The Panthers have an extremely bright future ahead with the likes of Sasha Barkov, Aaron Ekblad, Brandon Pirri, Nick Bjugstad and Jonathan Huberdeau creating a solid core.
On Thursday night, it was Florida’s elder statesmen who fueled a 3-1 victory over the Detroit Red Wings at BB&T Center.
Jaromir Jagr, 43, got the Panthers going with their first goal of the night midway through the second period and nearly had another minutes later, but Pirri swept in at the last second and knocked Jagr’s shot into the net to make it 2-0.
“I would say we were luckier,” Jagr said. “They hit some posts. [Roberto] Luongo was playing fantastic, but we have to learn to win those games when we have a lead. …
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“But it was playoff hockey. We know we have to play playoff hockey the last 11 games. It’s the only we can try to make the playoffs.”
Florida led the Red Wings 3-0 by the third, more than enough offensive support for Luongo in his return in goal from a shoulder injury that cost him two weeks.
“It’s frustrating to be sitting out at this time of the year when games are so important,” Luongo, 35, said after making 25 saves.
“You don’t want to be watching on TV, you want to be helping the boys out.”
With Ottawa beating the visiting Bruins on Thursday, the Panthers’ made some ground in the playoff race.
Florida, which plays host to the Bruins on Saturday, trails Boston by five points for the final playoff spot but remains three back of ninth-place Ottawa.
The Panthers have 11 games left with three coming against the Bruins and one left against the Senators.
“We know our season is on the line,” Luongo said.
As was the case in Florida’s previous two losses to the Rangers and Canadiens, the Panthers kept the offensive pressure on — only this time it paid off.
Jagr’s goal came on a snapshot from the left circle 10:55 into the second. Minutes later, an Aaron Ekblad shot bounced off goalie Petr Mrazek, with Jagr putting a stick on the puck and nudging it toward the cage.
Pirri flew in, however, and gave it the final touch just before the puck went through giving him his 17th goal of the season.
“When you keep working hard, the breaks will come your way,” coach Gerard Gallant said. “We got more breaks than they did, and Luongo had a great game for us.’’
In the third, Scottie Upshall picked off a puck in the Florida zone and drove in on Mrazek and went top shelf to make it 3-0. The Red Wings scored on an Erik Cole goal midway through the third, but Luongo didn’t let anything else come through.
Jagr’s goal was his 718th, giving him sole possession of fifth place on the NHL’s all-time list.
Jagr had been tied with Hall of Famer Phil Esposito since scoring his first goal with the Panthers — in his second game in Florida — on March 1.
“He’s been great since he’s been here, brings a different dynamic to our group of forwards,” Luongo said. “Their line creates a ton of chances and that makes them hard to defend.”
▪ Luongo returned to action after missing the past two-plus weeks after getting injured in that crazy game against the Maple Leafs on March 3.
“I wasn’t sure what to expect since I only really had one practice,” Luongo said. “We had a three-goal lead; it was nice.”
▪ Gallant said he doesn’t watch very much college basketball — he could only recall seeing one game this season — but he knows who the favorite is to win it all.
“I don’t even know who is in it,” Gallant said when asked his selection to win the NCAA Tournament, “but I would pick Kentucky.”
▪ Three players with Boston ties were scratched Thursday as former Bruins Shawn Thornton and Steven Kampfer sat, as did Boston native Jimmy Hayes.
All three are expected to be in the lineup Saturday when Florida plays host to the Bruins.