You’re forgiven if you were pessimistic when the Florida Panthers headed to the shootout Tuesday night against the Montreal Canadiens. After all, the Panthers were coming off a two game home stand that saw them drop two shootout losses to teams not even in the playoff conversation. With a third straight shootout on the road against the always tough Carey Price and the Panthers struggling for goals of any kind, it certainly set up for another heartache. And were it not for Scott Clemmensen and Wojtek Wolski, it very well may have been.
Clemmensen stopped all three attempts by the Habs while Wolski’s goal on the Panthers first attempt would give them the only one they needed in their comeback win 3-2 win. In all, Clemmensen stopped 27 of the 29 to give the Panthers a monster win off the bench for the second week in a row. And wasn’t goaltending a big knock on the Panthers coming into this season? There are a lot of teams in playoff positions that would probably love to have the 1-2 punch of Jose Theodore and Clemmensen with the way they have responded down the stretch. They’ve both been sensational in February and March.
It was Wolski who got things rolling for the Panthers in the first period as he collected a lose puck, raced up the right side on a 3-on-1, and fired a snap shot past Price to make it 1-0 at 13:04. The play looked similar to a play Sunday against the New York Islanders when in the same situation, Wolski all but turned his back to the net and decided to pass. The lessson: Sometimes being selfish in hockey can be a good thing, especially when you have numbers.
The lead would be short-lived however as Erik Cole made the Panthers pay for a Stephen Weiss penalty just :56 later when he buried a feed from Max Pacioretty past Clemmensen. It would stay 1-1 until 18:57 of the second when a Tomas Fleischmann turnover at the Hab blue line led to a 3-on-0 the other way that Louis LeBlanc finished with a gorgeous backhanded move.
Things were starting to look a little grim in the third until Mikael Samuelsson gave the Panthers a second lease on life in the game when he buried a back pass from Erik Gudbranson from the point to tie it at 2 with less than 8 minutes remaining, setting up the shootout heroics.
While this was not the most aesthetically pleasing game, there’s so much to love about it. With the win, the Panthers sweep the season series from the Habs (to go along with the season sweep of the Toronto Maple Leafs). And, cynic or not, you have to love the way this team found a way to come back from what could have been a disastrous finish to get that tying goal, then have Clemmensen (who is certainly not known for his shootout abilities) turn in a masterpiece in the skills competition. And of course, the best news, is that while the Panthers were playing this one, the Buffalo Sabres were putting it on the Washington Capitals in the US capital, putting the Panthers magic number at 6 (any combination of 3 Panther wins or 3 Capital regulation losses clinches the division for the Cats). So while the game itself was no masterwork of beauty, the results certainly are. And let’s face it, if (when?) the Panthers clinch the division title, no one is going to go back over the schedule to see HOW they won. And when you haven’t made the playoffs is a decade, results matter a hell of a lot more than beauty anyway.
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