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Panthers begin critical holiday road trip in Buffalo

It’s amazing that one thrilling 4-3 overtime victory at BB&T Center over the star-studded Toronto Maple Leafs to snap a four-game losing streak can boost a team’s collective psyche and confidence enough to go on a run.

At least that’s what the 12-13-6 Panthers are hoping for as they head out for a critical four-game, six-day holiday trip that starts in Buffalo on Tuesday.

“I thought that was outstanding compete by us,” Panthers coach Bob Boughner said Saturday, a day after he publicly called out his top line for not giving maximum effort in Thursday’s 5-1 loss in Minnesota.

“I knew we had a tough game against a real good team. The only thing to equalize things was to check all the boxes, whether it’s a blocked shot or taking a hit, or giving a hit, or clearing out the net. I really liked the way we came to play. We had a good sense of urgency and at the end of the day that probably was the difference.”

“It’s been a bit of a struggle, a lot of ups and downs, maybe it’s a game like this that can kick start something and play with that same compete we did [Saturday].”

Boughner, who rarely criticizes his players, chewed out his high-scoring trio of center Aleksander Barkov, wingers Jonathan Huberdeauand Mike Hoffman, saying that Minnesota’s “best players were better than our best players. I thought [Barkov’s] line looked slow all game.

“Even when you’re down, the message is play to the buzzer and play with pride. I thought some guys did and I didn’t think some guys did.”

Against the Wild, Barkov and his linemates managed just four shots, zero points, a combined minus-4 and were 0 for 2 on a power play that has been ranked No. 1 since Nov. 1.

Message delivered and heard, as the trio atoned Saturday, especially Barkov, who notched his first career hat trick in his 362nd game, including a spectacular overtime backhand winner off a sweet feed from Huberdeau.

The trio combined for 12 shots, seven by Barkov, all four goals, including two power-play tallies, and seven points. Barkov has 22 points (12-10) over his past 20 games.

“I still probably can’t believe it’s been like 10 years since my last hat trick, and I kind of forgot how it feels,” Barkovsaid. “A couple of times we beat pretty good teams and the next games haven’t been that good, so we need to make sure that next game we’re going to come hard and play the same way we played against Toronto. They’re probably one of the best teams in the league right now … We need to build on this and should feel confident right now.”

Boughner was stunned when he heard it was Barkov’s first hat trick in his sixth season.

“I had no idea,’’ he said. “Especially, that last game they probably had their worst game of the year and they knew it. They know they have to be our best players every night to give us a chance. They definitely did that.’’

Barkov received high praise from both locker rooms.

“Obviously, Barkov was the best player on the ice by 10 miles,” Leafs coach Mike Babcock said after watching his 21-10-2 club lose four of five (1-2-2). “Their team was desperate, they hadn’t won in a while, and our desperation didn’t match their skill level.”

Still, the Panthers nearly followed their disturbing trend of blowing third-period leads. Last season, they were an amazing 29-1-1 with a lead after two periods.

This season they had already lost five games in a similar scenario (7-2-3) and were just 4-6 in overtime.

So when former Islanders stalwart John Tavares ended Roberto Luongo’s shutout bid with a nifty deflection of Jake Gardiner’s slap shot at 10:24 of the third, his 20th, to make it 2-1, the chants of, “Go Leafs Go,” reverberated around the arena.

Then Leafs assist king Mitchell Marner scored the first of his two dazzling third-period goals at 16:21 from the slot. But just 37 seconds later Panthers fans drowned out the Leafs diehards after Barkov converted a pass from Troy Bouwer.

“He’s got a lot of moves in his basket,” said Marner, whose 35 assists are third most in the NHL as of Sunday. “He’s a deadly player out there.”

With the Leafs’ net vacated, Marner ripped a rising wrister off the post and past Luongo at 18:20 to force overtime.

Nervous Panthers fans seemed to emote a, “Here we go again groan,” and another deflating home loss.

Instead the Panthers escaped the Eastern Conference basement after old, young pals, Huberdeau and Barkov conjured up some of their OT magic.

“In overtime those two have some crazy chemistry,’’ Boughnersaid.

Even rookie forward Jayce Hawryluk, playing in his first NHL game, was awed by Barkov.

“[Barkov’s] a legend,” Hawryluk said. “He’s unreal.”

The 23-year-old Barkov snickered when he heard about the 22-year-old Hawryluk’s compliment.

“He’s a legend in my opinion, too,’’ cracked the captain.


Injured forward Nick Bjugstad (upper body injury) is improving but Boughner wasn’t sure if he would travel with the team.

▪ Rookie center Henrik Borgstrom played with Evgenii Dadonov and Frank Vatrano on the second line in his season debut.

Borgstrom, 21, played 12:18, had one shot, one blocked shot and went 8-4 on faceoffs.

“Desperation and every guy, even the young guys, Hawryluk played great; Borgy played great. We got real good performances,” Boughner said.

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