SUNRISE, Fla. –As they prepare for their first road game of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Florida Panthers appear to be brimming with a unique brand of confidence that can only be brought about by a mixture of victory and, of course, the sight of a few hundred flying rubber rodents.
After dropping Game 1 of their opening-round playoff series against the New York Islanders on Thursday, the Panthers buckled down and battled back to even things up at one game apiece less than 24 hours later with a 3-1 victory over the Isles at the BB&T Center on Friday.
“I think (the mood) is real good,” head coach Gerard Gallant said before his team boarded their flight to New York on Saturday. “We had a big game last night and we had a good win. Anytime you win a hockey game, you’re in a good mood.
“I think the first two games have been close games and good battles. I think you see two hockey teams that are quite evenly matched. There’s not much give or take between both teams and, so far, the series has been real good.”
As the Panthers look to reclaim home-ice advantage with a victory in Game 3 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn on Sunday, Gallant will likely once again turn to red-hot winger Reilly Smith, who scored the first goal and set up Nick Bjugstad‘s game-winner on Friday, to provide Florida’s offense with an early spark.
“He just got better every game and, like you said, he’s got a great shot and he goes to the net and that’s where he scores goals,” Gallant said of Smith. “Tonight was a perfect example of going to the net, rebound goal and banging one home.”
Smith, who had two goals and an assist in Game 1, has wasted little time in establishing himself as a player to watch this postseason, with his five points (3-2—5) in two games placing him second behind only Tampa Bay’s Tyler Johnson for the playoff scoring lead.
"It seems like the puck is following me around right now, and I have to give a lot of credit to my linemates," said Smith, who has been playing with Bjugstad and Jussi Jokinen since March 31. "It's awesome to be able to help the team on this stage. It seems like there's a lot of dirty goals at this time of year and I just try to get to the net and find pucks."
At this point, the biggest concern for the 25-year-old isn’t whether or not he’ll continue to find the back of the net in the coming weeks, but rather how he should be handling himself after the red light goes off and the siren sounds.
“I think I’ve got to start figuring out some different celebrations,” Smith joked. “It’s awesome to be able to help the team on this stage; that’s the biggest thing and it feels great to do that.”
Luongo Bounces Back
Although Smith gave the Panthers the early lead they needed on Friday, it was up to redemption-minded goaltender Roberto Luongo to make sure that it held – and boy, did he ever.
After surrendering five goals on just 26 shots less than 24 hours earlier, the 37-year-old Luongo was looking more like his old self on Friday, stopping 41 of 42 shots to earn his first-ever playoff victory with the Panthers.
"It's important to play well as much as you can every game as much as possible," Luongo said. "It's a long series, so we'll enjoy tonight but it's back to work tomorrow. I mean, they all feel good. It's playoffs, man."
As the Panthers prepare for what they hope will be a deep postseason run, it’s clear that the team plans to live and die with Luongo between the pipes. The coaching staff has shown that they have the utmost faith in his abilities and, if you ask Gallant, there was never any reason to believe he wouldn’t bounce back from Game 1.
"The last two years I had this guy in nets and he's one of the best goalies in the league in my opinion," Gallant said. "We knew he was going to bounce back tonight. I don't think he was bad last night. I just think they made some great shots. Tonight he was outstanding and that's what we expected. We knew he was going to have a good game."
Matheson Solid in Playoff Debut
In just the fourth NHL game of his young career, rookie defenseman Mike Matheson did not out of place during his highly anticipated playoff debut with the Panthers on Friday.
The smooth-skating blueliner registered one shot and one block with a plus-one rating in 13:28 of ice time while playing alongside Alex Petrovic on Florida’s bottom pairing.
“I was real happy with the way he played,” Gallant said of Matheson. “He’s like every other player - he made a mistake of two. But, overall, it was a real good, solid game and he showed he belongs.”
Matheson, 22, was selected by the Panthers in the first round (23rd overall) of the 2012 NHL Draft.
Looking for somewhere to watch Game 3 on Sunday, April 17?
If so, come join the party on 201 SW 2nd Street in Ft. Lauderdale where fans will be watching the Panthers battle the Islanders on a 16-foot LED outdoor TV in what promises to be a fun event for all ages.
The festivities will begin at 6:30 p.m. prior to 8:00 p.m. puck drop. JEY Hospitality will be hosting the block party and will be offering food and beverage specials throughout the game. Playoff merchandise will also be available for purchase at the block party.
See you there!