Holding a playoff spot in December might not mean much to most NHL teams but it’s kind of a big deal when you’re the Panthers.
Friday’s 3-2 victory over the Red Wings on the 35th birthday of Joe Louis Arena was significant in a number of ways.
First, Florida won in Detroit for the second time in just over a week.
Second, by virtue of playing two fewer games, the Panthers jumped Boston and took the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference standings with their 31st point of the season.
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“It means we’re relevant as a hockey club, and that’s what we’re trying to be,’’ captain Willie Mitchell said. “We’re trying and we have a lot of room to grow, that’s for sure. But we’re confident in games against good teams and we’re doing it in their building. The needle is pointing in the right direction.’’
Said goalie Roberto Luongo: “The goal isn’t to be in the playoffs right now but at the end of the season. But we’ve been battling, working hard. It’s nice to see us in that spot.’’
Detroit, which lost to the Panthers here 4-3 on Dec.2, came out flying and took a 1-0 lead just five minutes in.
The Panthers didn’t sit back, however, and scored twice within a span of seven minutes as Tomas Fleischmann and Jonathan Huberdeau continued their strong play of late with goals.
“We’re playing well and we need these points because they’re important,’’ Huberdeau said. “Getting out of here with two points allows us to focus on Buffalo. We’re a good team and when we want to play, we can be great. We want to play hard and never quit.’’
Detroit tied the score in the closing seconds of the first as both Red Wings goals came on the power play. The two teams played scoreless hockey the rest of the way before going into a shootout.
Coach Gerard Gallant changed up his shootout rotation after Florida won just one of five shootouts coming in.
Vincent Trocheck and Brandon Pirri cashed in on their chances and Luongo stopped both shots he faced to give Florida that all-important extra point.
“We wanted to change things up because we haven’t had much success,’’ said Gallant, whose team is 3-7 in overtime games this season.
“It was good to see things changed up and us getting the win. It’s tough to win in this building.’’
ALL IS WELL
Stephen Weiss played his old team for the fourth time Friday and has noticed how much the lineup has changed since he was last with the Panthers in 2013.
Weiss, Florida’s all-time leader in games played and assists, said he had no ill will toward the Panthers or general manager Dale Tallon for how his free agency was handled that summer.
The Panthers, who were quietly for sale that summer, didn’t offer Weiss a contract and let him walk away to the highest bidder.
Tallon wasn’t able to match Detroit’s offer of five years and $24.5 million even if he wanted to as the team wasn’t about to spend any money.
The team was sold to Vinny Viola in September, months after Weiss left for Detroit.
“Dale Tallon is one of my favorite guys in hockey but his hands were tied,’’ Weiss said. “It would’ve been nice to get a call from ownership to talk about things, but I understand the business side of it. I have no hard feelings whatever.’’
▪ Stephen Weiss left Friday’s game with an undisclosed upper-body injury after being run into the boards by former teammate Sean Bergenheim in the second period.
▪ Defenseman Shane O’Brien was brought up from AHL San Antonio on Thursday night as an extra defenseman with the Panthers playing on back-to-back nights.
O’Brien, who didn’t play Friday, was suspended two games by the AHL. O’Brien’s suspension doesn’t affect his NHL eligibility and will go into effect when he returns to San Antonio.
▪ Radio voice Randy Moller called Friday’s game after missing the past three due to illness.
Saturday: Panthers at Sabres
When/where: 7 p.m.; First Niagara Center, Buffalo, New York.
TV/radio: FSFL; WQAM 560.
Series: Buffalo leads 44-33-4.
Noteworthy: Roberto Luongo's shutout streak against the Sabres ended last Saturday although the Panthers pulled out a 3-2 win for their fifth straight win against the Sabres. Florida is 2-0 against Buffalo this year with both games being decided by one goal.