WASHINGTON, D.C. – Roberto Luongo believes the Florida Panthers have “got a bit of our swagger back.”
With a 5-4 overtime win over the Washington Capitals on Saturday night at Capital One Arena, the Panthers picked up their sixth win in the last eight games, keeping the team’s playoff hopes alive heading into what is expected to be a thrilling final two months of the regular season.
“We’re believe in ourselves and the way we play,” said Luongo, who has won four of his last five starts. “We’ve been finding different ways to win. We’re getting a little bit of that momentum going like we did last year. It’s just a matter of keep plugging away night after night here.”
The Panthers (23-22-8) never trailed against the Capitals, holding a 4-2 lead early in the third period on goals from Frank Vatrano, Keith Yandle, Colton Sceviour and Derick Brassard before Brett Connolly and Evgeny Kuznetsov scored within a span of 10:42 to force the extra frame.
Starting overtime on a power play after Connolly slashed Aleksander Barkov with four seconds left in regulation, the Panthers used up nearly their entire man advantage before Yandle set up Mike Hoffman with a slick pass through the slot for the game-winning goal 1:31 into the period.
The goal was Hoffman’s team-leading 25th goal of the season and 11th on the power play.
“Yandle made a great pass through the seam, and it was an open net,” Hoffman said.
During Florida’s red-hot 6-2-0 stretch, all six wins have come against current playoff teams.
“We get in trouble when we look too big picture,” Panthers coach Bob Boughner said. “We know the position we’re in. Obviously we’re scoreboard watching every night. We’re just trying to take it one game at a time. I know it’s a bit of a cliché, but the minute we start talking about how many games we have, how many wins we need, that’s when we get in trouble.”
Here are five takeaways from Saturday’s win in the District…
1. FRANK STRENGTH
Vatrano’s breakout season is showing no signs of slowing down.
Almost immediately after the final second had ticked off Florida’s first power play of the contest, Vatrano jumped on a loose puck in the slot and whacked it past goaltender Braden Holtby and into the net to break the ice and put the Panthers on top 1-0 at 12:55 of the first period. “
[Holtby] doesn’t do well with traffic,” said Vatrano, who has lit the lamp seven times over the last 13 games. “No goalie really does. For us, that’s a big part of our game, making sure we get traffic and get shots through when we can.”
His 18th goal of the season, a team-leading 17 of Vatrano’s scores have come at even-strength, which also places him 24th in the NHL. In the midst of his first full season with the Panthers, the 24-year-old winger has already set new career-highs in both goals (18) and points (29).
Vatrano also ranks first among Florida’s forwards in blocked shots (46).
2. PINBALL WIZARD
You know what’s better than a 1-0 lead? A 2-0 lead!
Just 35 seconds after Vatrano’s opening score, the Panthers fired up the red light once again, as Yandle unleashed a one-timer from almost on top of the blue line that bounced off a body in the slot and pinballed its way past Holtby to extend the lead to 2-0 at 13:30 of the first period.
A 2019 NHL All-Star, Yandle has now matched his goal total from last season with eight. The 32-year-old also leads Florida’s defensemen in points (42) and assists (34). And with an assist on Hoffman’s game-winner, he tallied his 27th power-play point, which leads all NHL blueliners.
“Troch [Vincent Trocheck] just told me what happened,” Yandle said of Hoffman’s goal. “I don’t really know how [the puck] got to my stick. I was going down and it came right on my stick. Then I saw Hoff open. He made a great shot.”
The NHL’s active ironman, Yandle has skated in 768 consecutive games.
3. CHANGE OF DIRECTION
It took almost 10 minutes for the Panthers to get a shot second period, but they made it count.
After Aaron Ekblad ripped a long shot from near the boards, Sceviour re-directed the puck past Holtby from in front to make it 3-1 at 9:17 of the middle frame. With the goal, Sceviour has now found the back of the net for the fifth time this season, including in each of the last two games.
As for Ekblad, the 23-year-old picked up his second assist of the night on the goal for his third multi-point game of the season. Florida’s leader in goals by a defenseman with 10, he’s also now registered seven points (two goals, five assists) over his last seven games.
Even though Brassard just got here, he’s already making history.
Acquired in a multi-player trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins last week, the 31-year-old veteran forward gave Florida some much-needed breathing room early in the third period – very early.
After Capitals defenseman Michal Kempny took a tumble off opening faceoff, Brassard cashed in on a juicy rebound after a shot from Evgenii Dadonov to make it 4-2 just seven seconds after the puck had dropped – the fastest goal to start a period in the 25-year history of the franchise.
The goal was Brassard’s 10th of the season, but first as a member of the Panthers. Moving up to the top line on Saturday night, he has now registered three points (one goal, two assists) in four games since the trade. Riley Sheahan, who also came over in the deal, has posted an assist.
“It’s nice to see Brass get rewarded with his first goal as a Panther,” Boughner said. “Riley’s doing his job. I liked the lines tonight. I really did.”
5. LUONGO’S LATEST MILESTONE
Luongo padded his Hall of Fame resume once again on Saturday night.
By simply suiting up and taking the ice against the Capitals, the 39-year-old appeared in his 1,029th NHL game, which moved him into a tie with Patrick Roy for the second-most games ever played by a goaltender in NHL history.
“It’s amazing what he’s been able to do throughout his career,” Yandle said. “It’s amazing to think about what an amazing goaltender he is and what a great guy. He’s a guy you cherish being around and being able to be teammates with him.”
Making 23 saves in Washington, Luongo also picked up the 483rd win of his NHL career, which is just one behind Ed Belfour for third place on the NHL’s all-time list. And, judging by his recent play, there’s no reason to assume he won’t get there sooner rather than later.
“We’re just playing to win games, trying to get back in the playoff race,” Luongo said. That’s my goal, personally. I want to take part in the playoffs again. [The milestones] are nice when they come and go, but it’s not something I really keep tabs on that much.”
Over his last five starts, Luongo has gone 4-1-0 while owning a .912 save percentage.