5 Takeaways: Panthers Top Habs as Luongo's No. 1 is Raised Into Raftersby Jameson Olive / @JamesonCoop / FloridaPanthers.com
SUNRISE, Fla. - The Florida Panthers had a mantra heading into tonight's game.
"Win it for Lu."
On the same night that the franchise celebrated raising Roberto Luongo's No. 1 jersey into the rafters, the Panthers honored their former netminder by reigniting their late-season playoff push with a pulse-pounding 4-1 win over the Montreal Canadiens at BB&T Center on Saturday night.
"It was a tremendous ceremony," Panthers coach Joel Quenneville said. "Happy for Lu, proud of him. A tremendous career. It was a good reflection on what he meant to the organization. Right off the bat, it was like, 'Let's get two [points] for Lu tonight.' The guys did a great job."
Following a scoreless opening period, Lucas Wallmark broke the ice for the Panthers when he lifted a silky smooth backhand goal straight over Charlie Lindgren's pad to make it 1-0 at 10:22.
From there, the Panthers continued to garner momentum toward the end of the period when they successfully killed off three straight power plays for Montreal, including 1:10 of a 5-on-3.
"That might have been our biggest [penalty] kill of the year by a big margin," Quenneville said. "With timing of it, the length of the 5-on-3, the big shooters [the Canadines] have out there, I commend the guys that were taking it, not literally on the chin, but everywhere else."
Feeding off that sequence of penalty kills, the Panthers came out flying in the third period. After MacKenzie Weegar blasted home a one-timer to make it 2-0 just 41 seconds after the puck had dropped in the final frame, Jonathan Huberdeau then quickly extended the lead to 3-0 at 4:13.
At 8:04, Jake Evans cut Montreal's deficit down to 3-1, but that would be the only goal to sneak past Chris Driedger, who stopped 33 of 34 shots in a performance that likely left Luongo smiling.
"It was pretty special," said Driedger, who improved to 6-2-1 on the season. "Watching that ceremony was pretty cool, seeing Lu honored like that and just going through his career and all of the lives that he's affected and his excellence on the ice. We wanted to get that win."
With 1:54 remaining in regulation, Mike Hoffman scored his team-leading 28th goal of the season when he cashed in on Montreal's empty net to secure the 4-1 win for the Panthers.
"There was a lot talk of doing it for Lu in here," Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad said. "Obviously [Driedger] had a great game. We had some guys score some big goals; we had some huge blocks on the 5-on-3. All of that's something to rally behind the rest of the way here."
Heading down the home stretch, the Panthers (34-26-8) currently trail the Toronto Maple Leafs (35-25-9) by just three points for third place in the Atlantic Division with one game in hand and one head-to-head matchup remaining between the two clubs that's scheduled for March 23.
"Let's use this momentum swing here and a change of a direction here in a real positive way," Quenneville said. "Let's get going here knowing that, hey, we could have a great opportunity."
Here are five takeaways from Saturday's win in Sunrise…
1. MAKING HIS MARK
When scoring your first goal with a new team, you can't beat doing it in style like this.
Flying toward the net from the left circle, Wallmark faked a shot before going to his backhand and lifting the puck over Lindgren's pads to put Florida up 1-0 at 10:22 of the second period.
Video: MTL@FLA: Wallmark nets nifty backhander falling down
"It means a lot," Wallmark said of netting his first goal as a Panther. "It was nice to do that. You don't have to think about that anymore. It was a big goal for us, too."
Suiting up in just his sixth game since being acquired from Carolina at the NHL Trade Deadline, Wallmark has clearly begun to settle into his new role as Florida's third-line center. And with his goal tonight, the 24-year-old is now on a modest two-game point streak (one goal, one assist).
In 66 games this season, Wallmark has recorded 25 points (13 goals, 12 assists).
2. PENALTY KILL COMES UP BIG
Everyone in the locker room agreed this was likely the turning point in tonight's game.
