“It was a heck of a game, first of all,” Panthers coach Bob Boughner said. “I think the guys played hard… Four out of six [points] on this road trip. There was a lot of hard hockey. There was a lot of overtime minutes. There was a lot of heavy minutes for guys. I just like the way we’re competing. We’re finding a way, we’re scraping away to get points.”
The Panthers (28-25-10) held a 3-1 lead after the first period thanks to Aaron Ekblad and a pair of power-play goals from Mike Hoffman, who hit the 30-goal mark for the first time in his career.
“It feels good,” Hoffman said of his own personal milestone. “You set goals and you try and reach them as the season goes along. I’m just glad I can help contribute in any way I can.”
In the second period, the Knights came out strong and made their push, flipping the script and rapidly scoring three consecutive goals of their own before Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov stopped the bleeding with a rebound goal that made it 4-4 with 54 seconds left in the frame.
Just 3:18 into the third period, Jonathan Huberdeau capped off a career-high four-point night by beating Malcolm Subban to give Florida a 5-4 lead. But at 15:42, Reilly Smith managed to net the equalizer for Vegas, firing a shot that bounced off a stick and in to make it 5-5 at 15:42.
Following a scoreless overtime, Subban stopped all three shooters he faced while defenseman Shea Theodore scored the only shootout goal the Knights would need to secure the 5-4 victory.
Sitting eight points behind Carolina for the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference with 19 games left to play, the Panthers have posted a solid 7-3-2 record over their last 12 games. “In our situation, we can’t be satisfied with only one point,” Huberdeau said.
Here are five takeaways from Thursday’s loss in Las Vegas…
1. HOFFMAN HITS 30
The first period belonged to Hoffman on Thursday night.
With the Panthers on the power play, Hoffman took a pass from Keith Yandle, skated towards the center of right circle and unleashed a wicked wrist shot that beat a heavily-screen Subban to make it a 1-1 game and start to swing some momentum in Florida’s favor at 14:34 of the period.
“I think any time you get a goal it generates a little momentum and energy throughout the bench,” Hoffman said of his icebreaker.
Less than five minutes after their opening tally, the Panthers were sent back to the power play, where Hoffman once again set up shop in the right circle before ripping a one-timer into the net just seven seconds into the man advantage to shock Vegas and put Florida up 2-1 at 18:31.
“The first [goal] was good puck movement and a good screen in front of the net by Barky. I just had to hit that short-side” Hoffman said. “The second time they just kind of took away everyone else and left me open. I think they adjusted later on, but obviously I’ll take those, for sure.”
On a red-hot scoring tear, Hoffman has tallied 15 points (seven goals, eight assists) over his last 14 games. Having already set a new career-high in goals with his 30th of the season against the Knights, the 29-year-old needs just four more points to match his career-best points total of 61.
“You can’t teach what he has,” Boughner said.
Hoffman is the fourth player to ever score 30 goals in his first season with the Panthers.
2. PLAYING WITH POWER
Florida’s power play is simply the best it’s ever been.
After a dominant 2-for-3 performance on Tuesday night, the Panthers are now operating at a 26.7 percent success rate with the man advantage this season, which not only ranks second in the NHL, but also stands as the best mark in franchise history by a very wide margin.
With two more power-play goals against the Knights, Hoffman pushed his team-leading total to 13, which places him seventh in the NHL. And with an assist on both of Hoffman’s goals, Yandle also jumped all the way up into a tie for second place in the NHL with his 32nd power-play point.
“Obviously our power play is in the position it is in the standings because of Hoff,” Boughner said. “Not to take anything away from the other four guys, but you see how dangerous a weapon he is, how teams key on him, which opens up the other side for Huby.”
3. EK-BLASTING OFF
Hoffman made scoring goals look so fun that Ekblad just had to get in on the action.
A mere 28 seconds after Hoffman’s first of two scores, Ekblad entered the offensive zone locked and loaded, taking a pass from Vincent Trocheck and blasting home a one-timer to extend Florida’s lead to 3-1 with 1:01 left on the clock in an absolutely thrilling opening frame.
His 12th goal of the season, Ekblad has found the back of the net more than any other Panthers defenseman and ranks tied for seventh among NHL blueliners on the year. At just 23 years old, the former first-overall pick has posted at least 10 goals in each of his first five NHL seasons.
In addition to his goals, Ekblad also averages the most ice time on the team (23:32).
4. HUBY’S HELPERS
Huberdeau is racking up assists at an historic rate this season.
The 25-year-old winger registered three helpers in the opening 20 minutes of Tuesday night’s game, matching a franchise record for the most points in a single period. With 47 assists on the season, Huberdeau needs pick up just six more to match Viktor Kozlov’s franchise record of 53.
Of his 47 assists, a team-high 29 have been primary, which is tied for 13th in the NHL and also a career-high. Second to only Barkov on the team in scoring with 65 points, Huberdeau, who also leads the team with 21 multi-point games, has recorded 13 points over his last seven games.
But in the early in the third, Huberdeau also got a chance to show off his scoring touch.
With the crease devolving into chaos after Subban was sent to the ice following a shot from Mike Matheson, Huberdeau managed to chip in the puck to put the Panthers ahead 5-4 just 3:18 into the final frame with his 18th goal of the season and fifth in his last six contests.
“I’m just trying to play hard every night, help the team,” Huberdeau said of his big night. “Points doesn’t really matter. I just want to help the team offensively, and that’s what I try to do.”
5. MORE FOR BARKOV
In a game that featured 10 combined goals, you knew Barkov would get one.
With the Panthers trailing 4-3 after a surrendering three straight goals to the Knights in a span of 8:29, Barkov jammed in a rebound through Subban’s pads after a Jamie McGinn shot to make it a 4-4 game with 54 seconds left in the middle frame.
Named the NHL’s “Second Star of the Week” on Monday, Barkov extended his season-high point streak to seven games on Thursday night, finishing with a goal and an assist in Vegas. In that torrid seven-game stretch, he has torched the opposition for eight goals and seven assists.
Now with 27 goals, Barkov needs just one more to match the career-high 28 he posted during the 2015-16 campaign. Florida’s scoring leader with 68 points, he’s also just seven shy of the career-best 78 points he posted last season – a mark he has 19 games left to try and eclipse.