When the Panthers traded for Reilly Smith in July, general manager Dale Tallon said it was to “address our need for speed” and that Smith was a “player we really like.”
Tallon would probably say “love” these days.
On Friday, Smith scored his third goal of the playoffs and assisted on Florida’s second as the Panthers evened their opening-round playoff series with a 3-1 win over the New York Islanders at BB&T Center on Friday night.
“Hopefully, we have a lot left,” Smith said, “and I think we do with this group.”
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The best-of-7 series is tied at 1 as it heads to Brooklyn for Game 3 on Sunday.
Smith, who scored twice and had an assist in Thursday’s opening0night loss, gave the Panthers a 1-0 lead 4:32 into the game when he pounced on a juicy rebound from a Nick Bjugstad shot and beat goalie Thomas Greiss.
“It seems like the puck is following me around a little bit,’’ said Smith, who has five points in the first two games of this series tying the total in his previous 12 postseason games.
In the second, Smith made it up to Bjugstad as he found him crashing through the slot.
Bjugstad slid into position and fired, making it a 2-0 game — Florida’s biggest single lead in the series after losing three single-goal leads on Thursday — with 13:43 left in the period.
“That’s my first playoff goal, and I definitely had the goose bumps going as I skated through the line,’’ Bjugstad said. “Obviously, we played a pretty good game, and it helps to score, too.’’
And the way Florida’s defense was playing in front of goalie Roberto Luongo — not to mention how good Luongo was — the lead held up.
After being criticized for their uncharacteristically sloppy play in the opener, Florida’s defense tightened up on Friday in a complete reversal from the night before.
Luongo, who snapped his personal seven-game postseason losing streak, was outstanding as he left little doubt he was the right choice to start on consecutive nights.
Coach Gerard Gallant made it clear the plan was always to have Luongo start both games and only injury or extreme fatigue was going to change that.
“It’s 1-1 and it’s important to play as well as you can in every game of the series,’’ said Luongo, who turned away without answering a question whether he wondered if he would get the start. “We’ll enjoy [Friday night] but get back to work [Saturday]. [Wins] all feel good; it’s the playoffs. It’s 1-1 and nothing’s been accomplished here.”
On Friday, Luongo was as solid as he has been all season as the 37-year-old helped keep an Islanders team that was more aggressive in the Florida zone than the previous night off the board.
The Islanders did make it a game with 3:33 remaining when captain John Tavares scored, but when Dmitry Kulikov put a puck into an empty net with 9.3 seconds left, rats rained down onto the ice as the night was done.
Luongo ended with 41 saves in getting his first playoff win since shutting out Boston 1-0 in Game 5 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals. The postseason win was Florida’s first since beating New Jersey in Game 5 of its 2012 opening-round series eventually lost in seven games.
“Luongo played a great game, our defense was tight,” Bjugstad said. “These are the games we have to play. Obviously, they have some skilled guys over there.”
▪ With Luongo’s postseason losing streak over, the Panthers now turn their focus to getting Jaromir Jagr going.
Jagr, Florida’s leading scorer this season, has now gone 33 playoff games without netting a goal.
Jagr’s previous postseason goal came in the opening round of the 2012 playoffs when he scored in Game 2 for Philadelphia against Pittsburgh.
Since then, Jagr went scoreless in 22 games with Boston in 2012 and is now 0 for 2 with the Panthers.
After getting a tooth knocked out in Thursday’s game, Jagr said he hoped it was a good omen.
“Maybe it will bring me luck,” he said with a grin.