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5 Takeaways: Panthers Ride 4th Line to Win in New Jersey

by Jameson Olive / @JamesonCoop / FloridaPanthers.com

2/11/20 Post Game Interviews

2/11/20 Post Game Interviews

Interviews with Head Coach Joel Quenneville, forward Frank Vatrano and goaltender Sam Montembeault

  • 01:05 •

It's often been said that the best defense is a good offense.

And, on rare occasions, the best forwards can actually be defensemen.

Led by a very strong performance from their tough fourth line, especially defensemen-turned-forwards Mark Pysyk and Mike Matheson, the Florida Panthers snapped their four-game losing streak with a crucial 5-3 win over the New Jersey Devils at Prudential Center on Tuesday night.

"They really did set the tone for our team, playing the right way," Panthers coach Joel Quenneville said of the line. "I think that's the one thing about transitioning a defenseman to forward, you know they know how to keep themselves in the play, they're good in the puck areas and they keep it simple."

Dressing eight defensemen, the Panthers went down 1-0 early when Jack Hughes beat Sam Montembeault on the power play at 3:15. But, later in the opening frame, Brett Connolly swung momentum back in Florida's favor when he beat Louie Domingue to tie the game 1-1 at 11:50.

At 19:14, Matheson buried a rebound to put the Panthers up 2-1.

In the second period, it was the fourth line doing the damage once again, as Pysyk took a pass from Matheson and re-directed the puck into the cage to increase the lead to 3-1 at 2:43. Noel Acciari, who was centering the duo, picked up an assist on both Matheson and Pysyk's goals.

"It all worked out or us," Acciari said. "I was the honorary D out there tonight."

After Kevin Rooney cut New Jersey's deficit to 3-2 with a goal at 4:17, Frank Vatrano responded less than a minute later for the Panthers with a long snipe that made it 4-2 at 4:59. Padding the lead further soon after that, Acciari increased the advantage to 5-2 with a rebound goal at 5:38.

Of course, Matheson and Pysyk assisted on Acciari's tally.

"Back to back to back, they all scored a goal, which is unbelievable," Quenneville said.

With 5:30 left in the middle frame, Kyle Palmieri scored on a breakaway to make it 5-3.

While Domingue surrendered five goals on 29 shots, Montembeault looked sharp in just his first start and third appearance with Florida since Nov. 24. Improving to 5-2-1, the 23-year-old rookie made nine high-danger stops, including a huge pad save on Hughes late in the second period.

Video: FLA@NJD: Montembeault kicks out pad to rob Hughes

"Obviously I was a little nervous at the beginning, but I just felt better as the game went on," Montembeault said. "As a goalie, it's obviously always easier to play when you've got a lead like that. They really helped me there."

With 26 games left to play, the Panthers (30-20-6) currently trail the Toronto Maple Leafs (30-19-8) by two points for third place in the Atlantic Division with one very key game still in hand.

"We've got to take it one game at a time," Quenneville said. "We've got a lot of positives exiting this game, and some things we have to be better at as well. We need everybody going, game in and out game out, to have success here."

As for his new-look fourth line, Quenneville isn't ready to label them just yet.

"I don't know if I'd call them fourth," he said. "They were better than that tonight."

Here are five takeaways from Tuesday's win in New Jersey…

1. THE EXORCIST

You know that song "Friend of the Devil" by the Grateful Dead? This is the opposite of that.

After collecting a pass from Vincent Trocheck, Connolly slipped a sneaky wrist shot through Domingue's five-hole from the right circle to even things up at 1-1 at 11:50 of the first period.

In two games against New Jersey this season, Connolly had racked up three goals.

Video: FLA@NJD: Connolly rips wrister home from the circle

"It was a great play," Quenneville said. "It got us going. It ignited our offense."

Finding the back of the net twice in the past three games, Connolly is really starting to heat up as the Panthers head down home stretch. Ranking fifth on the team with 18 goals, the 27-year-old winger is also on the verge of a milestone, needing three more to reach 100 for his career.

