Lads and lassies, the Florida Panthers are closer than they’ve been in years to reaching the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow: the playoffs.
All Irish and St. Patrick’s Day puns aside, the Panthers put forth another solid performance to earn their fourth victory in a row, a first since the 2008 calendar year. Until last night, that fourth win has been elusive for the team, having missed three prior opportunities so far this year to notch number four. But a little home cookin’ and a little shootout magic put the Panthers over the edge for the first time since the Jacques Martin era.
But the Buffalo Sabres would not lie down in front of the Panthers for an easy win. They’ve got playoff aspirations as well, sitting in the ninth spot of the the Eastern Conference. And the much of that first period was a testament to how well the Sabres played last night. The first was a period marked by a lack of chances for the Panthers, which made it nearly impossible to answer an early Buffalo breakaway goal: Tyler Ennis swept the puck through Jose Theodore‘s five-hole, even without getting a solid shot on net. The Panthers had trouble on offense for most of the period: shots were missing the net, passes weren’t connecting, and Buffalo had most of the time on attack. All the way up until 17:15 of the first, the Panthers still hadn’t generated a shot on goal, but all that changed when Mikael Samuelsson smacked a one-timer off the crossbar and in on the power play to give the Panthers a tie. And only 38 seconds later, John Madden took a feed from Ed Jovanovski and raced up the left side of the ice. On the rush he wristed a shot past Ryan Miller’s short side, giving the veteran his second goal in two games. So after a first period for the most part of offensive futility, the Panthers snuck into the locker room with a 2-1 lead.
The second period was a little better for Florida in terms of quantity of chances, but it’s result didn’t translate well on the scoreboard. Derek Roy scored on the backhand for a power play goal after scooping up a rebound in the slot and depositing the puck behind a screened Theodore. The events that led up to the play were perhaps not totally frowned upon for the Panthers, however. It started when Mike Weber of Buffalo took a high shot at Tomas Kopecky along the blue line, knocking off his helmet. Shawn Matthias went right up to Weber and got a fight going behind the play as the puck went up towards the Buffalo side of the ice. As nice as it was for Matthias to stick up for his linemate, the fight gave Matthias an instigating penalty on top of the five-minute fighting major. The Sabres converted on the power play seconds later, so chalk that fight up as “ill-timed”.
The third period felt eerily similar to most of the first period for the Panthers. They were buzzing, trying to get scoring chances, but not enough pucks were put on net. Shots were blocked at the point, passes were missing their targets again, and the Florida defense played fairly conservatively, knowing the type of breakout Buffalo has. The Sabres did get quite a few opportunities to break in on Theodore, but the goalie was able to hang solid for each attempt. Even though Buffalo had many more chances than the Panthers to wrest the lead away, they couldn’t get one past Jose and the game would go on to overtime. The third period would be only an appetizer to how brilliant both Ryan Miller and mostly Jose Theodore would be.
After a quick and uneventful first period for both teams, the game would go into the bane of the Panthers’ existence: the shootout. The odds looked stacked against Florida going in, having to face a team with a few different shootout specialists to choose from and one Olympic goalie. However, it would be Florida who would get on the board first as Wojtek Wolski rang a shot off the crossbar and in, a la Samuelsson. It would be Wojtek’s first shootout goal as a Panther, and hopefully the wizard can stick in one or two more before the season ends. But the Panthers’ lead would be short-lived, as Tyler Ennis came back to haunt the Panthers by putting in another goal. The scrappy forward appeared to lose the puck, but he gathered it in and put it over the confused Theodore. Scoring would cease all the way until the seventh round as great saves were made by both Jose and Ryan Miller. The seventh shooter sent out was the man who had been out of commission for weeks, Dmitry Kulikov. Even though he was “way down on the batting order,” as Coach Kevin Dineen put it, he still made a masterful move to get the puck to his backhand and flip it up over Miller. All Theodore would need to do was to stop Drew Stafford of Buffalo, which of course he did. The building erupted, the Panthers were pumped, and the cushion expanded between them and the rest of the bubble teams. Playoff hockey is looking more likely day after day now.
The streak the Panthers have been on can’t be overstated right now: four in a row, all at home, and five in a row at home reaching back to before the homestand. As of right now, the Panthers are five points up on Washington, seven points up on Winnipeg, and only two points back from Boston for the second seed in the Eastern Conference. The Panthers can’t afford to be complacent (and Coach Dineen will make sure of that), but this little cushion we have is quite enjoyable. Here’s to making it even larger by the end of the year!
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