Florida Panthers

Panthers’ Aaron Ekblad strikes again late in win over Lightning

Panthers winger Reilly Smith attempts to hit the puck past Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy during the second period at BB&T Center. Aaron Ekblad won it for Florida on a goal with 20.2 seconds left.
Panthers winger Reilly Smith attempts to hit the puck past Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy during the second period at BB&T Center. Aaron Ekblad won it for Florida on a goal with 20.2 seconds left. AP

You can’t blame the Tampa Bay Lightning if it’s starting to despise Aaron Ekblad.

For the second game in a row, Ekblad scored a goal off a Tampa Bay player in the final moments — Monday’s goal with 20.2 seconds left the difference in Florida’s 1-0 win at BB&T Center.

“It’s unbelievable. I don’t know how to explain it,’’ Ekblad said. “The hockey gods are on your side sometimes. You just want to keep doing the right things.”

On Saturday, Ekblad fired a shot that hit Tampa Bay’s Erik Condra with 37.9 seconds left to steal victory away from the Lightning and force overtime.

On Monday, Ekblad’s shot clipped Victor Hedman and ricocheted over backup goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy and into the back of the net.

“It sucks,” Vasilevskiy said, “but [things] happen.”

The victory gave the Panthers an important four-point sweep of their rivals; the Lightning took one of four points based on Saturday’s 5-4 shootout loss.

“We’re happy to have those points, happy to move up a bit in the standings,’’ Ekblad said. “We don’t want to get too high. We have to get back after it Thursday.”

Ekblad’s goal was a Florida highlight in a game all but devoid of them.

The Panthers took three shots on goal in the opening two minutes of the game, then stopped shooting the puck and didn’t get credited with another shot on goal until the final two minutes of the period.

Vasilevskiy only faced 13 shots in the opening 40 minutes (four in the first) and ended with 18 saves.

Roberto Luongo, who joked his main rival Saturday was the puck itself, saved the Panthers from ruin time and again Monday.

Luongo, who made 39 saves for his first shutout of the year, was terrific throughout the night as he played arguably his best game of the season.

“I haven’t been too happy with the way I’ve played the past few games, so it’s nice to give the boys a good performance after they bailed me out Saturday,’’ said Luongo, who has 69 career shutouts.

“They got a lot of shots, but the boys did a good job keeping them on the outside. A game like this is good for me.’’

Although Florida played a sluggish game against a struggling Tampa Bay team with four regulars out of its lineup, the Panthers saved their best for late.

After a prime-scoring chance was stopped by Luongo with two minutes left, the Panthers charged into the Tampa zone and had a prime-scoring chance when Jonathan Huberdeau found a wide-open Jaromir Jagr all alone on the right side of the cage.

Jagr doesn’t miss much, but he missed this empty net and the game rolled on. Instead of another overtime affair, however, Ekblad ended it rather quickly.

“It wasn’t pretty, but I’ll feel better [Tuesday] when I see those two points in the standings,’’ said coach Gerard Gallant, a winner in his 100th game with the Panthers.

▪ Dmitry Kulikov had an MRI on his injured knee done Monday with general manager Dale Tallon saying there was no serious damage.

Kulikov was injured during the second period after a pair of collisions with Tampa Bay’s Jonathan Drouin and J.T. Brown.

▪ Sasha Barkov returned to the lineup for the first time in almost a month after breaking a bone in his hand in Chicago on Oct. 22.

With Barkov back, fourth-line center Derek MacKenzie was moved to wing, with Vincent Trocheck becoming the third-line center. Dave Bolland centered Florida’s fourth line.

“It was good to get a few more days to get the hand better and get some more conditioning,’’ Barkov said before the game. “I feel good; the trainers did a very good job. I’m happy to be out there shooting a lot of pucks.’’

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