2. SOME MAGIC FROM MATHESON

What happens when four defensemen share the ice? A beautiful goal, apparently.

Finishing off a great shift, Mark Pysyk sent the puck on net, with the ensuing rebound ending up on Matheson's stick in front. Playing at forward for the first time in his career, Matheson then buried the rebound to put Florida up 2-1 at 19:14 of the first period.

Video: FLA@NJD: Matheson kicks puck to stick, rips shot home

Returning to the lineup after being scratched in Monday's loss at Philadelphia, Quenneville said he was impressed with Matheson's strong bounce back tonight, adding that he "handled it well."

"He went about it the right way and had a good attitude about it," Quenneville said.

In 49 games this season, Matheson has posted 19 points (seven goals, 12 assists). Over his last seven contests, the 25-year-old has racked up one goal and six assists for seven points.

"We wanted to get him in the lineup," Quenneville said of Matheson. "He does a lot of the same things Mark [Pysyk] does. He's up in the play. He's got some speed and he's got the puck a lot. I think they know how to sustain and hang onto the puck in the offensive zone."

3. PYSYK POTS ANOTHER GOAL

Matheson had to return the favor, right?

Digging in just outside the blue paint, Pysyk re-directed a tape-to-tape pass from Matheson straight over Domingue's blocker to extend Florida's lead to 3-1 at 2:43 of the second period.

Video: FLA@NJD: Pysyk shovels Matheson's feed past Domingue

"They're having fun with it," Vatrano said of the fourth line. "You see how enthusiastic they are when they're out there on the ice. It rubs off on guys. They did a great job and played a great game."

Earning the nickname "The Hybrid" for his effectiveness in switching back and forth between defense and forward this season, Pysyk has recorded 12 points (six goals, six assists) over his last 15 games. With that surge, the 28-year-old has already set a new career-high in goals (8).

With one more point, Pysyk will also match the career-high 17 points he posted in 2016-17.

4. THE 15-GOAL CLUB

This was an absolute laser.

Taking a cross-ice feed from Keith Yandle, Vatrano ripped a wrist shot from the top of the right circle through traffic and past Domingue to put the Panthers up 4-2 at 4:59 of the second period.

Video: FLA@NJD: Vatrano rips snap shot home from the circle

"Tonight, we did a good job sticking with it," Vatrano said. "Obviously they scored an early power-play goal, but I think we played a full 60 minutes. We capitalized on our chances when we needed to."

The seventh Panther to reach the 15-goal plateau this season, Vatrano has been on fire as of late, notching 11 points (six goals, five assists) over his last 12 games. Helping keep the Devils on their toes all night long, the 25-year-old winger fired a game-high six shots on goal tonight.

Vatrano's goal tonight ended up as the game-winner, his fourth of the season.

5. ACCIARI CHASING 20

You know it was only a matter of time before "Goal Acciari" got in on the action.

Having already helped both of his linemates pot goals earlier in the game, Acciari finally got one for himself after he settled down a rebound in the low slot before sending a shot past Domingue and into the back of the net to increase Florida's advantage to 5-2 at 5:38 of the second period.

Video: FLA@NJD: Acciari rips rebound past Domingue in front

"All three of our goals were all in front of the net," Acciari said of the goals scored by himself and his new linemates tonight. "That's where you're going to score the goals. We complement each other well, whether we're close to the puck or forcing turnovers."

Reaching new offensive heights in his first season with the Panthers, Acciari has already set a new career-high with 19 goals. Prior to this year, the 28-year-old forward had tallied 18 goals in 180 career NHL games. In addition to his scoring, he also continues to put his body on the line.

Acciari currently leads the league's forwards with 83 blocked shots.

"He brings us a lot of character," Quenneville said. "He gives us some sandpaper. He gives us a faceoff guy. Defensively, he's reliable; really good strength in the puck area and really good presence around the net… Nice to see him score again tonight. He does a lot of good things."

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