"I thought he had a great game," Panthers coach Joel Quenneville said of Ekblad. "He did everything right at both ends. He had a terrific goal on the power play that put us in a really good spot. He did a lot of good things. It was one of those nights where he had the magic touch."
After giving up the first goal in each of their last five games, the Panthers struck first tonight when Carter Verhaeghe pounced on a loose puck in the paint and sent it past Pekka Rinne to break the ice and make it a 1-0 game just 6:29 after the puck dropped in the opening period.
Doubling the lead less than three minutes after Verhaeghe opened things up, Mason Marchment, who's been earning a lot of praise from Quenneville recently, wired a shot through Rinne's five-hole on a 2-on-1 break for the first goal of his NHL career that put Florida on top 2-0 at 9:01.
Coming out firing, 11 different Panthers had at least one shot on goal in the first period.
"It was definitely special," Marchment said of his memorable goal. "I had a good opportunity to score the shift before that, too. I tried to go high, but [the second time] I tried to go low. I'm lucky it went in. It was an awesome experience. I'm happy."
Keeping the pressure on the Predators, Jonathan Huberdeau wasted no time in making it a 3-0 game when he took a tape-to-tape pass from Patric Hornqvist and fired a shot from the slot that bounced off Rinne's chest and into the net for a big goal just 59 seconds into the second period.
Getting one back for Nashville, Mattias Ekholm lifted up his stick and blasted a heavy one-timer off a pass from Viktor Arvidsson that went screaming from well beyond the right circle straight through traffic and past Sergei Bobrovsky to make it a 3-1 game at 12:23 of the middle frame.
Sent to the power play, Ekblad then increased Florida's lead to 4-1 when he sent a shot on net that - while Hornqvist took a few whacks at it - trickled across the goal line at 18:44. The goal was initially credited to Hornqvist, but then changed to Ekblad upon further review shortly after.
Continuing his success against the Panthers this season, Filip Forsberg answered quickly for Nashville, tipping a shot from Arvidsson past Bobrovsky to make it a 4-2 game with 26 seconds left in the second. In three games against Florida this season, Forsberg has scored three times.
Early in the third period, the Predators appeared to pull within a goal when Mikael Granlund lit the lamp at 18:13. However, the Panthers challenged the play right away claiming Nashville had entered the zone offside. After a brief review, the officials agreed and the goal was overturned.
Taking over the goal-scoring lead among NHL defensemen this season, Ekblad found the back of the net once again on the power play when he flew into the offensive zone and sniped a shot right past Rinne for his second goal of the night and eighth of the season to make it 5-2 at 9:07.
Not going down without a fight, Colton Sissons added some late drama to the game when he scored to cut Nashville's deficit down to 5-3 at 12:40. Then, with the goaltender pulled, Ryan Johansen scored from right on the doorstep to make it 5-4 with 1:13 remaining in regulation.
In the end, however, the Panthers held on until the final buzzer to improve to 14-4-4 and extend their point streak to four games. Between the pipes, Bobrovsky finished with 31 saves, while Rinne turned aside 33 of 38 shots. On Saturday, the two teams will meet again at 2 p.m. ET.
"As we go deeper into the season, every point, every game, every win is so important," said Bobrovsky, who now sits at 7-2-2. "We just want to make sure to be back on the winning track. Winning is fun. I thought our guys did a great job tonight. They create so many good chances."
Here are five takeaways from Thursday's win in the Music City…
1. VERHAEGHE BACK AT IT
The Panthers got the start they wanted tonight.
After Rinne denied Ekblad on his swift cut toward the net, Verhaeghe pounced on the ensuing rebound and - despite a heap of Predators hovering in and around the blue paint - managed to send the biscuit into the back of the cage to make it 1-0 at 6:29 of the first period.
Video: FLA@NSH: Verhaeghe cashes in on rebound for goal
Snapping out of a personal goal drought, Verhaeghe is now tied with Aleksander Barkov and Ekblad for third place on the team in goals with eight. Making that total even more impressive is the fact that all of his goals have been accumulated at even-strength, which leads the team.
Verhaeghe, 25, has now scored a pair of goals in three games against Nashville this season.
