Sunday, April 25, 2021

Panthers Somewhat Solve Carolina Hurricanes

 BY SCOTT MORGANROTH 

I have to tell you that I had a lot of great vibes on my way to the BB&T Center Saturday Night when the Florida Panthers hosted the Carolina Hurricanes for the final regular season meeting.

First of all, it was “Hockey Fights Cancer Night” as everybody was asked to wear purple. I proudly wore my purple shirt since I have lost family members and close friends to this dreaded disease. The Panthers wore purple pregame jerseys to commemorate the cause.

When the puck dropped, and Keith Yandle skated on his first shift, he moved past Gary Unger for second on the all-time iron-man list playing in 915 consecutive games. 

Doug Jarvis holds the all-time record at 964 which if Yandle continues to play, he can eclipse that mark during the 2021-22 season. Yandle has not missed a game since March 22, 2009, when he was a member of the Arizona Coyotes. 

I had the good fortune of watching Unger play when he was a member of the Detroit Red Wings and then was traded to the St. Louis Blues.

When I use the adjective, “Somewhat” I meant exactly just that as the Panthers needed 60:24 minutes to defeat the Hurricanes 4-3 in overtime. 

Carolina won the season series 6-0-2. 

If you’re looking for a four digit lottery number, then take 6024.

There is no doubt that this game had a playoff feel to it. 

The Hurricanes have given the Panthers fits all-season long. Thursday Night, the Panthers inept 1-9 showing on the power play led to a 4-2 defeat.

During this game, Florida trailed 1-0 and 3-1. The Panthers power play continued to have issues as they went 0-4. But the play on special teams wasn’t a total loss as Florida did score a short-handed goal.

The Hurricanes started quickly as Dougie Hamilton scored 3:25 into the game. This was the first of two goals for Hamilton who was named the game’s second star. He would score his eight goal of the year at 1:35 in the second period coming on a power play that gave the Hurricanes a 2-1 advantage.

Carolina took a 3-1 lead as Brett Pesce scored his fourth goal of the year.

At that point, it seemed like the Panthers were reeling and the question remained, what will it take to finally beat their division nemesis?

That question was answered very quickly as Florida scored an even strength goal by Gustav Forsling at 15:12 in the third period. The assists went to MacKenzie Weegar and Jonathan Huberdeau and the deficit was trimmed to 3-2.

This goal seemed to energize everyone in the building!

The Cardiac Cats continued to press then at 13:40 left in the final frame, Alex Wennberg scored his 12 goal of the season and did it short-handed tying the game at 3-3. Anthony Duclair and Weegar got the assists. Wennberg’ s short-handed goal was his second of his career and Florida’s third of the season.

There is no secret that the heart of this team is captain Aleksander Barkov. He led Florida in time on the ice playing 23:58 minutes.

He made every second count because he scored the game winning goal 24 seconds into overtime to give the Panthers a 4-3 win. This goal was a beauty as Weegar passed the puck to Goaltender Chris Driedger who then passed it to Barkov. Barkov skated the length of the ice and as his head was looking away from Hurricanes goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic shot the puck and it tricked under the net minders legs and into the back of the net.

It was Barkov’s fifth career overtime game-winning goal, extending his goal streak to three games (4-0-4). He now his 22 goals this season and has amassed nine goals and 12 points (9-3-12) over his past 12 contests. With Barkov’s fifth OT goal, he joins Olli Jokinen (10), Aaron Ekblad (5) and Stephen Weiss (5) as the only players in franchise history to score five goals in OT.

Weegar had a tremendous evening as he recorded a career-high four points (1-3-1) tied for the most points by a Panthers defenseman in a regular season game in franchise history. He is the second Panthers defenseman to do so this season (Aaron Ekblad, 2-2-4, March 4 vs Nashville). He was the game’s No. 3 Star.

Weegar is the seventh defenseman in franchise history to have registered four points in a game joining Jay Bouwmeester, Brian Campbell, Aaron Ekblad, Bret Hedican, Bryan McCabe and Keith Yandle.

Weegar also tied his career-high with four shots on goal, blocked seven shots and registered seven hits. Weegar’s seven blocked shots are the most by a Panther this season and tied for the fifth most blocked shots in a game by a Panther since the NHL began tracking blocked shots in 2005-06.

As for Driedger, he reminded me of a pitcher helping his own cause. When a pitcher gets a win then contributes offensively, then this is what I mean as he recorded the assist on the game winning goal  by Barkov. 

He is the fourth goaltender in club history joining some excellent company to record an assist on an overtime goal. Ed Balfour, March 1, 2007, Roberto Luongo, March 11, 2004 and Jon Vanbiesbrouk , November 22, 1996 pulled the trick.

Driedger stopped 16 shots but made the big saves when he had to improving his record to 13-5-2. 

