SUNRISE, Fla. – There’s a buzz around the BB&T Center these days, and, no, it’s not coming from the droves of mosquitos nesting in the swamps of the nearby Everglades.
After a thrilling 5-4 shootout victory over the Vancouver Canucks on Sunday night, the Florida Panthers have now won 10 of their past 13 games and have a chance to enter the holiday break on a five-game winning streak if they can take care of business against the Ottawa Senators at home on Tuesday.
“It’s been a real good run,” said head coach Gerard Gallant. “We’ve got one more huge game coming up here Tuesday before the break. Ottawa came in here last time and beat us in a real good hockey game, but we’ve battled back. The last 20 games have been really good for our club.”
Once trailing the Montreal Canadiens by as many as 17 points in the standings, the red-hot Panthers have battled back to not only claim the first wild card spot in the Eastern Conference, but also now sit only three points behind first-place Montreal in the Atlantic Division.
The turnaround has been so sudden, in fact, that when told of the team’s current lot in the standings a few players even seemed a little surprised by just how quickly their fortunes had improved.
“I did not know that until you just said it,” said forward Shawn Thornton, who scored his first goal of the season in Sunday’s victory. “We’ve just got to keep being consistent here.
“It’s a long season. We’ve got a lot of time between now and April, but we’re a confident group and we know we’re a good team. If we keep playing the right way, hopefully we’ll get the results.”
The driving force behind Florida’s recent resurgence has been a combination of exceptional defense and goaltending. The team has allowed one goal or less in eight of its last 12 games, including a shutout against the Carolina Hurricanes on Dec. 18.
On Sunday, however, it was the offense that took center stage as future Hall of Famer Jaromir Jagr scored his 10th goal of the season and 732nd of his career to overtake Marcel Dionne for fourth place on the NHL’s all-time goal scoring list.
“It’s special,” Jagr said of the milestone. “I’ve played with a lot of great players. That’s made it a lot easier for me. I started in Pittsburgh with great players and hopefully I’m going to finish here with great players.”
The historic tally came on the power play with 11.5 seconds remaining in the first period after the 43-year-old forward corralled a cross-ice pass from Aleksander Barkov and one-timed it over the shoulder of Canucks goaltender Ryan Miller.
“That goal is so sweet and the win is even sweeter,” said Jagr.
“The most important thing, for me, is that we play good hockey. It’s not like some lucky win and we have to worry about it. Even though we were down today, I thought we played a great game. We had a lot of scoring chances and played in their zone all the time. We had to believe that it was only a matter of time before we won the game. I’m glad we’re playing good hockey right now.”
With their holiday break on the horizon, Jagr and the Panthers will soon enjoy several days of well-earned rest in preparation for the grueling journey that lies ahead of them. For although they are happy to have clawed their way back into the playoff hunt, the long battle to stay there will soon begin.
“If you have a bad week, you’re right down at the bottom again,” said Gallant. “The NHL is so close. Any team can come in here and beat you. If you’re not ready to play, you’re going to lose games. It’s good to see where we’re at right now, but there’s still a long way to go.”