2. A DREAM COME TRUE
Now that he's in the lineup, Marchment clearly doesn't want to go back to the bench.
Netting the first goal of his NHL career, the 25-year-old forward collected an outlet pass from Ekblad, looked off his linemate Noel Acciari on a 2-on-1 break and then rifled a slick wrist shot straight through Rinne's five-hole from the right circle to make it 2-0 at 9:01 of the first period.
Video: FLA@NSH: Marchment beats Rinne for first NHL goal
"Honestly, I never really thought it would happen," Marchment said. "Now that we're here and it's happened, it's unbelievable. It's a dream come true. It was a great pass by Ekkie. I just kind of got around the D there. Cookie [Acciari] drove wide, and it opened right up for me."
On fire since re-entering the lineup last month, Marchment has made a dent on the scoresheet in each of the last four games, racking up one goal and three assists while playing primarily on the third line in that span. For the Cats, that's exactly the kind of secondary scoring they need.
"I thought he had a spectacular start to the game," Quenneville said of Marchment. "I think he's played extremely well. The improvement in his game from training camp to playing with the squad, and now all of the sudden getting a chance to play in the bigs, and he does his thing."
3. LEADER IN THE CLUBHOUSE
I think the old saying "Johnny on the spot" is an apt description of this scoring sequence.
After the Panthers jumped out to an early 2-0 lead in the first period, Huberdeau quickly padded the advantage in the second when he slipped down from the left circle, collected a pass from Hornqvist and buried a shot from the low slot that made it 3-0 just 59 seconds into middle frame.
Video: FLA@NSH: Huberdeau scores in 2nd period
Florida's leading scorer, Huberdeau has produced 26 points in 22 games this season. He's also tied for the team-lead in goals (9) and assists (17). By posting a goal and an assist tonight, the 27-year-old winger also earned his team-leading eighth multi-point performance of the season.
In three games against Nashville this season, Huberdeau has scored four goals.
4. EKBLAD PASSES SVEHLA
Even though he's only 25 years old, Ekblad is running out of franchise records to break.
Heading into tonight's meeting with the Predators already sitting in the top spot all-time among Panthers defensemen in goals (77), his goal on the man advantage in the second period moved him past Robert Svehla for the most power-play goals by a blueliner in franchise history with 27.
Video: FLA@NSH: Ekblad scores PPG in 2nd period
"He's really something on the ice," Panthers defenseman Radko Gudas said. "He's been a treat to watch. He's feeling it. He's doing really well. I'm happy to be a part of the team that he's on."
Not done there, Ekblad also made his mark among the league's rearguards as well tonight. Slicing through multiple defenders, he ripped a shot past Rinne from the high slot on the power play to increase Florida's lead to 5-2 at 9:07 of the third period. With the score - which held up as the game-winner - he also took over first place among NHL defensemen in goals with eight.
Video: FLA@NSH: Ekblad slips by defenders and buries PPG
"A little finishing touch on that entry," Quenneville said. "A pretty goal as well."
Finishing the game with a career-high four points (two goals, two assists), Ekblad now also ranks tied for 13th among NHL blueliners in scoring with 15 points (eight goals, seven assists).
5. GUDAS HITS 500
Gudas hits more than the opposing team's players.
He also hits milestones! By hopping over the board for his first shift against the Predators, the 30-year-old defenseman officially competed in the 500th game of his NHL career. Looking back at those 500 games, 290 came with Philadelphia, 126 with Tampa Bay, 63 with Washington and already 21 with Florida.
"It's definitely much sweeter with the W," Gudas said of the achievement. "For me, I just try to take it one game at a time. Playing in this league is a dream for every hockey player, so I'm fortunate enough to be a part of a great group that makes me a better player."
Making a huge impact in his first season with the Panthers, Gudas ranks second in the league with 109 hits - just one behind Ottawa's Brady Tkachuk. Doing what he does best in Nashville tonight, he fired off three shots on goal and posted a game-high four hits while skating 21:53.
"Besides being an unbelievable defenseman and an absolute killer on the ice, he's a great guy," Ekblad said of Gudas. "One of the best guys I've ever played with. Always nice, always has a smile on his face... He's intense and he wants to win."