For the first time since these two franchises were brought to life in the early 1990s, Saturday’s game between the Panthers and Lightning had real meaning.
Not only are these two on course to make the playoffs together for only the second time ever, but both are fighting each other for the Atlantic Division crown and a top seed in the upcoming postseason.
With seven games left, the advantage now sits with the Panthers after their 5-2 win Saturday night at Amalie Arena. Florida is back atop the Atlantic with a two-point lead on the Lightning.
Florida’s 42 wins are one away from tying the franchise record and it is five points away from tying that record as well. The Panthers have seven games remaining against no team holding a playoff spot — the easiest schedule down the stretch of any Eastern Conference team.
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“Now that we’re in first place, let’s go home and prove we’re a first place team,” said Jaromir Jagr, who made it 2-1 late in the first period.
“It’s up to us. We have a pretty good schedule, but we can’t take anyone lightly.”
Florida has won four of five against the Lightning yet will lose the first tiebreaker if they end the regular season tied because of Tampa Bay’s larger amount of regulation and overtime wins.
The Panthers, however, now close out with seven nonplayoff teams and hold a two-point lead on the Lightning at least until Tampa Bay entertains Toronto on Monday.
With divisional foes Boston and Detroit falling behind, it looks more and more like it will be either Florida or Tampa Bay which wins the Atlantic Division, meaning the two will not square off in the opening round of the playoffs but could in the second round.
“It’s nice to get the win,” said goalie Roberto Luongo, who got the “Spacey In Space” sweatshirt after making 33 saves.
“We’re not worried about the season series but we were looking at the standings. This was a big game for us, a playoff-type match. It was a big win for our club.”
On Saturday, the Lightning — which rolled the Islanders 7-4 the previous night — were the aggressors to start and took a 1-0 lead on Tyler Johnson’s power play goal 5:52 in.
The Panthers, who had not won a game in regulation on Tampa ice since 2013, came right back and took a 2-1 lead into the first intermission.
Vincent Trocheck opened Florida’s scoring with a wicked wrist shot from 30 feet out after it appeared he was going to wait for his teammates to catch up. Trocheck froze goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy and scored his career-high 25th of the year.
Later, Jagr cashed in on the power play getting his 25th as well with a heavy wrist shot in the slot with 1:58 left in the period.
“It was nice to get the lead right there,” Luongo said.
Although Tampa Bay looked sharp in the second, Florida increased its lead courtesy of a Jiri Hudler deflection of a long shot from the boards via Alex Petrovic. The puck appeared to clip Hudler, hit the crossbar and bounce off Vasilevskiy.
The Panthers really opened things up when Jonathan Huberdeau sprung a wrist shot through traffic to make it 4-1 early in the third.
Tampa Bay star Steven Stamkos cut Tampa Bay’s lead in half with a 6-on-4 power play goal with 3:12 left but Jussi Jokinen capped things with a long empty-net goal with 25 seconds left.
“I thought we played a real good team game after the first period,” coach Gerard Gallant said. “We caught them on a back-to-back night and took advantage of that a little but. Luongo was key, the first star in my eyes.
“We played [Tampa Bay] real well all season and we’re a different team than we were two years ago. It’s a lot of fun when you play teams like Tampa Bay, find a win in the challenge.”
▪ Trocheck briefly left the game in the second period when he blocked a hard shot from Nikita Nesterov. Trocheck struggled to get off the ice and into the Florida training room yet returned to the ice minutes later.
▪ Jagr became only the second player to record 25-goal seasons 18 times.
Gordie Howe did it 20 times.
“I have good linemates and good players around me,” Jagr said.
Jagr’s 25 goals are his most in a season since returning from the KHL in 2011.
▪ Defenseman Erik Gudbranson, who sustained a fractured bone in his foot blocking a shot in Brooklyn on March 14, has been skating at the team’s training facility in Coral Springs. Gudbranson could be back Tuesday against visiting Toronto.
Center Derek MacKenzie, who had a similar injury the game prior, is also close to a return.