SUNRISE, Fla. -- Outside a happy Florida Panthers dressing room, coach Gerard Gallant joked Saturday night that Aaron Ekblad saved his spot in the NHL with his game-winning goal against the Philadelphia Flyers.
"We had to make a decision; if he didn't score tonight, he was probably going to go back tomorrow,"?Gallant said with a smile after the Panthers' 2-1 victory at BB&T???Center. "With the winning goal we're going to keep him. We decided we're going to keep him."
The decision to keep Ekblad, the first overall pick in the 2014 NHL???Draft, after his ninth game instead of returning him to his junior team seemed a foregone conclusion with the rookie defenseman's strong start. Ekblad punctuated it with his power-play goal, which gave the Panthers a 2-0 lead late in the third period.
"Extreme thrill,"???Ekblad said of his goal. "Obviously, feelings that I felt in junior with my first goal and feeling it again here, it's unbelievable. It's special. A???lot of people have really helped me get to this point, a lot of support from here, the guys on the team. Obviously you owe that win to a lot more than just that. ... It's a team effort. It's a group effort. And I'm pretty happy and satisfied with that win."
The Panthers played Saturday without five of their regular forwards. Defensemen took care of the offense, with veteran Willie Mitchell opening the scoring in the first period.
Florida goalie Roberto Luongo did his part, making 36 saves and coming within 7.4 seconds of his second shutout of the season.
"The same as last game pretty much,"???Luongo said, referring to the Panthers' 2-1 victory against the Arizona Coyotes on Thursday. "We battled hard. There were a lot of battles in front of the net, which is important against a team like Philly. They've got some big guys creating havoc in front there, and I???thought we did a great job of boxing out, taking sticks, all that kind of stuff. And [Ekblad] scored a big power-play goal for us to give us a two-goal lead."
Vincent Lecavalier, back from a seven-game absence because of an ankle injury, scored the Flyers goal.
Steve Mason made 28 saves for the Flyers. He does not have a win (0-4-1)???this season, although he improved on his 3.83 goals-against average.
"Wins are not coming right now on the personal front, but you just have to keep working and stay positive,"???Mason said. "I was happy with the way my game went for the most part, but when the goalie at the other end plays pretty much a perfect game, it's tough to come out on the winning side."
Philadelphia was 0-for-6 on the power play, making the Flyers 1-for-19 over their past six games.
The Flyers dropped both games on their two-game road trip in the state of Florida. They had a three-game winning streak snapped in a 4-3 loss against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday.
"It just seemed like (the Panthers) were quicker,"???defenseman Mark Streit said. "We just didn't execute. We didn't want to give them any life or hope and get after them right away, but that just didn't happen.
"Our play is just not good enough. We hung in there, we had a few chances at the end, but it's still very disappointing to lose that game tonight."
The Panthers have earned at least a point in each of their past six games (4-0-2). The win Saturday gave them consecutive victories for the first time this season.
Florida is 4-2-3 despite averaging 1.56 goals per game. Six of the Panthers' nine games have ended in scores of 1-0 or 2-1.
"I???think the guys are starting to realize we've got a pretty good team in here,"???Luongo said. "You could see it every game that we have that confidence, that even though we're not blowing teams out, we're finding ways to win. That's key, especially at the beginning of the season. You want to establish something right away so you can build something off of it and keep getting better every day."
Because of their injury problems at forward - Dave Bolland has missed the past five games with a lower-body injury; Brandon Pirri, Sean Bergenheim and Aleksander Barkov all were injured in the victory against Arizona; and Jonathan Huberdeau was a late scratch because of illness - defenseman Colby Robak was used up front in his first appearance of the season. He played on a line with Rocco Grimaldi and Vincent Trocheck, who made their season debuts after being recalled Friday from the San Antonio Rampage of the American Hockey League.
"We're real happy,"?????????Gallant said. "We talked about it before the game -- you don't worry about who's not in your lineup, you worry about who's in the lineup. I?????????thought the guys that came in the lineup played real well and competed. Our team played real well."
Luongo improved to 4-0-1 in his past six starts, with only seven goals allowed. The streak started with a 1-0 victory against the Buffalo Sabres on Oct. 17.
Against the Flyers, Luongo made several big saves on redirections. His best stops came against forwards Michael Raffl and Matt Read in the first period and against defenseman Luke Schnenn in the second. Luongo also made a nice blocker save on a wrist shot by Claude Giroux in the second period.
Philadelphia had a 5-on-3 advantage for 32 seconds midway through the third period, but Luongo came up big again. His best save during the Flyers' two-man advantage came on a one-timer from Lecavalier.
"I?????????feel pretty good," Luongo said. "The puck is hitting me. You just want to keep it going when these kind of things are happening. Guys are playing hard and putting pressure on the players, not giving them time and space, which allows me to do my job a lot easier than in normal circumstances. I wouldn't be playing this well if it wasn't for the guys in front of me. We've just got to keep it going."
Mitchell, who signed as a free agent July 1 and was named Panthers captain before the start of the regular season, scored his first goal with Florida. He beat Mason with a shot from the left point that bounced in off the far post with a couple of players in front of the Flyers goaltender.
It was Mitchell's first goal since Jan. 20, 2014, against the Boston Bruins when he was playing for the Los Angeles Kings.
"Willie is a guy that can play both ways,"?????????Gallant said. "We don't give him enough credit for some of his offense. He moves the puck real well. He's a veteran guy and he shoots the puck well. The back end scored two goals for us tonight, it's real big."
Ekblad made it 2-0 at 15:38 of the third with a power-play goal. Like Mitchell, he beat Mason with a shot from the point through traffic.
"Yeah, it's awesome,"?????????Mitchell said. "He just gets it, I?????????guess you could say. He's 18 years old, but he's so respectful of his peers, the game, approaches it the right away but also wants to make a difference every time he's out there. I've seen that shot in practice actually a few times working on it. He's got a quick release with his stick and got rewarded."
An even bigger reward came for Ekblad after the game.