Aleksander Barkov scored on a beautiful backhand move 3:24 into overtime to complete his first NHL hat trick, powering the needy Florida Panthers to a 4-3 win over the visiting Toronto Maple Leafs in an exciting, hard-fought game at the BB&T Center.
Barkov opened the scoring with a power-play goal with four seconds left in the first period, lifting the puck over a sprawled Frederik Andersen after taking a nice pass from Evgenii Dadonov, who took an equally fine one from Mike Hoffman after the former Senator collected a loose puck in the corner.
Florida’s power play clicked again 8:03 into the middle frame with Kasperi Kapanen off for hooking. This time, Jonathan Huberdeau got the goal, snapping in a shot from the middle of the left circle after taking a pass from Keith Yandle. Mike Hoffman drew the secondary assist on the goal, which came after the Cats applied a heavy dose of pressure on the shorthanded Maple Leafs.
Once again, the third period was kryptonite to the Panthers, as the Buds would rally to tie the game twice.
Jake Gardiner’s shot from the point deflected off John Tavares, that’s 20 for J.T., ending Roberto Luongo’s shutout bid at 10:24 and Mitch Marner put the moves on Frank Vatrano in the high slot before firing a shot home to even things up at 16:21, with the assists going to Nazem Kadri and Nikita Zaitsev.
The Panthers would quickly regain the lead 27 seconds later. Denis Malgin’s forechecking freed the puck from Travis Dermott long the boards in the Leafs end. Troy Brouwer swooped in to collect and then whipped a pass to a wide-open Barkov and he ripped a shot by Andersen blocker-side for his second of the night.
Barkov’s brace wouldn’t be enough, as the Buds would get their third of the stanza at 18:20 with Andersen off for an extra attacker. After Reilly and Gardiner played catch at the blue line, Reilly, who also assisted on the first Toronto goal, went to Marner and he beat Luongo from the right circle with a shot that went off the far post and in. Juho Lammikko gave Marner a little too much space, allowing him to take the pass and turn to his forehand before shooting and Mike Matheson was caught in a bad spot and ended up screening his own goalie.
The winning goal came with 1:36 left in the extra session after Huberdeau and Barkov combined to steal the puck away from Marner just outside the Toronto line. The dangerous pair entered the zone on a two-on-one break and Huberdeau’s pass just made it by Reilly’s reaching stick across to Barkov, who went forehand to backhand to pull Andersen to the ice before he slung the puck high into the net to complete the hatty.
Wow! What a win for the Panthers and what an individual performance by Barkov, who played one of his best games ever, with three goals and seven shots, outshining Tavares, Auston Matthews, Marner and William Nylander as the best player on the ice. Jonathan Hubderdeau continued his torrid scoring pace with a another two-point performance, giving him a Gretzky-like stat line of 21 points in his last 11 games. Yeah, Roberto Luongo gave up three in the third, but he made some huge saves among his 29 total stops, flashing the glove on a first period Nylander breakaway and again in the third on Ron Hainsey’s drive from the slot, to help keep the Buds at bay. This wasn’t the Panthers biggest win on the scoreboard, that was the 5-0 win over Boston, but it was probably the most satisfying and came against high-quality opponent. The Panthers only have beaten a few of the league’s best this season (Washington, Winnipeg and now Toronto) so today is a good day. Hopefully, this will provide the spark the team needs to climb out of the cellar and back into the wild card race.