"We had to get points in both games, and the guys played right until the end," Panthers coach Joel Quenneville said of the team's strong final push. "We did a lot of good things again tonight."
Just as it was in Saturday's 5-1 win, the Cats were in control from start to finish tonight.
Showing off his skills at both ends of the ice, MacKenzie Weegar opened the scoring when, after shutting down the Lightning's rush up the ice, he went back down the other way and ripped a shot past Andrei Vasilevsky and into the net to make it a 1-0 game at 15:19 of the first period.
Taking advantage of a mental lapse from Vasilevsky, the Panthers then doubled their lead when Juho Lammikko chased down a loose puck on the penalty kill, skated around Tampa Bay's net and buried a shorthanded wrap-around goal to make it a 2-0 game at 8:23 of the second period.
Making his presence felt after missing the last 13 games due to an upper-body injury, Carter Verhaeghe then opened up the third period by sending a no-look shot past Vasilevsky and into the cage to give the Panthers a commanding 3-0 advantage at 2:27.
Adding one more goal for good measure, Alex Wennberg, only a game removed from scoring a hat trick, then capped off the win when he got just enough of a point shot from Radko Gudas to tip the puck past Vasilevskiy and extend Florida's lead to 4-0 with 5:53 remaining in regulation.
With an assist on the goal, Keith Yandle record the 600th point of his NHL career.
Video: TBL@FLA: Wennberg redirects a puck into back of net
Getting hot at the perfect time, the Panthers closed out the regular season with six straight wins.
"It's not our first time playing these types of games," Panthers forward Anthony Duclair said. "We know how to handle ourselves. We have an unbelievable leadership group in our locker room. Credit to them at the beginning of the year for keeping us not too high, not too low."
Despite leading the NHL with 31 wins, Vasilevskiy surrendered four goals on 30 shots to fall to 2-4-0 against the Panthers this season. Standing tall in the other crease, Chris Driedger was on top of his game from the get-go, turning aside all 30 shots that he saw to nail down the shutout.
As for the raucous fans, Driedger said he can't wait to see the arena rocking in the playoffs.
"I can't put into words how excited we are," Driedger said with a big smile. "Our fans have been incredible all season. It was loud in there tonight. It was great to see fans come out like that."
With no schedule released as of yet, stay tuned for more information on the playoffs this week.
Until then, here are five takeaways from Monday's win in Sunrise…
1. WEEGAR DOES IT ALL
If you're reading this and have a Norris Trophy vote, please show Weegar some love.
Gaining a reputation as one of the top all-around defensemen in the NHL this season, the part-time hair model, full-time hockey player showed off his two-way skills early on in tonight's game when he went right from shutting down an opposing rush to scoring a goal in the blink of an eye.
Poking loose the puck as the Lightning carried it into the offensive zone, Weegar then raced up the center of the ice, took a pass from Mason Marchment and unloaded a quick shot from the high slot that sailed over Vasilevskiy's blocker to make it a 1-0 game at 15:19 of the first period.
Video: TBL@FLA: Weegar wires home a wrister from the slot
"I think I've just been finding the right times this year to get up there in the play," Weegar said. "When you make your defensive plays, you obviously get your chances in the offensive zone."
Holding it down on Florida's top-defensive pairing all season long, Weegar finishes the regular season with career-highs in assists (30), points (36) and plus/minus (+29). Of his 36 points, 31 came at even-strength which, at the time of this writing, is the most among all NHL blueliners.
2. POINTS FOR LAMMIKKO
That's two "m's," two "k's" and, tonight, two points.
Slotting back into the lineup for the first time since April 29, the 25-year-old made the most out of his opportunity. After assisting on Weegar's goal in the first period, he found the back of the net himself in the second when, showing off a ton of hustle, he chased down a puck in Tampa Bay's zone, swiped it away from Vasilevskiy and buried a wrap-around to put Florida up 2-0.
Video: TBL@FLA: Lammikko takes advantage on the penalty kill
"I think the whole team played a really good game," Lammikko said. "It was easy to jump in today and play my game and get that goal there. It was a fun game to play in."
Rejoining the Panthers are spending the last two seasons overseas, Lammikko has seen plenty of action since arriving back in North America. Suiting up in 44 games, he's notched four goals, one assist, 50 hits and 16 blocks while averaging just over 10 minutes of ice time per contest.
"I think it's a huge thing," Lammikko said of claiming home-ice. "It's fun to start here."
3. VERHAEGHE RETURNS
Welcome back, Carter!
Returning to the ice after nursing an upper-body injury for the last 13 games, the 25-year-old forward, back in his old spot on the top line, showed he was feeling no worse for wear when he wired home a no-look shot from the right circle to put Florida up 3-0 at 2:27 of the third period.
Video: TBL@FLA: Verhaeghe skates in and wires home a shot
"I've been bothering him since the first day he got injured to come back," Duclair chuckled.
Even though he missed some time, it's safe to label Verhaeghe's first season with the Panthers as a full-blown breakout. After notching nine goals and four assists in 52 games as a rookie with the Lightning last season, he's already racked up 18 goals and 18 assists in 42 games this year.
Always a strong possession player, Verhaeghe also recorded a 56.52 CF% at 5-on-5 tonight.
4. DRIEDGER'S SHUTOUT
Like Verhaeghe, Driedger also had a strong showing after missing some time.
Starting his first game since April 26 due to a lower-body injury, the 26-year-old goaltender was perfect between the pipes throughout his final tune-up of the regular season, turning aside all 30 shots he faced to blank the Lightning and improve to 14-6-3 with his third shutout of the season.
Video: TBL@FLA: Driedger stops 30 in 4-0 win over Lightning
"The guys played fantastic defensively tonight," Driedger said. "I felt good. I was seeing the puck. [There were] a couple breakaways that I felt solid on and had good depth. Overall, just an incredible effort by the guys."
In three starts against Tampa Bay this season, Driedger helped backstop Florida to five out of a possible six points. Never rattled no matter the situation, he was once again at his best with his back against the wall tonight, going 6-for-6 against high-danger shots, per NaturalStatTrick.com.
"I thought Driegs was special in the net," Quenneville said. "It was one of those games, coming off a layoff like that and coming up with a game like that, I thought it was outstanding."
5. REGULAR-SEASON LEADERS
With Game 56 now in the books, let's take a look at some individual numbers for the Cats.
Even though he was held out of tonight's matchup, Huberdeau finished as the team's scoring leader for the second consecutive season with 61 points, including a team-high 41 assists. As for goals, Barkov netted eight over his last 10 games to end up with a team-leading 26 of them.
Owning one of the league's top offenses throughout the entire season, eight different players finished with at least 10 goals, including Duclair (10), Aaron Ekblad (11), Patric Hornqvist (14), Wennberg (17), Verhaeghe (18) Frank Vatrano (18), Huberdeau (20) and Barkov (26).
In net, Sergei Bobrovsky led the way with 19 wins, while Driedger ranked second with 14.
Of course, there will be plenty of time to dive deeper into all of those numbers and many more later in the offseason. For the time being, they're all getting thrown out the window as the team prepares for the postseason, which will provide players with a chance to truly make their mark.
"We should be excited how the season went for us in a lot of ways," Quenneville said. "We got a lot of guys included in our team game. We got some depth over the course of the season, but [the playoffs] is what we play for, what we shoot for in our career. It's been a special year."