Needing to endure 4:50 on the penalty kill -- including 1:10 of a 5-on-3 disadvantage -- Florida's killers simply got the job done late in the second period. From incredibly selfless blocks to clutch clears, both units did everything they could to weather the storm and keep the lead intact at 1-0.
"Those blocks were huge," Ekblad said. "Heavy shots from [Canadiens defenseman Shea] Weber. It's always a little bit nerve-wracking to get in front of those, and those guys did a great job. No doubt about it."
Like Ekblad, Driedger also commended his teammates for putting themselves in harm's way to make his life easier in net, especially their willingness to lay down in front of a few powerful slap shots from Weber, who has a reputation for having likely the hardest shot in the entire league.
"The guys came up huge with some blocks," Driedger said. "It seems like our killers are just laying it all on the line… When you've got guys just laying the body down in front of Weber's one-timer, you know those are team guys. It was great to see that the team fed off that."
Ten players registered at least one block for the Panthers tonight, including a team-high four from Weegar.
This one gave the Panthers some much-needed breathing room.
Following a clutch faceoff win in the offensive zone just as their power play was about to expire, Weegar took a cross-ice pass from Ekblad and ripped a one-timer from below the blue line past Lindgren and into the twine to double Florida's lead to 2-0 just 41 seconds into the third period.
Video: MTL@FLA: Weegar blasts Ekblad one-timer from distance
"We had him kind of poaching out of the zone there just to make sure that we didn't get caught by the guy coming out of the box," Ekblad said of Weegar's positioning on the scoring play. "The opportunity opened up, and he had a great shot."
Lighting the lamp in consecutive games, Weegar has started to begin looking like his old self again after missing an extended period of time with an upper-body injury earlier in the season. In 44 games, the 26-year-old defenseman has set new career-highs in goals (7) and points (18).
"I like how he's playing," Quenneville said of Weegar. "He's playing defense, offense and scoring big goals as well. He's got a little bit or a roll going for him."
4. THREADING THE NEEDLE
Thread meet needle. Despite sharing a line for the first time tonight, Huberdeau and newcomer Erik Haula appear to have developed some early chemistry.
Already up 2-0, it was a tape-to-tape pass from Haula through traffic that set up a tap-in goal for Huberdeau to make it 3-0 at 4:13 of the third period.
Video: MTL@FLA: Huberdeau buries Haula feed from in front
"[Haula] made a great feed over to Huby," Quenneville said.
A 2020 NHL All-Star, Huberdeau leads Florida with 78 points (23 goals, 55 assists), including four goals over his last 12 contests. Haula, meanwhile, has posted two assists in six games since coming over from the Hurricanes in a package with Wallmark at the NHL Trade Deadline.
In addition to his assist, Haula also went 10-for-16 (63 percent) in the faceoff circle tonight.
5. DRIEDGER GREAT AGAIN
In just his second start since returning from a lower-body injury that had kept him out of the lineup for nearly two months, Driedger was outstanding once again in net for the Panthers.
Finishing with 33 saves, the 25-year-old goaltender went a perfect 11-for-11 on shots that originated from high-danger areas, according to NaturalStatTrick.com. Filling in for injured starter Sergei Bobrovsky, he's stopped a combined 51 of 54 shots over his last two games.
"I can't say enough good things about how comfortable he looked in these two games at home." Quenneville said of Driedger. "He did everything he could to get us points. He did what he had to do."
A late bloomer, Driedger has played exceptionally well when called upon by the Panthers this season. After making his first NHL start in November, he's posted a 6-2-1 record with a 2.16 goals-against average, .936 save percentage and one shutout in 11 appearances with Florida.
And, like most goaltenders his age, he also grew up a huge fan of Luongo.
"He's definitely been a role model for me," Driedger said. "He's a presence anywhere he goes. Having a night like that to honor him was really special."
BONUS: LUONGO HONORED
Luongo's No. 1 will live forever within the rafters at BB&T Center.
If you missed any of tonight's ceremony, check out the video below!