SUNRISE, Fla. - Aleksander Barkov scored a pair of goals - and almost a third - to lead the Florida Panthers to 3-2 win over the New Jersey Devils on Thursday night at BB&T Center.
The Panthers (30-25-6) have won the first four games of their season-long six-game homestand, stringing together impressive victories against playoff teams Washington, Pittsburgh, Toronto and New Jersey.
"I'm proud of the guys," Panthers coach Bob Boughner said. "Jersey is a good team. We've beaten four good teams in a row here. It's been a close game and we've been finding ways to win in the third period. That shows another level of our game, a little more maturity in our game and composure."
Barkov scored the game-winning goal for the Panthers, finishing off a pass from Evgenii Dadonov with a filthy backhand shot that beat Devils goaltender Cory Schneider at 16:26 of the third period.
Later, Barkov had a golden opportunity to finish off his hat trick in the waning seconds of regulation, but passed on an empty-net chance in favor of setting up teammate Jonathan Huberdeau, who was gesturing for Barkov to shoot the puck.
"Huby was skating right next to me and I know someone just rimmed the puck, so there was going to be one assist," Barkov said. "I wanted to give it to Huby because I knew he was going to pass it back to me. I tried to shoot it, but it didn't go in. Now I'm hearing about that all the time. But it doesn't matter."
Hat trick or not, the Panthers are happy with another two points in the books.
With Thursday night's victory, Florida now sits just three points behind Columbus for the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference with two games in hand.
"No matter what the score is, we're confident we're going to come out with a win," Panthers goaltender Roberto Luongo said.
Here are five takeaways from Thursday's win in Sunrise…
1. HOT START
The first 20 minutes have been some of the most important for the Panthers as of late, as the team has opened the scoring in 10 of their last 12 games. Florida is 21-9-2 when scoring first this season and did so once again on Thursday night. After receiving a pass from Dadonov, Barkov sent the puck towards New Jersey's net from the bottom of the left circle. With Nick Bjugstad crashing into the crease, the puck bounced off the skate of Devils forward Nico Hischier and into the net, giving the Panthers a 1-0 lead at 6:51 the first period. The Devils challenged the play, citing goaltender interference, but it was upheld after the officials "confirmed no goaltender interference infractions occurred before the puck crossed the goal line." Since the Coach's Challenge did not result in the original call being overturned, New Jersey also forfeited its timeout. "Especially at home, you want to set the good tempo and try and make the other team stay on their heels a little bit," Luongo said. "We've done a good job of doing that, coming out strong and establishing a good forecheck."
Video: NJD@FLA: Barkov tallies off a skate to open scoring
2. BARKOV'S CAREER YEAR
With his first-period goal, Barkov reached the 60-point plateau for the first time in his career. The 22-year-old center became the third-youngest player in franchise history to record 60 points in a season, joining Nathan Horton (62 points, 2006-07 and 2007-08) and Rob Niedermayer (61 points, 1995-96). In the third period, Barkov found the back of the net again, showing off his silky-smooth backhand to put the Panthers up 3-1 with 3:34 left in regulation. "Of course, it's a good thing when you set goals before the season and you want to be a better player than you were last season," Barkov said. "We still have 20 games left. All that matters is winning. I'm glad that I've been helping the team with scoring goals and assisting them. All that matters right now is winning." A 2018 NHL All-Star, Barkov has been producing at better than a point-per-game pace recently, posting 31 points (12-19-31) over his last 26 games and 18 points (8-10-18) over his last 12. In the midst of his third consecutive 20-goal and 50-point campaign, the Barkov leads the Panthers in points (61), assists (tied-38) and goals (tied-23)
Video: NJD@FLA: Barkov uses nifty moves to pot his second
3. PUNCHING PANTHER
Micheal Haley set the tone early for the Panthers against a hard-nosed Devils team on Thursday night, dropping the gloves with Patrick Maroon less than two minutes into the first period. A marathon bout, Maroon landed a few shots, but absorbed many more from Haley. In the end, neither player fell to the ice and they were eventually separated. The fight was Haley's league-leading 17th of the season, which is more than 21 teams have total in the NHL. Haley also has the most fights by a Panther since Peter Worrell dropped the gloves 19 times during the 2002-03 season. Thanks to Haley's right hooks, Florida also leads the league with 37 fights this season. What goes through Haley's head during a game? Find out on Friday night when the 31-year-old enforcer is mic'd-up during FOX Sports Florida's broadcast of Florida's matchup against the Buffalo Sabres.
4. MAMIN SQUEAKS ONE IN
In just his 11th NHL game, Mamin showcased some heroics for the Panthers on Thursday night, squeaking a shot from behind the goal line to break a 1-1 tie at 8:38 of the third period. A 23-year-old rookie, Mamin has played very well since being recalled from Florida's AHL affiliate in Springfield, Mass., recording two goals in 11 games. During Florida's four-game winning streak, Mamin has been one of Florida's more-physical players, racking up six hits while averaging just over 10 minutes of ice time per game. A sixth-round pick (175th overall) in the 2016 NHL Draft, Mamin helped Florida's third line dominate possession against the Devils, with all three players - Jared McCann, Jamie McGinn and Mamin - leading the team with Corsi For ratings over 63 percent. "It looks like those three guys have really come together," Boughner said. "Mams has been a big addition. His speed, number one, his strength. He's a hard guy to play against."
Video: NJD@FLA: Mamin taps puck in from tough angle
5. LUONGO LIVING LARGE
Even Luongo can't believe it. With another stellar performance on Thursday night, the 38-year-old goaltender continues to play some of the best hockey of his Hall of Fame-worthy career, despite sitting out more than two months this season with a groin injury. Luongo stopped 29 of 31 shots against the Devils, improving to 5-1-0 with a 2.48 goals-against average and a .927 save percentage since returning to the lineup on Feb. 17. Luongo credited Florida's medical staff and goaltending coach Robb Tallas for helping him get back into top form. "Even I'm a little bit shocked how good it's been since I've been back," Luongo said with a big smile. "I just want to keep it going." Luongo will get a chance to rest up on Friday, as backup James Reimer is expected to start against the Sabres.
Video: NJD@FLA: Luongo stands strong to stone Wood's chance