Penalty Kill, Saarela Boost Florida Panthers to Win in St. Louis

The Florida Panthers won one of their toughest games on schedule on Wednesday, beating the defending champion St. Louis Blues by a final score of 2-1.

The game, despite the obvious similarities in scoreline, was very similar to the Boston Bruins game from last week. Both teams laid out, playing physical, defensive hockey, something that the Florida Panthers have been getting better at.

After starting the game leading shots on goal 4-1 and in control of time of possession, goalie Chris Driedger pulled out a string of three straight saves to keep the Panthers tied. Driedger, who has a unreal save percentage of .973 against shots in the first period, stayed true to that early on.

Driedger would go on to win in his fourth consecutive start, but as the game moved on, the Panthers’ net minder would go on to face easier and easier shots to save. The Panthers defense, including MacKenzie Weegar and Mike Matheson, were fantastic at keeping shots from coming in too close, making Driedger’s night easier.

In a game that featured little separation with the first period winding down, it appeared that Weegar’s tripping call on Blues winger David Perron could help St. Louis (who were, at this point, outplaying Florida) open the scoring. Instead, the Panthers outshot St. Louis 3-0 on the power play, with massive credit going to both Erik Haula and Lucas Wallmark.

The two new Panthers, who might not have contributed as much as desired on the scoresheet, have been incredible on the penalty kill each and every night.

Fresh out of the box, MacKenzie Weegar had a fortunate chance for a breakaway, through on goal with no defensemen within several yards of him. Weegar, unfortunately, is one of the last guys Joel Quenneville would have liked to see with a 1-on-0 chance, and Blues shot-stopper Jordan Binnington made an incredible splits save.

As the game went on, the focus would move towards Binnington. After coming out of absolutely nothing to lead the Blues to the Stanley Cup last season, Binnington showed how good of a goalie he was tonight, robbing 32 of Florida’s 34 shots.

One of the more impressive saves he had came into the second period, when Weegar set up Aaron Ekblad, who moved in from the right wing, crashing the net. Unfortunately for Ekblad, Binnington did what he seems to always do, keep a cool head in tough situations, gloving the defenseman’s shot with ease.

St. Louis would take the lead a little over halfway through the game after the Florida Panthers didn’t finish their checks. A defensive zone clearance was cut out by Robert Thomas, who set up a wide-open Colton Parayko, firing above Driedger’s left shoulder into the top corner, 1-0 St. Louis. Parayko’s 10th goal of the season ties a career-high from last season in 17 less games.

Soon after, St. Louis would make one of their few mistakes, and Florida would take advantage. Marco Scandella, who was probably one of the worst performers on the night, was called for slashing, and the Panthers’ power play got a much-needed goal. It came from none other than Mike Hoffman, who sniped home an expertly-played cross-ice feed from Aleksi Saarela to level the game.

The goal was Hoffman’s 29th on the season, his seventh in his last nine games as he’s started to truly push for a new contract (regardless of where that may be). Saarela, who had been scratched for the last four games, picked up his first NHL assist, as well as his first point since the Vegas game coming on February 22nd.

The Panthers got off to a brilliant start in the third period, and it all seemed to come through last period’s primary assister, Saarela. Early on in the period, Saarela worked a breakaway chance, cutting in from the left wing, but his shot was parried by Binnington. As he made his way back to the bench, the winger was clearly frustrated, even banging his stick up against the floor in anger for missing the chance.

Saarela would be rewarded after the missed opportunity and would be the key role in putting the Panthers ahead for the first time tonight. Wallmark won an offensive zone draw, deflecting the puck to Saarela, who would wrap around the net, delivering a pinpoint pass to the other side to Brett Connolly, who let loose a relieved scream as the puck broke past Binnington to put the Panthers in front.

Connolly’s 19th goal of the season was his first in 12 games, and for someone who got off to such a hot November-December time frame, it was disappointing to see him go so long without a goal. Saarela picked up not just the assist, but his first career multi-point game in the NHL.

After that, it was the Panthers’ defense and penalty kill that held strong. After Anton Stralman took a penalty with roughly 5:30 to go, it looked like the Blues were going to find a way back into it. The Panthers surrendered just two shots on goal on the power play, then had to lay out for 2:00 minutes when St. Louis pulled the goalie, blocking shot after shot to keep the score the way it was.

The Panthers’ perseverance prevailed, winning 2-1, picking up their second straight win. This has now only been the second time since the All-Star Break the Panthers have won consecutive games, with the only other time coming on the 17th and 19th of last month at San Jose and Anaheim. Chris Driedger stopped 26 shots faced, moving to an unreal stat line of 7-2-1, 2.05 GAA, and .938 save percentage.

The win pulls Florida within one point of a playoff spot, regardless of seeding. The Panthers have played two games in hand, but are one win out of Carolina for the final wild card spot (CAR are in action tonight, away against Detroit). The Panthers are also now just one point behind the Maple Leafs for third in the division, with no games in hand.

Next: Aleksi Saarela Deserves More Play Time

The Cats will look to win three in a row for the first time since mid-January when they head to Dallas Thursday night to take on the Stars. Puck drop is scheduled for 8:30 P.M.

 

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