During the second period Saturday night, a rubber rat was flung from the far reaches of a jam-packed arena, bouncing on the ice before being scooped up by an official.
Don’t look now, but the Panthers might just be back.
The Panthers, who captivated South Florida during a rat-tossing run to the Stanley Cup Finals 20 years ago, set a franchise record with their eighth consecutive victory — this one 3-0 over the Rangers in front of their third-biggest home crowd ever.
Florida retook first place in the Atlantic Division with the victory, its 14th in 17 games as it beat the Rangers for the first time in eight tries.
For a franchise that has only been to the playoffs four times in its history and hasn’t won a postsason series since its magical run in 1996, things are very good.
“We’re a long way from that, but it’s a lot of fun,’’ said coach Gerard Gallant, whose team goes for its ninth consecutive win Sunday against visiting Minnesota. “The crowds are into the game, the team is playing very well. ... It’s awesome, couldn’t go any better for us right now.
“We just have to keep playing. We have to do it every night.’’
Florida didn’t play its best game of its current run Saturday but played pretty darn well and was opportunistic against a goalie who has owned them of late.
The Panthers took a 3-0 lead off just 10 shots against Henrik Lundqvist by the midway point of the second period when Brandon Pirri one-timed a Reilly Smith pass from the right circle.
With Roberto Luongo deflecting or catching every puck aimed his way, the Panthers didn’t need to do much more.
“Right now it’s really fun coming to the rink, having 20 guys contributing every night and playing the right way, finding a way to win,’’ said Luongo, who stopped 40 shots for his 71st career shutout and seventh consecutive victory, which is also a franchise record. “The last few games have felt like playoff games, and those are the game you want to play in.’’
Florida broke a scoreless tie with 24.8 seconds left in the first when Logan Shaw slid in front of defender Oscar Lindberg and popped a Corban Knight pass past Lundqvist.
Vincent Trocheck opened the second by deflecting a Alex Petrovic shot through, with one fan bringing back memories of 1996 by tossing a rat onto the ice.
Pirri added the finishing touches on things with 8:42 left in the period.
“It’s pretty simple that we’re a family here, and we’re playing hard for each other,’’ Pirri said. “It’s a fun time right now. Everyone cares for each other.’’
▪ Jaromir Jagr was voted to his 13th All-Star Game on Saturday as he was selected captain of the Atlantic Division team.
Jagr had previous reservations about the new 3-on-3 tournament format, but it sounds like he will be a part of All-Star Weekend in Nashville from Jan. 28-31.
The 43-year-old didn’t speak to reporters following the game. Luongo joked he would go as Jagr’s personal assistant. Sasha Barkov and Aaron Ekblad are also potential All-Star selections.
The complete teams will be announced Wednesday.
“Those are always great honors,’’ Luongo said. “It’s always fun to go to an All-Star Game.”
▪ Gallant officially signed his two-year contract extension Saturday, a day after Florida formally locked up general manager Dale Tallon and associate GM Tom Rowe through 2019 as well.
Like Jagr, Gallant could be headed to Nashville as well if the Panthers continue winning.
Gallant could be only the second Florida coach to work the bench at an All-Star Game. The other is Doug MacLean, Gallant’s former high school teacher and coach from Prince Edward Island, Canada.
“I’d like to be there, because if I’m there that means we’re in first place in our division at that time,’’ Gallant said.
▪ Saturday’s sellout crowd of 20,289 was Florida’s fourth consecutive home game in which it drew more than 16,500 and is the largest home crowd of the season.
The Panthers, who have declared four sellouts this season, are averaging 17,002 in the first five games of their six-game homestand that concludes Sunday against the Wild.
Sunday: Wild at Panthers
When/where: 6 p.m.; BB&T Center.
TV/radio: FSFL; WQAM 560, WMEN 640, WNMA 1210.
Series: Minnesota leads 12-4-1.
Scouting report: Minnesota, which won both games against the Panthers last season, played Saturday night in Tampa. Al Montoya, who has won his past three starts by giving up one goal in each of them, will play against the Wild.