BY SCOTT MORGANROTH
The last time the Florida Panthers faced the Columbus Blue Jackets was over Easter Weekend. The dates were April 3-4 with a Saturday Night and early Sunday Afternoon.
When the Blue Jackets and Panthers played on back-to-back days, Nick Foligno, David Savard and Riley Nash were on the Columbus Roster. The Panthers defeated the Blue Jackets 5-2 and 3-0 as Sergei Bobrovsky and Chris Driedger earned wins.
The Blue Jackets returned to Sunrise, FL to face the Panthers Monday Night but without Foligno, Savard and Nash. Savard is now with the Tampa Bay Lightning while Foligno and Nash took their talent to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Blue Jackets could have used the trio Monday Night as the Florida Panthers took care of business and defeated Columbus 4-2.
The Panthers made numerous moves in the past two weeks and had to find ways to make up for the loss of Aaron Ekblad.
You could tell that Florida was energized being back on home ice as going into the game, the Panthers were 14-4-3 at the BB&T Center.
Elvis was also in the building but not the one you’re thinking of, Presley.
The Blue Jackets goaltender was Elvis Merzlikins and he was solid all night stopping 33 shots despite falling to 6-11-2.
What we saw were contributions from the new and the old.
The Panthers opened the scoring at 8:20 of the first period as Alex Wennberg battled behind the net and the puck popped out to Frank Vatrano who was waiting in the slot then slapped it past Merzlikins to give Florida a 1-0 lead. Vatrano would later score an empty net goal and had a chance at a Hat Trick but was unable to convert on a penalty shot. Vatrano now has 17 goals this season.
Now with the new.
The Panthers acquired Sam Bennett (24) along with a 2022 sixth round pick before the trade deadline from the Calgary Flames for a 2022 second round draft choice and prospect and prospect Emil Heineman.
If first impressions mean anything which we know they do, then Bennett made some good ones.
It took him just 59 seconds into the second period to score his first goal as a Panther on a wrist shot to give Florida a 2-0 lead. Jonathan Huberdeau and Anthony Duclair assisted on the tally.
But on this night, the goal was just the appetizer for Bennett as Duclair was leveled in front of the penalty box as Gavin Bayreuther sent him to the ice.
Bennett took exception to this and he was assessed an instigator, fighting and misconduct penalty for sticking up for his teammate at the 12:27 mark. He would return to play in the third period.
That didn’t go unnoticed after the game. Bennett was two thirds of the way from getting a Gordie Howe Hat Trick by getting a goal, a fight but not the assist.
Columbus trimmed the Panthers lead to 2-1 as Oliver Bjorkstrand got his team leading 15th goal of the season at the 13:22 mark in the second.
Before the PA Announcer could mention this, the Panthers wasted no time by regaining a two goal lead as Radko Gudas notched his second goal of the campaign with assists going to Duclair and Gustav Forsling. The Panthers were up 3-1.
The Blue Jackets added a third period goal from Zac Dale with Eric Robinson and Andrew Peeke getting assists to close the deficit to 3-2.
I have been watching Hockey my entire life and if there is a player that could have played during the good old days where fighting was the norm and not the exception, there is no doubt that Bennett could have fit in nicely!
I wouldn’t be surprised to see him become a fan favorite very quickly and his jersey sales become a hot commodity.
The era I’m referring to was the 1970’s and 1980’s when the NHL had 12 teams.
This guy is truly a spark plug and the way he came to the defense of his teammate was impressive!
And the guy can score.
In his first two games as a Panther, he’s produced three points, with a goal and two assists. He has recorded a point in each of his last six games, amassing a goal, seven assists for eight points.
There was nobody more appreciative about Bennett’s presence than Duclair.
“The acquisition of (Sam) was huge for us. He’s a big force down the middle, obviously with Huby(forward Jonathan Huberdeau) one of the best playmakers in the league. I appreciate that much. He’s (Sam) is a great teammate and we’re lucky to have him. It’s awesome to see him have a fresh start from Calgary.”
Coach Joel Quenneville added, “Benny (forward Sam Bennett) has come in here from Calgary and he’s had a couple nice games for us. He gave us some presence physically and does what he has to do. Bennett will be more valuable during playoff time and I really like his competitiveness.”
Gudas was also singing the praises of Bennett.
“He uses his body really well, he’s a great presence on the ice, he does little things right. It was awesome to see him come in and make sure guys don’t take advantage of us. Great response from him and the team.
“We try to make the new guys feel as welcome as we can and we’re trying to play as one big unit, one man. We have each other’s backs and the guys feel that.”
Meanwhile, Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky improved his record to 17-7-2. He is 5-0 against the Blue Jackets and 34 of 36 Blue Jackets shots. He was solid all night.
But make no bones about it that as Bobrovsky said the Panthers weren’t going to take the Blue Jackets lightly.
“It was a good game. Sometimes, it’s not easy to play those games where an opponent has nothing to lose. I thought the guys were strong and played solid, solid offensively and defensively when it’s needed. We’ve got some new guys and we just keep building our game. Everybody keeps delivering and everybody brings energy to the table.”
Bobrovsky said he enjoys facing his old team.
“It’s always fun to win and definitely against the former team. It definitely gives you a little more of an edge. I’m happy to have those numbers against Columbus but when every game is so important, every game is fighting for two points, you just focus and don’t think too much about the outside.”
With the win, the Panthers improved to 29-12-5 and have earned at least a point in each of their past four games (3-0-1). The Panthers are tied for first place in the Central Division with the Carolina Hurricanes with 63 points.
Florida is now 6-0-1 vs the Blue Jackets this season.
The loss dropped Columbus to 15-23-9 and they slipped to eighth place in the Central behind the Detroit Red Wings, who are 16-24-7 but own the tiebreaker with more wins. Both teams have 39 points.
So tonight at the BB&T Center, the Panthers enter a crucial contest and it’s highly likely that heralded 20-year old goaltender Spencer Knight will make his NHL Debut according to Coach Quenneville.
As if there wasn’t enough energy on display Monday Night with Bennett’s home debut, I’ll be looking forward to seeing the goaltender of the future play in a real meaningful game as we head down the stretch and the Panthers attempting to win the Central Division.
Tonight’s game starts at 7 pm at the BB&T Center.
Scott Morganroth can be reached at email@example.com. You can follow him on Twitter @TribuneSouth and subscribe to The SouthFloridaTribune You Tube Channel for free.