At 5:35 p.m. on Sunday, when the Panthers had taken down yet another top team and finally stood in actual playoff position for the first time all season, it was time to take stock.
There’s more work to do for the Panthers to actually qualify for the postseason, sure, but what has happened so far has been stunning, and even the rookie coach let his guard down for an instant and said the obvious.
“It’s unbelievable,” Bob Boughner said.
And as good as the Panthers no doubt felt after dominating the Philadelphia Flyers 4-1 on Sunday, it is even better than that for Boughner’s crew.
That’s because the Panthers have three games in hand on the main teams that were — as of Sunday afternoon — suddenly looking up at Florida in the standings, the Carolina Hurricanes, Columbus Blue Jackets, New York Islanders and New York Rangers.
With added chances to win games, there’s no telling what the Panthers can do because they have won 13 of 16 since Jan. 30, making them the hottest team in the NHL during that span.
The Panthers also concluded a perfect 6-0-0 homestand. They visit perhaps the most talented team in the league on Tuesday, the Tampa Bay Lightning.
But there is no reason for the Panthers to fear the Lightning. After all, the Panthers — in just 11 days — have knocked off five teams currently in playoff position. That would the Washington Capitals, who have won two consecutive Presidents Trophies as the best team in the regular season; the Pittsburgh Penguins, who have won two Stanley Cup titles in a row; the Toronto Maple Leafs, New Jersey Devils and the Flyers.
“We said before what we needed to do to put together these five- and six-game win streaks,” Boughner said. “And we’ve done it against some pretty good teams. It was no different today.”
Perhaps there was a caveat to Sunday’s win in that the Flyers played Saturday afternoon and had to travel from Tampa after a draining 7-6 shootout loss.
The Panthers, meanwhile, hadn’t played since Friday night and have been at home for nearly two weeks.
But make no mistake: The Panthers dominated the Flyers, scoring all four goals with dynamic bursts of speed, connecting on long stretch passes that led to instant offense.
Evgenii Dadonov, who came to the Panthers in July after playing in Russia, scored twice and has 20 goals this season. He has been scorching hot lately, scoring nine goals and adding five assists in his past 10 games.
“He’s been great,” Panthers defenseman Keith Yandle said. “I looked him up from Europe and saw some of his highlight-reel goals. I knew we were getting someone special. He brings a lot of speed and high-end talent.”
The same can be said of the other two Panthers who scored Sunday, Aleksander Barkov, who also added an assist, and Jonathan Huberdeau.
Barkov, an All-Star for the first time this season, leads the Panthers in goals (25), assists (39) and points (64). Huberdeau has 20 goals and 38 assists.
Each of them anchor Florida’s top two lines, and you can be sure the Flyers were aware of them … yet could not stop them.
“The Panthers played a lot of stretch passes,” Flyers defenseman Radko Gudas said. “They were gone, and we were still in the zone.”
Poof — the Panthers were gone, and that’s how things have been going for this team lately.
Defensively, goalie Roberto Luongo made those goals stand up, stopping 39 shots to earn his 12th win of the season and his fifth in a row.
“We’re playing our best hockey of the year at the right time,” Luongo said. “But we still have a lot of work to do – we can’t take things lightly.”