SUNRISE — Sasha Barkov returned to the Florida Panthers lineup on Thursday night and brought the thunder.
The Florida captain returned from a three-game absence from a knee injury that capped off a monthlong stretch of injury and illness with the fastest hat trick to start a game in franchise history to help the Panthers beat the Montreal Canadiens 7-2.
Barkov came into the game with six goals — and scored half of his season total by the end of the first period.
”The puck was just following me in the first period,” Barkov said.
”When you are playing with good players, the puck is going to get to you, you just need to get open.”
He also tied his career-high in goals (3) and points (5) while notching his first multi-goal game of the season.
“Having him back changes all aspects of the game,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said.
“Take the five points aside, he is going to take the faceoffs on the power play and penalty which were critical and with the matchups in keeping the minutes down for everyone so there is more energy for everyone.
”And then there’s the five points… he is such a dynamic man.”
The Panthers returned from the NHL’s holiday break with what was one of their most complete games as a whole and a lot of it had to do with health.
Ever since Barkov first fell ill on Nov. 15, the Panthers have had 10 players miss time and went 6-10-3 overall in that 19-game stretch.
Along with Barkov, Aaron Ekblad and Radko Gudas made their returns, marking the end of the worst of that stretch.
Only Anthony Duclair and Patric Hornqvist remain on LTIR while AHL reinforcement Chris Tierney is nursing an upper-body injury.
Anton Lundell missing nine games of that stretch forced the Panthers to play nine games without its top two centers and that lack of stability down the middle showed.
And that renewed sense of stability was very noticeable on Thursday night.
Florida had Montreal pinned in its own zone for most of the game as its top three lines dominated play throughout the game.
The Panthers led the game in scoring chances (42-20) and high-danger chances (19-5) while outshooting the Canadiens 41-27.
Sergei Bobrovsky had a strong, but quiet night himself, stopping 25 of 27 shots.
Florida still have a tough hill to climb out of following their December woes, sitting eight points behind the New York Islanders for the final wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference.
They have a game-in-hand, which they will play on Friday against the Carolina Hurricanes following a quick postgame flight.
”Right now, everyone feels good about today’s game but we have to know that tomorrow is a new challenge,” Barkov said.
”Carolina has been really good. They are on a nine-game winning streak but we have to go there and play with the same mindset we had today.”
THE GOALS OF THE GAME
- Panthers 1, Canadiens 0 (2:47, 1st): A Gus Forsling shot ricocheted off of Sasha Barkov’s leg and past Samuel Montembeault to put Florida ahead on their second shot of the night.
- Panthers 2, Canadiens 0 (11:50, 1st): Barkov gets his second of the game with a wrist shot from the top of the circle off of a feed from Sam Reinhart. The goal came halfway into Florida’s first power play of the night.
- Panthers 2, Canadiens 1 (14:14, 1st): Arber Xhekaj beat Sergei Bobrovsky with a booming slap shot from the point just after Montreal’s first power play of the game expired.
- Panthers 3, Canadiens 1 (15:22, 1st): Barkov completed the hat trick by picking up a loose puck in the slot off of a Kaiden Guhle turnover and beating Montembeault with a backhand shot.
- Panthers 3, Canadiens 2 (19:13, 1st): Josh Anderson picks up his ninth of the season by scoring on an extended power play with Eetu Luostarinen in the box following a four-minute call for high-sticking.
- Panthers 4, Canadiens 2 (6:22, 2nd): Matthew Tkachuk tipped a Brandon Montour wrist shot past Montembeault for Florida’s second power play goal of the night.
- Panthers 5, Canadiens 2 (4:14, 3rd): Carter Verhaeghe sped into the Montreal zone on his own and roofed a shot over Montembeault to extend his team-lead in goals with his 18th.
- Panthers 6, Canadiens 2 (7:24, 3rd): Tkachuk notched his second power play goal of the night off of a Barkov rebound.
- Panthers 7, Canadiens 2 (9:31, 3rd): Eetu Luostarinen joined in on the fun, cashing in off a feed from Sam Bennett on an odd-man rush.
A RECORD-BREAKING WELCOME BACK
Barkov returned to the lineup and immediately broke two Panthers records.
Barkov first broke the franchise’s record for power play goals, passing Scott Mellanby’s total of 66.
He then broke the record for the fastest hat trick to start a game in team history at the 15:22 mark of the first period.
POWER PLAY CLICKED IMMEDIATELY
After over a month of multiple pieces of the top power play unit dealing with injury and illness, the Panthers’ top unit clicked.
They scored on three of their first four attempts with clean puck movement and a more aggressive shooting mentality aided by Montour’s work on the point.
Montour helped the puck movement flow on their first man advantage before ripping off the shot that gave the Panthers their second power play goal of the game.
Florida finished 3-for-6 on the power play with 10 high-danger chances and 18 scoring chances on the man advantage.
QUIET, BUT STRONG DEBUT FOR LEVTCHI
Although he did not get on the scoresheet in his NHL debut, 27-year-old rookie Anton Levtchi made himself noticeable — in a good way.
He was effective in clogging up passing lanes and keeping the momentum going as the Panthers throttled the Canadiens.
Florida had a 3-2 lead in scoring chances and a 2-0 lead in high-danger chances when Levtchi was on the ice through 8:40 of 5-on-5 play. He also ended up getting rewarded with 1:01 of power play time near the end of the game.
HOW THE PANTHERS STARTED
Carter Verhaeghe // Sasha Barkov // Colin White
Eetu Luostarinen // Sam Bennett // Matthew Tkachuk
Anton Levtchi // Anton Lundell // Sam Reinhart
Ryan Lomberg // Eric Staal // Nick Cousins
Gus Forsling // Aaron Ekblad
Marc Staal // Brandon Montour
Josh Mahura // Radko Gudas
COLBY’S THREE STARS OF THE GAME
1. Sasha Barkov, Florida (three goals, two assists)
2. Matthew Tkachuk, Florida (two goals, assist)
3. Carter Verhaeghe, Florida (goal, two assists)
PANTHERS ON DECK
FLORIDA PANTHERS AT CAROLINA HURRICANES
- When: Friday, 7:30 p.m.
- Where: PNC Arena, Raleigh
- Streaming ONLY: ESPN+/Hulu
- Radio: WPOW 96.5-FM2; WBZT 1230-AM (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
- Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932
- Last season: Florida won 3-0
- This season (Florida leads 1-0): Florida 3, Carolina 2 (Nov. 9)
- All-time regular season series: Carolina leads 69-46-10, 11 ties