Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Panthers Gain Home Ice Advantage For Opening Round Of NHL Playoffs

 BY SCOTT MORGANROTH 

The Florida Panthers were on a mission Monday Night at the BB&T Center and they got it accomplished in their 4-0 victory over the Tampa Bay Lighting. 

Florida needed one point and they ended up getting a pair to take over sole possession of second place in the Central Division.

How did the Panthers get the job done on Monday Night?

1. The object of the game is to allow as few of goals as possible. Goaltender Chris Driedger accomplished just that as he stopped all 30 shots to record his third shutout of the season and as a result, he was named the games No.1 Star. He made his first start in six games. Driedger is the eighth goaltender in franchise history to post at least three shutouts in a season with the club. He completed his 2020-21 campaign with a 14-6-3 record.

He became the fourth goaltender in franchise history to register a shutout in the club’s final game of the regular season, joining James Reimer (April 9, 2017 at Washington), Tomas Vokoun (April 9, 2011) and Roberto Luongo (April 7, 2001).

2. Carter Verhaeghe scored a goal in his first game back from injury. Alex Wennberg and MacKenzie Weegar also scored goals for the Panthers.

3. Keith Yandle had an assist and recorded his 600th NHL point. He became the 10th U.S. born defenseman in NHL History to reach the milestone and the first from Massachusetts. He also played in all 56 regular season games. His consecutive game streak is now at 12 seasons and counting and has played in 922 straight games dating back to March 2009, the second-longest such run in NHL history. He is 42 games shy of tying Doug Jarvis’ NHL record.

4. After Yandle committed a holding penalty at 12:31 mark in the second period, Juho Lammikko scored a short-handed goal at 11:37 in the second period to give Florida a 2-0 lead. Lammikko was named the No.2 Star. This was Lammikko’s first career short-handed goal.

5. This was a total team effort as nine different Panthers recorded at least one point.

What we didn’t see on Monday Night were penalty minute totals that hit the 154 mark between the two squads on Saturday Night. There were some penalties and an occasional fight but for the most part, this was a clean hockey game.

We saw a Panthers team that was possessed to make a statement against their rival and ended the season with a 5-2-1 against Tampa Bay this year. The Panthers out scored the Lightning 9-1 in the final two games of the season. It was the first time they won the regular-season series against the Lightning in four years. Florida has won the in-state series 14 times.

Florida completed the 2020-21 season with a record of 37-14-5 (79 points, .705 points percentage) and a home record of 20-5-3.

The .705 regular season points percentage is their highest in franchise history. The team is entering the playoffs with a seven-game winning streak, matching their season-high from March 27-April 4.

Joining Yandle playing all 56 games were Frank Vatrano and Alex Wennberg.

Florida played without forward Jonathan Huberdeau for the first time this season, after he was late scratch with an upper-body injury and was listed day-to-day. He had 20 goals and 41 assists for Florida this season, his fourth consecutive year with at least 20 tallies.

Other stats worth noting are shots on goal, power play opportunities and hits. 

I’ve never seen two teams have identical shots on goal until Monday Night’s Game. Each team had 30 shots on goal. Both squads were inept on the power play as they both went 0-5. Tampa Bay out-hit Florida 39-33.

When the game was over, there was plenty of praise to go around as Florida gets ready to face the Lightning for the first time ever in the playoffs.

Coach Joel Quenneville said the guys played real well to the end and was extremely pleased with his goaltender.

“I thought Driegs was special in the net. It was one of those games coming off a layoff like that, coming up with a game like that was outstanding.”

Quenneville knows what lies ahead as the team enters the playoffs having won three Stanley Cup Championships with the Chicago Blackhawks.

“The playoffs are a fresh start, and it’s a whole new ballgame. We should be excited about the way the season went for us in a lot of ways. I thought we got a lot of guys included in our team game. Got some depth over the course of the season, but this is what we played for. It’s been a special year.”

What I am extremely impressed with the Panthers didn’t face any COVID-19 issues and didn’t lose games because they were neglecting the protocols. As a result they didn’t have to reschedule any of their games, just make up the ones by their opponents.

Coach Quenneville said, “at the beginning of the year, there was some accountability amongst the players pushing each other in a real good way. I think competitiveness to get quality ice time, staying in the line-up. We have several options as far as who can play. We welcome tough decisions, but its been something all year that we’ve been shooting for, and I thought we made giant strides over the course of the year from last year to this year. But it doesn’t matter. It’s what we do now going forward.”

Forward Anthony Duclair, who notched an assist, posting 32 points this season over 43 games played said, “I think we did a great job these last two games, obviously chippy and emotional games heading into the playoffs. We stick up for each other, we’ve been doing it all year and it’s not going to chance. It’s nice to see different guys step up in and out of the lineup.

“It’s not our first time playing these types of games. We know how to handle ourselves, we’ve got an unbelievable leadership group in our locker room. Credit to them since the beginning of the year to keep us not too high and not too low, whatever happens we want to stay humble as a team. That’s our motto right now.”

The Man of the Night was Driedger. 

He will become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season and with the year he’s had, he’s destined for a big payday. 

But he wasn’t thinking about that Monday Night. His goal is to hoist the Stanley Cup and win a championship ring.

He was extremely pleased at the effort from his teammates.

“The guys played fantastic defensively tonight. I felt good, I was seeing the puck. Couple breakaways that I just felt solid on, had good depth. But overall just an incredible effort by the guys.

“It was good to rest up and I was feeling good. When you have a lot of time off like that you come back mentally pretty fresh. I felt good out there.”

What is the mentality of this team going into the playoffs? Driedger added, “There’s just an incredible energy in the room right now, guys feel great. We’ve had a lot of fun. Closing the season off like that is as good as you can ask for, especially against these guys. Those were two really good playoff hockey games.”

What does it mean for Florida to have home ice advantage for the opening round?

“I can’t really put into words how excited we are. It’s been a topic of conversation pretty much non-stop at the rink,” Driedger said. “Our fans have been incredible all season. It was loud in there tonight. It was great to see fans come out like that and make that much noise. When we double (capacity) it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

Lammikko summed up the evening, “I think the whole team played a really good game, it was easy to jump in today and just try to play my game. Good to get one goal there but it was a fun game to play in.”

From May 5-10, Tampa Bay played in four games compiling a 1-3 record including the two losses in Sunrise, FL. Quenneville mentioned that to us at the end of our media availability session.

He plans to keep his team sharp and crisp during this latest break but by the same token, he made us aware that the Lightning will be a different squad when the playoffs start and they get some of their injured players back.

In the meantime, it’s a waiting game for all us as we get ready for the NHL to release it’s playoff schedule. 

With all of the milestones and franchise records the Panthers have had all-season, now it’s simply time to focus on the big prize and hoisting the Stanley Cup Trophy.

It will start by just winning their first round playoff series. When the game was over, the fans littered the ice with plastic rats. You can rest assure there won’t be a shortage of those.

Scott Morganroth can be reached at southfloridatribune@gmail.com. You can follow him on Twitter @TribuneSouth. Also, to listen to his broadcasts, subscribe to the South Florida Tribune You Tube for free.

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