The Florida Panthers haven’t felt too good about things much lately but they sure enjoyed themselves Saturday night.
Playing in front of a large crowd cheering them on, the Panthers turned the home finale of a disappointing 2016-17 season into an Irish wake of sorts as Jonathan Huberdeau scored twice in a 3-0 rout of the Buffalo Sabres at BB&T Center.
The win snapped a six-game slide and kept Florida out of the Atlantic Division cellar with a game remaining Sunday night in Washington against the NHL’s top team.
“We’d lost something like six in a row,” Huberdeau said. “It was nice to give something to our fans. It was nice to see a lot of people in the stands tonight for our last game. We wanted to show them that we’re going to have a good summer and be ready to go next year.”
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Huberdeau played perhaps his best game of the season in scoring twice with changes for as many as four goals more.
One shot Huberdeau made on goalie Rob Lehner in the first froze inches from the goal line.
Yet Huberdeau wasn’t awarded the top star of the night.
No, that honor went to Shawn Thornton who played his final NHL game Saturday.
Honored by the team moments after Huberdeau made it 3-0 in the third period, Thornton went out on a high note.
Thornton’s teammates waited for him at the mouth of their tunnel, their sticks held high as he skated onto the ice one last time — this time as the first star honoree.
“I wasn’t sure if they were making fun of me or being sincere,” Thornton joked afterward.
“The way these guys have treated me the last couple days, I can’t say enough, can’t thank them enough. You try and be a good teammate; you try and, you know, do what you can. Obviously they definitely appreciated it, so thank you to them.”
With his uniform still on as his teammates scurried to make their flight to Washington, Thornton took off a jersey he will keep and then tossed his skates into a plastic garbage can.
Thornton had no plans to travel with the team to Washington after playing in his 705th NHL game on Saturday with family and friends in the building.
“It’s a little weird,” he said. “It’s starting to sink in a little bit. I tried to block it out all day. Obviously you’ve got a job to do. It’s starting to sink in a little bit right now. It’s weird.
“You feel like you’re still probably capable of playing and healthy, but I’m very aware of the situation and very excited for the next chapter. It’s a mixed bag of emotions, for sure.”
On the ice, Florida took aim at Lehner and the Sabres throughout the first yet came up empty. Huberdeau alone should have had two goals in the opening period only it was scoreless at the break.
In the second, the Panthers finally broke through as Nick Bjugstad knocked in a pass from Thomas Vanek at the 7:45 mark.
With 2:57 left in the second, Huberdeau got tangled up with Lehner out of the net and fell into the goal cage as if he was Pittsburgh goalie Tom Barrasso hiding from a barrage of rubber rats hitting the ice in the 1996 playoffs.
Yet before curling into the netting, Huberdeau pulled the puck in with him for Florida’s second goal of the night.
Huberdeau later picked up his second goal of the game early in the third by bouncing it off Buffalo defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen.
Although Huberdeau joked about being robbed of top star status, he knew the night belonged to his elder statesman of a teammate.
The Panthers, who won the Atlantic Division last season, now have 79 points with one game left.
Florida had lost six consecutive games and 16 of its past 21 heading into Saturday’s contest.
For interim head coach Tom Rowe, Saturday’s win was likely his last one behind the Florida bench save for an unexpected win against the Capitals on Sunday night.
Florida may dress eight defenseman what with Thornton staying behind and Michael Sgarbossa leaving Saturday’s game early. James Reimer, who made 30 saves, will be back in net against the Capitals as Rowe coaches his last game with the Panthers.
Rowe will not be retained as coach following Sunday’s game.
“It was important to get the two points, to leave on a good note, you know, the last home game,” Rowe said. “Obviously, with [Thornton] retiring after the game, it was great how the guys played for him.
“He got some power play time, which was nice. I thought he played a really good game."
Sunday: Panthers at Capitals
When/where: 7 p.m.; Verizon Center, Washington.
TV/radio: FSFL; WQAM 560, WMEN 640.
Series: Washington leads 63-47-9.
Scouting report: The Capitals, who are 2-0 against Florida so far, already clinched the President’s Trophy for most point in the NHL this season and will have home ice throughout the postseason. The Panthers will end their disappointing season outside of the playoffs.