The Florida Panthers left their two-game series in Tampa last week feeling as confident as they have all season. They took three points from their archrival on the road and found an added boost in a slew of new additions. They stared down a four-game homestand with a chance to make a push for the top of the Central Division, especially with a pair of games against the Carolina Hurricanes coming later in the week.
Sandwiched between those two showdowns against the Central’s other top contenders, though, was two games against the Columbus Blue Jackets. While the Lightning and Hurricanes battled in Tampa, Florida hosted the lowly Blue Jackets for a pair of games in Sunrise. It was an opportunity to gain ground in the division and the Panthers didn’t waste their first chance, beating Columbus, 4-2, on Monday in South Florida.
“Sometimes it’s not easy to play those games when the opponent has nothing to lose, but I thought the guys were strong,” goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky said. “It was a good game, a good two points and we keep fighting for the first spot in our division.”
The Panthers (29-12-5) jumped out to a two-goal lead in the second period and never trailed to win their second straight game and improve their record to 9-3-1 in their last 13 games. The win vaulted Florida into a tie for first place in the division as Tampa Bay beat Carolina, 3-2, in overtime at Amalie Arena. With the one point for the overtime loss, the Hurricanes are now tied with the Panthers, although they’ve played two fewer games than Florida. The Lightning sits one point back and has played one fewer game than the Panthers.
Florida will close out a back-to-back against the Blue Jackets (15-23-9) on Tuesday at 7 p.m. in Broward County, while Tampa Bay and Carolina finish off their back-to-back at the same time on the other side of the state. It’s another chance for the Panthers to gain ground, as they still trail the Hurricanes and Lightning in points percentage.
“It doesn’t matter who we’re playing. We’ve got to play the right way every night, especially late in the season like this,” winger Anthony Duclair said. “Every point counts and our division’s so tight right now that you can’t let any points slip by.”
Florida, however, will take a risk Tuesday. Goaltender Spencer Knight, the No. 13 overall pick in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, could make his debut and coach Joel Quenneville said there’s “a good chance” the rookie will get the start in net, even with the Panthers in the thick of their tight division race.
If Florida was intent on getting a look at Knight this season, Tuesday is probably the best chance to get him into a game. Columbus is one of the worst teams in the league and then the Panthers finish with nine games against playoff hopefuls.
Even Monday, Florida led by multiple goals for much of the game despite playing far from its best game. The Panthers were already without star forward Carter Verhaeghe, who’s out week-to-week with an upper-body injury, and played without defenseman MacKenzie Weegar for the first time all season, too. Weegar is day-to-day with an upper-body injury, so Florida moved Anton Stralman up to the top pairing to play next to fellow defenseman Gustav Forsling.
The Panthers’ defense struggled at first and gave up 12 shots on goal in the first 10 minutes, but eventually stabilized when winger Frank Vatrano gave Florida a 1-0 cushion on a goal with 8:20 left in the first period.
By the second period, the Panthers were in control, piling up 19 shots in the period and scoring two goals.
Sam Bennett, playing in just his second game for Florida after a trade-deadline deal with the Calgary Flames, ignited his new team once again.
On Saturday, the versatile forward handed out two assists in his first period as a Panther and Florida sprung an upset in Tampa to vault past Tampa Bay in the standings. In his first home game, Bennett scored less than a minute into the second period to give the Panthers a 2-0 lead with 19:01 left in the period.
After scoring just 12 points in 38 games with the Flames this season, Bennett already has three in his first two games with Florida.
His work wasn’t done. With 7:33 left in the second period, Bennett watched Gavin Bayreuther level a high hit against Duclair and jumped at his teammate’s defense. He scrapped with the Blue Jackets defenseman, landing a punch and dragging him down to the ice. When he rose and skated back to the bench, the 4,041 at the BB&T Center rose to their feet to cheer on Bennett after he picked up a two-minute penalty for instigating, a five-minute penalty for fighting and a 10-minute misconduct penalty. Florida gave up its first goal of the game 55 seconds later, but defenseman Radko Gudas answered with a one-timer 41 seconds later to push the lead back to 3-1.
Duclair assisted on both second-period goals and now has seven points in his last six games.
The Panthers piled up 19 shots in the period and rode their two-goal edge to the finish line. Columbus cut the lead to 3-2 with 11:59 to go, but Bobrovsky closed with six straight saves to finish with 34 saves on 36 shots before Vatrano finally iced the win on an empty-net goal with 1:22 left to improve Florida’s postseason positioning.
“I love playoff hockey,” Bennett told Bally Sports Florida. “That’s my favorite time of the year and I think we’re going to do some damage, for sure.”