The Panthers aren’t going to the playoffs, but their fans have a reason to pay attention.
Tuesday night’s late game — one that ended after 1 a.m. in South Florida — was a prime example.
Not only did goalie Roberto Luongo turn in a classic performance in Florida’s 3-2 upset of the host Sharks. But one of the Panthers’ top-end young players also put on a show during a 17-second span in the second period.
Brandon Pirri, acquired in a trade with Chicago earlier this month, scored a highlight-reel goal on a full-end rush to tie the score at 1. He followed that with a hard shot on the ensuing shift that Quinton Howden swept into an empty net.
Florida has won two of three, picking up five of the available six points. The Panthers’ West Coast swing continues Thursday night in Arizona against the Coyotes.
“There’s obviously not much we can do over the rest of this season, but the future is good here,” said Luongo, who made 28 saves in the third period alone.
“Like I’ve said before, it’s going to be exciting to see what pieces we add to this over the summer, and make a run for it next year. But this team doesn’t quit. We battle no matter what, up or down.”
Tuesday’s game felt like a heavyweight bout in which the Panthers took the brunt of the blows but held on just long enough to pull it out in the end.
Florida scored three goals in the second period to take a 3-1 lead into the third against a San Jose team trying to position itself for the top seed in the Western Conference.
San Jose, which had won six in a row, took 54 shots at Luongo during the game. In the third period, Florida was outshot 29-2, with the Panthers getting both of their forgettable shots at Antti Niemi within the first four minutes.
Niemi didn’t face a shot for the final 16:13 of the game as the Panthers only briefly got the puck into the San Jose zone. When they did, they didn’t do anything with it, content to just change lines.
Florida’s two shots in the period weren’t exactly tough saves. Jimmy Hayes and Dmitry Kulikov’s shots at the net came from 40-plus feet out.
“I wasn’t feeling for him, trust me,” Luongo said of Niemi’s easy period.
The tired Panthers were also forced to kill four penalties in the third — including a 5-on-3 chance for 51 seconds.
“We got into some penalty issues, and they’re such a good, veteran team they’re going to get opportunities,” Panthers captain Ed Jovanovski said. “Hey, we found a way to keep it out of the net. [Luongo] played great. But they were coming in waves.”
San Jose, which seemed to toy with the host Panthers in a 3-0 win last month, took the initial lead.
After a scoreless first in which Luongo kept Florida afloat, the Sharks cashed in on a power play following a questionable boarding call on Hayes.
Marty Havlat gave the Sharks a 1-0 lead when he teed off and fired one past a diving Luongo from 30 feet after a sharp deflection ended up on his tape.
Yet, as was the case in Florida’s previous visit in 2011, three goals in the second period ultimately did in the Sharks.
The Panthers, who scored three goals in the second during their 5-3 win here on Dec. 3, 2011, did it again Tuesday and have now won three in a row in San Jose.
Florida tied it when Pirri took off on a rush, weaved his way through the defense and fired a shot at Niemi. The puck bounced over the goalie’s head and trickled into the net.
Just 17 seconds later, Pirri hammered a shot that Niemi got a piece of. Howden was down low, however, and swept the loose puck into the empty net to give the Panthers their first lead of the night.
“It seemed like pucks were jumping everywhere,” Pirri said. “It’s a good feeling when the team gets a jump like that.”
Scottie Upshall made it 3-1 in the waning seconds of the second when his soft shot from inside the right circle got between Niemi’s skates and nestled into the back of the net.
Then came the third. Florida took the first two shots, but then it was all San Jose. Save for the Florida goalie.
According to STATS, Florida’s win was the second-biggest upset in the league this season, with 39 points separating the teams. Buffalo beat the Sharks earlier this season, and that difference was 40 points.
“[Luongo] played great, obviously, but so many penalties in the third was the crazy part,” Florida coach Peter Horachek said. “They certainly know what they’re doing in those situations and put a lot of pucks at the net. That’s where [Luongo] shines, a big situation with pucks coming at him. We’re fortunate to get out of here with the two points.”