BY SCOTT MORGANROTH
What did the Florida Panthers have to play for Monday Night?
First, the Cardiac Cats are tied for second place in the Central Division with the Tampa Bay Lightning with 40 points.
The Panthers entered the contest 18-5-4 and is 5-1 in the last six games.
Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky had a season high five-game winning streak.
The team that resides at the top of the division is one that’s currently on an eight-game winning streak, the Carolina Hurricanes, who have 41 points.
Yes, the same Hurricanes that have beaten the Panthers three times in the past couple weeks.
Second, a chance to sweep the Chicago Blackhawks in Sunrise.
Going into the game, the Panthers were 3-0 versus the Blackhawks, and a win would leap frog the Panthers into first place. The Nashville Predators defeated the Lightning 4-1 earlier in the day.
The Panthers defeated the Blackhawks 5-2 on Sunday, January 17, the two days later Tuesday, January 19, won 5-4 in OT. On Saturday, March 13, Florida defeated Chicago 4-2.
During their past eight games against Chicago, the Panthers have earned points by going 5-0-3.
How would things play out?
The way the generally do for Florida.
The opponent scores the opening goal of the night and this time it was Chicago’s Patrick Kane, who had the honors by notching his 12th goal of the season.
On this night, Kane grabbed sole possession of fifth place on the U.S.-born scoring list. His 1.06 career points per-game is the best among any player in the top five and trailing only Pat Lafontaine’s mark of 1.17 among American born players.
Kane, 32, is also the only U.S. born player to ever win the Hart Trophy as league MVP.
As we’ve seen all-season, what would a game be like if the Panthers didn’t trail by two goals?
The Blackhawks led 3-1 at one point in the second period.
Special teams played a huge role in the contest as Florida scored two power play goals and tallied a short-handed goal.
Florida has scored two power play goals for the eighth time this season.
What have we seen a lot lately?
Bobrovsky delivered that by stopping 26 shots and there were plenty of great saves which would subsequently earn him the third star of the contest.
He earned his sixth consecutive win (his longest win streak with Florida).
The heavy hitters continued to post big numbers.
Aaron Ekblad scored his 10th goal of the season, Aleksander Barkov notched his 12th which turned out to be the game winner and Carter Verhaeghe added his 11th.
Ekblad is the fastest Panthers defenseman (28 games played) to reach 10 goals in a season in franchise history. Verhaeghe leads the Panthers with 11 even strength goals.
To seal the victory, Florida scored two empty net goals and earned the 6-3 win and has now swept the Blackhawks 4-0 in South Florida during the 2021 season.
When it comes to adversity, the Panthers know how to overcome it well.
Florida now has five multi-goal comeback victories, which ranks tied with Winnipeg for the most among NHL teams this season.
The Panthers improved to 19-5-4 with 42 points which is the most in the NHL.
Their home mark is 9-3-3 and own the fewest regulation losses among all NHL teams.
The Panthers have won their fourth straight game, their longest win steak of the season.
For the first time in more than 24 years, the Panthers occupy first place in the NHL Standings, beyond their second game of the season.
The last such instance before Monday was through games played on December 28, 1996 (20-8-9, 49 points).
Who would have thought this would happen?
Coach Quenneville knows what it likes to win championships as he’s won three with the Chicago Blackhawks.
He was quite pleased with the win.
“They had a lot of energy tonight, they were into it. Very noticeable that the guys are finding ways to win. That’s an important thing.
“I thought we did a great job denying lanes and seam passes (on the penalty kill). We had some clears tonight that were effective, getting in the shooting lanes and Bob (Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky) had some tight plays that cleaned up and anticipated as well.”
Despite the fact that the Panthers have the most amount of points through the unofficial halfway point in the regular season, he’s well aware of the road ahead for Florida.
“We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us, and we know that. We’re going to take a few days here to rest, recuperate and get ready for the next one.
“We’re going to take it day by day, go into the next game and try to win it. That’s going to be the mentality that we need to have and not worry about anything else.”
To no surprise of anyone, Barkov was the No.1 star of the game. He played in his 507th NHL Game, surpassing Bill Lindsay for 10th most games in franchise history. He has produced six points (3-3-6) over the past two contests, and four goals over the past three games.
There was very little doubt in his mind about what his objective for the Panthers.
“All I want to do is work hard for this team and give everything I have on the ice. I want to win and we’ve been winning, so this is a lot of fun.
“We’ve been winning games, playing really well, really good hockey. Everyone is having fun on the ice and that’s when everyone starts to notice you. Half of the season right now, we’re in a good spot so we’ve got to keep playing and keep building our game.”
Going into the game, the Panthers as an NHL Franchise had amassed 5,498 goals.
They eclipsed the 5,500 mark with another six bringing that total to 5,504.
They’re all-time record against the Blackhawks is 17-18-3-7 and improved the home mark to 10-9-1-4 in the land of Palm Trees and Beaches.
These two teams will see each other next on Tuesday, March 23rd and Thursday, March 25th at the United Center.
Florida returns to the Windy City on Thursday, April 29th and Saturday, May 1st, as these squads gear up for important matchups as the Stanley Cup Playoffs approach.
There is no doubt that the Panthers have had their way with Chicago (14-11-5) 33 points thus far.
But there is a lot of important hockey to be played for the second half of the season and you can rest assure the Blackhawks will come out fired up against Florida when they meet again.
Up next for Florida, they’ll face the Nashville Predators at 7 PM, Thursday Night, a team that I mentioned earlier defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning on the road, Monday.
Scott Morganroth can be reached at email@example.com and you can follow him on Twitter @TribuneSouth.
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