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5 Takeaways: Panthers Blank Blue Jackets, Take Hold of First Place

by Jameson Olive / @JamesonCoop / FloridaPanthers.com

4/4/21 Post Game Interviews

4/4/21 Post Game Interviews

Interviews with Head Coach Joel Quenneville, forward Aleksander Barkov, defenseman Gustav Forsling and goaltender Chris Driedger

  • 01:51 •

SUNRISE, Fla. - Remember that three-game losing streak? Yeah, neither do I.

Breaking out of a tie with Lightning and taking over sole possession of first place in the Central Division, the red-hot Panthers swept their homestand and extended their season-long winning streak to six games with a dominant 3-0 win over the Blue Jackets at BB&T Center on Sunday.

Improving to 26-9-4, Florida's 56 points are also currently the most in the entire NHL.

"You can see that everyone in our locker room is having fun doing this, coming to the rink and playing games and giving everything that you have in the game," Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov said. "That's why we're having success. Everyone enjoys it and everyone is having fun."

Following a scoreless opening period, the Panthers got things going in the second. Starting with some sweet stick work by MacKenzie Weegar to keep the puck in the zone, Barkov took a pass from Patric Hornqvist and then blasted home a heavy one-timer to make it a 1-0 game at 1:52.

Coming up in the clutch again in the third period, Frank Vatrano provided the Panthers with an insurance goal when he forced a turnover in the neutral zone, carried the puck in on a 2-on-1 break and wired a shot past Joonas Korpisalo to make it 2-0 with 12 minutes left in regulation.

"We're getting contributions from across the board," Panthers coach Joel Quenneville said. "Our back end has been really solid and our goaltending has been very, very consistent. … Working hard, playing together and working for another. The balance in the lines has been noticeable."

Putting the icing on the cake of another exceptional showing for the Panthers, Gustav Forsling increased Florida's advantage to a commanding 3-0 lead when he received a dish from Barkov and ripped a shot from just beyond the left circle over Korpisalo's glove with 7:40 left on the clock.

Earning his second clean sheet of the season, Chris Driedger was strong from start to finish in net for the Cats, stopping all 32 shots he faced to blank the Blue Jackets and improve to 11-4-2. At the other end of the ice, Korpisalo also made 32 saves for Columbus, which falls to 14-18-8.

"We were incredible defensively," Driedger said. "In the first two periods we really locked things down. We didn't give up a lot until their final push at the end there, so shoutout to all the guys."

Here are five takeaways from Sunday's win in Sunrise…

1. BARKOV'S FEELING GOOD

It's almost like he never left.

Picking up points in back-to-back games after missing some time with an injury, Barkov got the Panthers on the board against the Blue Jackets when he teed up a smooth pass from Hornqvist and unleashed a rocket of a one-timer into the cage to make it 1-0 at 1:52 of the second period.

The 116th even-strength goal of his career, he also broke a tie with Olli Jokinen for the second-most in franchise history.

Video: CBJ@FLA: Barkov blasts Hornvqist's one-timer through

"First game, I didn't feel that good," said Barkov, who missed six games with a lower-body injury. "I was happy to be back. That's kind of how I got through the game. I didn't feel that good, but the team played well so it was easy to come back. I felt a little better today."

Sitting second on the Panthers in scoring, Barkov has now racked up 40 points (14 goals, 26 assists) in just 33 games. Named "Player of the Month" in the Central Division in March, the 25-year-old center has been on a tear, posting six goals and seven assists in his last eight games.

"Playing with these linemates and this team, it makes it easy for me," Barkov said.

Helping the Panthers control play at both ends of the ice as usual, the team boasted massive advantages in shot attempts (24-9) and shots on goals (14-6) when Barkov was on the ice at 5-on-5, per to NaturalStatTrick.com.

So, if you have a Selke Trophy vote, you know what to do.

2. THE CLUTCH CAT

I don't know what Vatrano does during the second intermission, but he should keep it up.

Netting his eighth goal of the season in the third period, the speedy forward doubled Florida's lead within the blink of an eye when he stole the puck in then neutral zone and then wired home a laser of wrist shot on a 2-on-1 break to make it a 2-0 game with 12 minutes left in regulation.

