Finally, the Panthers’ torrid power play paid dividends.
The Panthers entered their 24th game of the season with at least one power-play goal in 13 of their previous 14 games, but only went 7-6-1 during that stretch.
On a chilly Friday night in the BB&T Center, they notched two more power-play goals, including the tying tally by Evgenii Dadonov in the third period before Aleksander Barkov closed the deal with a goal in overtime for a come-from-behind 3-2 victory against the upstart Buffalo Sabres.
The Panthers, now 10-10-4, improved to 2-1-1 in this season-long eight-game homestand which has seen three of the four games go into overtime.
Goalie James Reimer, making his fourth consecutive start while Roberto Luongo (knee) remains sidelined until next week, notched 22 saves.
There was a large contingent of Sabres fans in the arena drowning out Panthers fans with their ‘Let’s Go Buffalo’ chants. Most of those fans attended Buffalo’s 5-4 loss to the Lightning in Tampa Thursday night that snapped a 10-game winning streak and will hang around in the sunshine for the Dolphins-Bills’ tilt on Sunday.
The Sabres (17-7-3), ranked 31st or dead last in the NHL last season, are tied with the Lightning for the top spot in the league. These certainly aren’t the soft Sabres of the past, but Florida has defeated them for the sixth consecutive time.
The Panthers dominated the first and third periods while stalling in the second, as they outshot Buffalo 42-22 in regulation.
The Sabres took a 2-1 lead into the third period, but the Panthers’ torrid power play hadn’t finished flexing its collective muscles. Panthers defenseman Keith Yandle, the anchor of the league’s seventh-ranked unit, skimmed a shot toward the net where Jonathan Huberdeau’s shot was kicked out by Sabres’ backup goalie Linus Ullmark.
However, Dadonov flicked the rebound in for his 11th goal to forge a 2-2 tie at 11:56.
It was Yandle’s league-leading 15th power-play point and 22nd point in 24 games for the best start in his 14th season.
“At this point I don’t want to say anything good about the power play, just keep going and do those things we’ve been taught to, just keep working on it,’’ Barkov said. “It’s going to win us a lot of games if we play the same way.’’
In overtime, Huberdeau danced around the circle before feeding Barkov to the left of Ullmark where he lifted it over his head for the game-winning goal, his ninth, with 2:34 left.
“We’re just trying to move guys around trying to find offense with our 5-on-5,’’ Bob Boughner explained. “Huby has that past connection with Barky and that chemistry. It was something we talked about the last couple of days. I liked the way Dadonov played when he went down on that line. You’re not going to replace [Vincent] Trocheck but you have to find ways to sort of fill the void until he gets back.’’
Huberdeau has notched three consecutive multiple-point games. He has nine points (8 assists) in his last six games for 26 points in 24 games. Huberdeau threw his post-game hero rugby ball to Boughner.
“I haven’t played with Barky for awhile and it was just fun to be back with him,’’ Huberdeau said. “We’ll see what’s going to happen next game. He’s one of the best in the league. … We talked on the bench. We’re a little rusty together, but if play again together it’ll be better and better.
“I saw him open … and I passed it to him. He just waited and waited and put it in.’’
Barkov played with Huberdeau and Jaromir Jagr on the top for a few seasons before being shifted to the second line last year.
“It was so fun. We didn’t play together for a year, so starting to play together again, of course, maybe we’re not there yet,’’ Barkov said. “For sure we’re going to play together again. It’s fun to play with that type of guy who thinks the game the same way.”
“It feels awesome, especially what we’ve been through in the homestand, losing games in the last minute. This game was huge for us.’’
In a matchup of top lines, the Sabres’ trio gave Buffalo a 1-0 lead at 10:55 of the first period. Jack Eichel ignited a 2-on-1 fast break that resulted in Sam Reinhart’s saucer pass to set up Jeff Skinner with a point-blank, top-shelf riser that Reimer had no chance on.
Skinner, a longtime star for the Carolina Hurricanes, has 19 goals in his last 20 games, and his 20th goal is second most in the NHL.
The Panthers power play remained hot as their second unit clicked when defenseman Mike Matheson crossed a pass to Jared McCann, who one-timed a blast from the top of the circle past the stick of Ullmark at 18:31 for a 1-1 tie after one.
McCann, trying to fill the cavernous void left by Vincent Trocheck’s long-term ankle injury, ripped in his fifth goal and third in his last four games.
“I’m trying to [fill the void],’’ McCann said. “I’m trying to play two types of game this year, be good defensively and try to contribute offensively as well. Tonight I got to play with [Dadonov]. He’s a different type of player. He’s got a lot of speed and skill. I’m just trying to get open for him.’’
The Sabres countered with a power-play tally of their own at 2:41 of the second period when Eichel sent the puck toward the crease where Reinhart’s stick beat Panthers’ Colton Sceviour to the spot, as he chipped it past Reimer.
Reimer kept the deficit at 2-1 after two periods with a sterling glove save on a blazing wrist shot from longtime Panthers’ thorn, Jason Pominville.
Ullmark, playing in just his 34th NHL game, fell to 5-0-2.
Boughner also reunited defensemen Yandle and Aaron Ekblad, who notched the secondary assist on Barkov’s game-winning goal.
“It was a good win mentally for the guys,’’ Boughner said. “We played well all week but lost some points here, but we feel like we played pretty good hockey.’’
The homestand doesn’t get any easier with the Atlantic Division-leading Lightning on tap Saturday. Next week, the Panther host the injury-ravaged Bruins, who have won three of four, as well as the Avalanche and their six-game winning streak before finishing with the Rangers on Dec. 8.