Just before the horn sounded to announce Roberto Luongo’s final save of the night, a rubber rat came flying out of the stands and bounced on the ice.
In the minutes following, dozens more crashed down to signify one of the biggest wins by the Panthers in the past few years.
Florida finally beat Boston 2-1 in a shootout on Saturday to snap a nine-game losing streak against the Bruins and keep its playoff hopes going.
“It’s a good feeling in here, the guys had a sense of urgency from the start,’’ said Shawn Thornton, the former Bruins’ tough guy who was draped in the Panthers’ West Point hero jacket.
“There were no passengers, everyone played their hardest. We’ll take the two points. We would rather have taken it in regulation, but we’ll take this.’’
The victory kept the Panthers in the postseason conversation as they trail Boston by four points. Ottawa, which topped Toronto, is a point back of the Bruins.
A loss, especially one in regulation, would have likely been the end of Florida’s playoff hopes. Now with 10 games left — with two remaining against Boston and one in Ottawa — the Panthers feel they can pull this thing off.
As Brian Campbell espoused before the season, “Why not us?”
“These are practically playoff games for us,’’ Luongo said. “We have to dig deep, and we know it’s not going to be easy. We saw it [Saturday]. It’s going to be physical, not a lot of room. One mistake can cost you. This was a good playoff-type game for us. We’ll take the two points and focus on the next one.’’
Said Erik Gudbranson: “You see a lot of desperation coming from us. We believe we can make the playoffs. If we continue to play they way we are, we’re going to be in good shape.’’
Florida drew first blood when Dave Bolland fired a no-look pass from behind the net, finding Jimmy Hayes in front.
Hayes, benched Thursday, bounced back as coach Gerard Gallant hoped and ended up scoring Florida’s only goal of the night.
“Jimmy played hard, went to the net,’’ Gallant said. “No one wants to be a healthy scratch.’’
The Bruins tied the score less than three minutes into the second when Patrice Bergeron got a shot past Luongo.
The two teams played back-and-forth hockey with both having prime scoring chances snuffed out. Boston’s Tuukka Rask made a clutch save on Bolland with 6:55 left in front of the cage; Luongo made a number of key stops as well, ending with 26 saves.
“Lou was great,’’ Gallant said. “He looks rejuvenated like the two weeks off really did him good. He has great jump in his legs.’’
After a frantic overtime — Florida took two shots on Rask in the five-minute period — the game went to a shotoout.
Boston, which hadn’t lost to the Panthers since 2012, hasn’t been very good in shootouts this season — so much so that one of its TV announcers predicted if the game went to a shootout, Florida would win.
Rask stopped the first Florida offering from Jonathan Huberdeau in the shootout but couldn’t stop Brandon Pirri in Round 2.
Luongo stopped all three shots from the Bruins as the Panthers won it with just Pirri’s slick goal.
“I think beating them, right now, instills a lot of confidence in our locker room,’’ Pirri said. “We’re riding pretty high. Lou is playing great and giving us a chance every night. If we get a couple [goals], he’s going to win it for us.’’
With just over 17,000 in the BB&T Center, Saturday’s game definitely had that postseason feel.
Fans, split about down the middle, shouted each other down and cheered loudly throughout.
For the Panthers, it was an atmosphere they had been waiting on.
After making the playoffs in 2012, the Panthers finished either last or 29th in the NHL the following two seasons.
Being in games that matter, now, is welcomed.
“We have 10 games left,’’ Gallant said. “We just have to stay in the race.’’
Thornton returned to the Florida lineup and played in his 600th NHL game.
Thornton, who spent seven seasons with Boston, became the third player to hit the 600-game plateau in both the NHL and AHL.
“Everything was about beating them,’’ Thornton said of the Bruins. “We have to catch them.’’
▪ With Thornton and Hayes back in the lineup, Vincent Trocheck and Tomas Kopecky were Florida’s healthy forward scratches.