Video: CBJ@FLA: Vatrano rips wrist shot through off the rush

"I said it last night, it's just the way the goals are falling for me right now," Vatrano said.

Extending both his point streak and goals streak to three games, Vatrano has been playing like a man possessed. During that torrid three-game stretch, the 27-year-old has tallied three goals and two assists to help push his point total on the campaign up to 20 (13 goals, seven assists).

3. FORSLING FINDS TWINE

Taking on added responsibility ever since Aaron Ekblad had to come out of the lineup due an injury that will keep him out for 12 weeks, Forsling continues to show that he's up to the task.

Essentially putting the game out of reach for Columbus, the 24-year-old defenseman showed off his wicked shot late in the third period when he streaked into the zone, took a pass from Barkov and fired a shot past Korpisalo to send the Panthers ahead 3-0 with just 7:40 left in regulation.

Video: CBJ@FLA: Forsling scores in 3rd period

"A real good pass by Barky," Forsling said of the scoring sequence. "He's such a good player. He always has his head up and finds players. I just got to walk in there and shoot."

Paired with Weegar on the blue line, Forsling skated 23:46 tonight - his fifth time going over 20 minutes in his last six games - and, in addition to his offense, also showed off some very crafty stickwork throughout the game to help shut down opposing rushes and disrupt passing lanes.

"Just [continuing] to prove that I deserve to be there and keep playing like we've been doing," said Forsling, who has notched nine points (three goals, six assists) in 26 games. "It's very easy to play with Weegar. He's been so good up there. ... It's really fun to be out there with him."

4. DRIEDGER DOES IT AGAIN

Although he gave most of the post-game credit to the defenders in front of him, Driedger deserves a lot of praise for being strong between the pipes against Columbus all night long.

Stopping all 32 shots that came his way to earn his second shutout of the season, the 26-year-old faced mounting pressure as the game went on. After facing eight shots in the first period, he then saw 11 in the second and then finally 13 in the third as the Blue Jackets made their push.

Of his 32 saves, seven came from high-danger areas, per NaturalStatTrick.com.

Video: CBJ@FLA: Driedger makes 32 saves, earns 3rd shutout

"I think our team's playing fantastic," Driedger said. "I just try and do the same stuff every game. … It's been good. It's been a lot of fun. The guys have been locking it down defensively. It makes things real easy when everything's from the outside and I can see the puck. It's good."

Improving to 11-4-2, Driedger has been nearly unbeatable during his recent outings, giving up just six goals over his last five starts. In that stretch, he's stopped 140 of 146 shots (.959%).

5. ON THE ROAD AGAIN

After sweeping their homestand, the Cats will now embark on their longest trip of the season.

Starting on April 6 and running all the way through April 17, the Panthers will play six games - or three two-game series - over the course of their journey through the Central Division, which will include stops in Carolina and Dallas before culminating with two huge games in Tampa Bay.

By the time they return home, there will be only 11 games left in the regular season.

"We've got a tough, tough trip," Quenneville said. "They're all important games against some of the best teams in our division. Let's fine-tune it as we go along here. It's an extensive trip. Let's have some fun on it by doing the right things and hopefully getting off to a positive start."

Overall, Florida owns a 12-5-1 record outside of Sunrise this season.

BONUS: UPPING THE WORKLOAD

After skating 12:47 in his NHL debut on Saturday, Matt Kiersted saw his workload increase tonight.

Clearly earning some early trust from Quenneville, the 22-year-old defenseman, who inked a two-year, entry-level contract with the Panthers on Thursday, skated 16:21 against the Blue Jackets, racking up two blocks - giving him six over his first two contests - and two shots.

"I like how he has a feel for the game," Quenneville said of Kiersted, a coveted free agent coming out of college following four stellar seasons at the University of North Dakota. "He's got a real good understanding of the time for when to pressure, when to go; sees plays, makes plays. In a short amount of time, not too many defensemen have that ability to fit in and then all of a sudden look like they've played the game at this level. … It's a great sign going forward."

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