a 97.8 percent chance of making the playoffs, which is fifth best probability in the league.
This season, the Panthers have backed up Huberdeau’s words by beating just about every top team in the league.
The Panthers have won three of four against Tampa Bay, beat the defending Cup champion Blackhawks 4-0, and also have wins against every team holding a playoff spot in the East save for nemesis Boston.
“I like their team,” Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said Saturday night.
“They’ve got a mix of veterans and young guys. Their young guys have come into their own ... They have a big strong defense, and they have a goaltender back there that can keep them in every single game. They’re big, strong they can skate, and [Gallant] did a hell of a job coaching those guys. They play hard and they’re a good team.”
The Panthers will get some time off this week as they take off for the All-Star break following Tuesday’s game against the Maple Leafs.
Because of their success, some won’t be getting a beachside vacation. Three Panthers (Jaromir Jagr, Roberto Luongo and Aaron Ekblad), as well as Gallant, are headed to Nashville for the All-Star Game.
This season, the Panthers are sending their most representatives ever to an All-Star Game. And Gallant becomes Florida’s first All-Star coach since Doug MacLean — Gallant’s old high school teacher and coach in Canada — who did it twice in 1996-97.
Florida’s three players are tied for the most going to the game, matching the host Predators and conference-leading Washington.
Since Thanksgiving, when the Panthers finished a stretch of losing 9 of 12, Florida has gone 20-6-1.
“I don’t know if we are still the making statements-type team,” Luongo said after winning his franchise-record seventh consecutive home start Saturday.
“People are aware we’re a pretty good club. More than anything, we had lost four in a row before that, so we wanted to get back on the right track, get back in the winning column, get some points and keep climbing.”
▪ Brandon Pirri sat out his second consecutive game Saturday. Pirri said he heard from friends about various trade rumors floating around on Friday, but said he wants to remain with the Panthers.
“The team played great so there’s a silver lining in that,” Pirri said. “We’re trying to put wins together and we needed a change. My number got called.”
▪ The Panthers will hold an open practice Monday at the IceDen in Coral Springs at 11 a.m.