Florida Panthers

Panthers’ playoff foe remains in doubt after season finale win

Jussi Jokinen after scoring in the Panthers' season finale

Jussi Jokinen talks after scoring a goal in Florida's regular season finale.
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Jussi Jokinen talks after scoring a goal in Florida's regular season finale.

Saturday had no bearing on the Panthers’ season nor their upcoming trip to the playoffs, but it sure was a lot of fun.

On a night in which the Panthers celebrated the most successful regular season in franchise history, Florida raced to a three-goal lead and never looked back in a 5-2 victory over Carolina at BB&T Center.

The Panthers now move on to the postseason and a date with either the New York Rangers or Islanders.

If the Islanders lose in any fashion to Philadelphia on Sunday night, they’ll play Florida. If the Isles beat the Flyers, the Rangers are Florida’s first-round foe.

“This was a game that didn’t mean a whole lot; you’re just trying not to get anyone hurt and get ready for the playoffs,” coach Gerard Gallant said.

“This is going to be fun; it all starts new. We’re looking forward to it. We had a great regular season, but that’s all in the past. We have to get ready for our next opponent, whomever that may be.”

The Panthers had a 3-0 lead on the Hurricanes less than eight minutes into the game and cruised to their 47th win and 103rd point of the 2015-16 campaign — both franchise-bests.

Jussi Jokinen talks after scoring a goal in Florida's regular season finale.

Florida opened its season with a 7-1 win over the Flyers and closed it with an easy win over the Hurricanes. Not bad bookends to what has been, so far, a historic season for the Panthers.

“We’re in a good mood at Game 82,” Gallant said before the game. “That’s a good sign.”

The Panthers, who have won 11 of 16 heading into the playoffs, watched Roberto Luongo make a great glove save on Jordan Staal in the opening moments of the game. After that, it was mostly all Panthers.

Teddy Purcell opened the scoring 1:39 into the game when Rocco Grimaldi picked off a loose puck at center ice and worked it up ice to Jiri Hudler, who found Purcell streaking to the net.

Two minutes later, Nick Bjugstad sprung Jussi Jokinen, and he made it 2-0 on a breakaway against goalie Eddie Lack. At the 7:40 mark of the opening period, Aaron Ekblad hammered a Hudler pass from the right circle to make it 3-0.

The Panthers continued their offensive assault on Lack and the Hurricanes in the second with Jonathan Huberdeau getting his 20th of the season midway through the period to make it 4-1.

Derek MacKenzie appeared to give Florida a 5-1 lead in the third, but Florida was offside, allowing Staal to cut Carolina’s deficit in half midway through the period.

With 5.5 seconds left, Reilly Smith scored into an empty net, giving the Panthers four 25-goal scorers for the first time.

“We gave them too many opportunities; Luongo had to stand on his head a little too much,” Smith said. “At the same time, it’s good to win the last one and give ourselves a positive feeling going into the playoffs.”

▪ The Panthers had a defensive pairing of their future as Ekblad and rookie Mike Matheson were teamed up. Both were first-round picks, and Matheson was considered Florida’s top prospect the past few years while at Boston College. Matheson is up on emergency recall and will likely be sent back to the AHL when Erik Gudbranson returns to the lineup.

Florida's Reilly Smith talks after scoring his 25th goal as the Panthers win their season finale.

▪ Sasha Barkov ends the season on a career-best, nine-game scoring streak. Barkov, who had the secondary assist on Huberdeau’s goal, has five goals and eight assists over that nine-game run and had 17 points in his final 15 games.

▪ Jaromir Jagr had an assist and ends his season with a team-high 27 goals and 66 points.

▪ Matt Caldwell was promoted to CEO of the Panthers and Sunrise Sports & Entertainment.

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