Five takeaways from the Florida Panthers’ 5-0 win over the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday night at the BB&T Center.
1: The Panthers are moving on up. They picked up two points on the New Jersey Devils, who lost on Thursday. The Panthers also stayed status quo with the victorious Columbus Blue Jackets. Florida trails the Devils by three points for the first Eastern Conference wild-card playoff berth and Columbus by two points for the second and final wild-card berth. But the Panthers have three games in hand when compared to both.
Were the Panthers to pass both of those teams, they would avoid a first-round matchup with the Tampa Bay Lightning, who are, by far, the best team in the conference.
In that scenario, the Panthers would still likely draw a monster such as the Pittsburgh Penguins or the Washington Capitals. But it’s worth avoiding the high-flying Lightning if possible.
2: The BB&T Center is a House of Horrors for opponents. The Panthers were just 19-19-3 at home last season. On Thursday, they tied a franchise record with their seventh straight home win. They have already won more home games this season than last.
So far, the Panthers are 20-9-3 at home, with the folding New York Rangers coming to the BB&T on Saturday.
3: Roberto Luongo was really good and also a bit lucky on Thursday. The Panthers Hall of Fame goalie made 40 saves to shut down a struggling Montreal team, but he and the Panthers also got a couple of breaks when video reviews went their way.
On the first one, Luongo stopped the puck, apparently just a couple of inches from going over line. Luongo was on top of the puck, literally, which meant that video review was inconclusive as to whether the puck went in or not. At that point, the game was scoreless, making it a big play in terms of momentum.
On the second review, Montreal’s Paul Byron appeared to spoil Luongo’s shutout, reaching out and whacking in a rebound. But the Panthers challenged, looking for goalie interference … and getting the call. As it turned out, Montreal’s Jacob de la Rose hit Luongo in the head just as the puck flew by the goalie.
4: Special teams have been special. The Panthers have been dominant for well over a month, going 14-3-1 since Jan. 30.
Time will tell if this is sustainable, but we know what has happened so far, and that is this: A season that was saved by third-string goalie Harri Sateri has turned into one of the biggest stories in the NHL.
Sateri won four straight games when Luongo and backup goalie James Reimer went down with injuries.
Even when the top two goalies got healthy and Sateri was returned to the minors, something else happened right around that time: Florida’s power-play unit started clicking with 17 goals in the past 17 games. The penalty kill has been strong, too, getting a shorthanded goal by Vincent Trocheck on Thursday.
5: Speed kills, and the Panthers are fast. The Panthers have some high-end talent, including Trocheck, who leads the team with 26 goals; and Aleksander Barkov, who has 25 goals and a team-high 43 assists. Trocheck was an All-Star last year, and Barkov made it this year.
Jonathan Huberdeau and Evgenii Dadonov, each of whom tallied their 21st goal of the season on Thursday, are also on the skill list along with Nick Bjugstad, who has 15 goals on the season and four in the past two games. (Bjugstad was absolutely robbed of another would-be goal on a wrap-around try Thursday.)
In addition, the Panthers have defensemen who contribute mightily to the attack, most notably Keith Yandle, who had three assists on Thursday and has 39 on the season; Aaron Ekblad, who has 13 goals; and Mike Matheson, who has nine.
And the Panthers should be getting more help in the coming days as forwards Frank Vatrano, a recent trade acquisition from the Boston Bruins; and Denis Malgin are due back shortly from injuries.
Malgin, 21, impressed the Panthers with 10 goals in 39 games before getting hurt. Vatrano put up big scoring numbers in the AHL, and the Panthers traded for him for a reason. They think he can help with what has already been a deadly attack the past 17 games.