When the Florida Panthers last hit the road on Dec. 12 the team was still struggling to find any sort of rhythm after having lost three of their last four games to drop to fifth place in the Atlantic Division.
It’s amazing how quickly things can change.
On Sunday, the Panthers extended their franchise-record winning streak to nine games with a 2-1 victory over the Minnesota Wild and will embark on their next road trip as the top team in their division after having won 14 of their last 17 contests.
“That last road trip really turned it around,” said head coach Gerard Gallant, who was rewarded with a two-year contract extension on Saturday. “I think we have 10 or 11 games left before the All-Star break. You shoot for that. You keep trying to get points; they’re important points. It doesn’t matter how many (games) you’ve won in a row. You don’t worry about what’s behind you, you look forward and try and get some more points.”
Florida, which boasts a 10-6-2 record away from the BB&T Center this season, will begin its upcoming road trip in Buffalo on Tuesday against a rebuilding Sabres team looking to snap a four-game losing streak. From there, the team will have stops in Ottawa, Edmonton, Vancouver and Calgary before wrapping things up against the Lightning in Tampa Bay on Jan. 17.
And although Gallant admitted that he had already begun looking ahead to this difficult trip almost immediately after Sunday’s victory, the players that packed a jovial Panthers locker room couldn’t help but take few moments to sit back and smile as they relished the team’s remarkable turnaround.
No smile, perhaps, was shining brighter than that of backup goaltender Al Montoya.
“We’ve earned it,” said Montoya, who stopped 39 of 40 shots to earn his fourth consecutive victory in relief of Roberto Luongo. “From top to bottom, guys are playing well. If it’s not this guy this one night, it’s another guy stepping up another night. It’s fun to be a part of games like this and a team like this right now. Let’s enjoy it. It only comes around so often. Let’s keep going.”
In recent weeks, it has been the play of Florida’s defense, anchored by Montoya and Luongo in net, that has been leading the team to victory, allowing just 28 goals in the last 17 games.
“We’ve got two great goalies behind us,” said winger Jonathan Huberdeau. “Every game, Montoya is incredible, and Luongo, too. It gives us confidence up front. We know our goalies will be there and it’s huge for us.”
So what’s the key to success for the upcoming road trip?
“Just win,” Gallant said with a grin. “We’re going to take it one game at a time like we do everything. It’s going to be a tough road trip. It’s a long road trip, but we’re going to come back, play hard and get ready to win.”
We’re Bringing Bjugy Back
After sitting out the past 15 games with migraines, center Nick Bjugstad was relieved that his long awaited return to the lineup didn’t throw a wrench into the team’s current winning streak.
“The team went on a streak without me,” Bjugstad said with a smile. “If I came in and we lost there, I’d have a tough time living with that.”
Bjugstad, the team’s leading goal scorer in each of the last two seasons, centered a line with Brandon Pirri and Logan Shaw, logging 11:08 of ice time as he worked to reacclimatize himself to the speed of the game.
“It takes a little bit [of time] to get used to the pace,” said Bjugstad. “The first few shifts I apologized to a few guys because I was trying to get used to the pace… I just wanted to get my legs under me and play simple tonight.”
“I’m happy with how I felt and I’ll just try to get better from here.”
The surging Panthers have quickly become must-see TV in South Florida as the team’s weekend tilts against the New York Rangers and Minnesota Wild drew the highest ratings for any hockey games on FOX Sports Florida this season. In fact, according to network, Saturday’s victory over the Rangers was the team’s most-watched game since November 9, 2013.
They’ve Got The Power
On the heels of yet another victory, the Panthers climbed from third to first in FOX Sports' NHL Power Rankings this week.
“Nine straight wins for the Florida Panthers, and their goaltending continues to look strong,” the article read.
Additionally, Florida also maintained the second-overall spot in ESPN’s rankings for the second consecutive week, trailing only the Eastern Conference-leading Washington Capitals.