The Panthers out shot the Hurricanes 36-19 and they weren’t phased by the physical play of the Hurricanes, who out hit them 34-27.

The main thing is that the Panthers got a win and improved to 31-13-5 with 67 points in 49 games to remain in second place in the Central Division behind the first place Hurricanes. Carolina’s record stands at 31-10-6 with 68 points in 47 games.

When the game was over, there was a lot of relief that the Panthers were able to finally get a win again as the Hurricanes. There was a lot of praise to go around.

Coach Joel Quenneville said to us that he was glad to get the win and while the two points was great, he wanted to win this game in regulation time so that Carolina didn’t get a point. 

Nevertheless, he talked about Weegar’s evening. 

“I thought Weegs (defenseman MacKenzie Weegar) was special tonight. He did a lot of good things...scoring goals, defending the net well, going into the puck areas. I think he’s had a very strong year. He keeps adding to the success of our team by his contributions.”

As for the game, Quenneville added, “I felt a lot of passion, a lot of emotion on the bench. It was very intense...I think that determination and that perseverance found its way in the right place. I thought tonight was as high as we had it. It was one of those situations where we can’t beat the team in regulation and we’ll take two points. You can tell that the playoffs are just around the corner.”

The Coach was gleaming about Barkov’s climactic ending and what he’s meant to the club all year.

“Barky has been very productive for us as the season has progressed. I think Barky has had a tremendous year, whether it’s controlling shifts or dominating possession. I know he’s had some different line mates over the last three weeks and he still finds a way to be productive and scoring big goals. He’s competitive and he does all the things you’re looking for. Can’t say enough about the contribution we are getting from Barky.”

Wennberg knew that his short-handed goal gave the Panthers some life but his main focus directed on the Carolina Hurricanes.

“At this point of the season, we’ve got to win these games, especially against Carolina which is a team we’re battling for position with. I feel like we got some momentum there scoring that goal, and then we just took over the third period. All that matters is the win, and we got it tonight.

“They’re a really good team, and it’s good to get some confidence winning against them.It just shows that you can win against every team. If we seem them in the future, we’re excited for that opportunity.”

As for Weegar, the guy contributed in every way possible as the numbers listed above reflect. On a night where the team flipped the switch being down 3-1 and prevailed, he knew this team needed a triumph in the worst way.

“Huge win for us. Lots of emotions coming in before the game. We really wanted to win this one. Credit to everybody that played tonight. I think we battled hard. I’m very happy with the way the boys played tonight.

“I think (Alex Wennberg’s ) short-handed goal gave us a lot of momentum. Q (Head Coach Joel Quenneville) talked about it last game, it was the opposite on us. It really changed the momentum of a game and I think after that we just kept rolling shift by shift. I think that really helped us.

“I felt good tonight. I just felt really determined. (Carolina) is a top team in the league and they’ve had out number all year. I just didn’t want to lose, I wanted to make a statement. If we see them in the playoffs, I just want them to know that we can beat you. I’m happy that we won.”

The game’s No. 1 Star, Barkov said this game was a good preparation for the playoffs and he was extremely pleased with the way Weegar performed.

“(Tonight’s win) does a lot. We were battling with this challenge all year, trying to find ways to stick with it, to win the games. We never gave up, even in the games where we didn’t come up the points. Finally, got the result, but this is only the regular season and if you want to go all the way, there’s going to be games like this so you have to be ready. This one was good practice for that.

“Weegs is a really smart player. He’s doing all the right things all the time. It was just a matter of time that he was going to step up to this level. He’s been really good, he has everything that a great defenseman needs. He’s been great for us and we’re really happy to have him playing for us and playing those big minutes.”

The Panthers can enjoy this win until at least Monday Night as they travel to Nashville and face the Predators. They’ll play a two game series that ends Tuesday, April 27th. Nashville has played 49 games and is in fourth place in the Central Division with a 26-21-2 mark with 54 points,

Florida’s final road series matchup takes them to the Windy City as they face the Chicago Blackhawks, who defeated them twice during their last visit to the United Center. Those games take place on Thursday, April 29 and Saturday, May 1st.

Florida returns home on Monday May, 3 for a 7 PM contest with the Dallas Stars who are currently battling for a playoff spot, sitting in fifth place with a 20-15-12 record with 52 points in 47 games.

It will be an interesting stretch run and the Panthers know they’ll be facing teams hungry to get into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

But on a Night where Hockey Fight’s Cancer, the “Panthers Somewhat Solved the Carolina Panthers” by winning in OT. But at this time of the year, all wins and points matter!

Scott Morganroth can be reached at at southfloridatribune@gmail.com and you can follow him on Twitter @TribuneSouth. 

To see all of his broadcasts, subscribe to The South Florida Tribune You Tube Channel for free.

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