It took him a while but Anton Lundell is finally hitting his stride at a time when the Florida Panthers need him the most.
The 21-year-old broke a 12-game point drought with four points in his past two games — both of which ended up being wins which helped the Panthers stay alive in the Eastern Conference wild card race.
While he would not admit that he lost his confidence at any point during the drought, he is certainly playing with a lot more of it now.
“For me, the confidence has been there the whole time,” Lundell said.
“But, I’m not going to lie, it helps when you get a goal. Your confidence gets to a higher level and it’s been fun to be playing now.”
The Panthers have been moving Lundell around a lot throughout the season, sometimes using him on the wing alongside Sasha Barkov and at center on the third line with Sam Reinhart.
After 12 games with no results and an opportunity created by an injury to Sam Bennett, Florida coach Paul Maurice opted to put him on a line with Matthew Tkachuk Monday in Ottawa.
After a poor showing against the Senators, Maurice opted to keep the two together but swapped Carter Verhaeghe for Eetu Luostarinen on the left side.
That move seemed to have been what the Panthers needed to unleash Lundell.
He broke his drought Wednesday in Toronto after Luostarinen forced a turnover deep in the offensive zone and found the 21-year-old in the slot for the goal.
Lundell snapped a quick shot past Ilya Samsonov’s blocker, finally scoring his first point in the month of March in the first minute of Florida’s second-to-last game of the month.
He carried that success over on Thursday in Montreal with a two-goal showing.
His first was off of another rebound, this time from Tkachuk, and he created his second of the night all on his own.
He stripped Nick Suzuki of the puck and finished it off with a slick backhand move Samuel Montembeault did not have an answer for.
Lundell looked like the best version of himself by the end of Thursday’s game: he continued to force turnovers by making the right read and he generated a ton of scoring chances outside of his two goals.
He was a few inches away from a hat trick on multiple occasions, including a backhand move on a partial breakaway similar to the one he scored on that Montembeault was able to get a piece of.
“He probably could have had one or two more,” Maurice said.
“I think for young players, it weighs on them more because they don’t have the experience of what it takes to get out of a tough stretch and it was weighing in on him for sure.
“He has hands around the net. The breakaway goal just shows what he can do. He’s one of our shootout guys because he is so gifted with it and when you’re tight, your hands don’t loosen up but he looks like he is back at it.”
The thing with Lundell is that he does not force scoring chances.
He came into the NHL a well-versed defensive player and forces turnovers by making the simple read to start chances in transition.
With Tkachuk and Luostarinen both playing a similar style of game, it created a line that works well together.
All three of them play a strong forechecking game and can fill the holes where they are needed.
Both of his linemates are able to win those board battles on the forecheck and now that he is driving to the net with confidence, it makes it a lot easier for him to score while still playing that simple, responsible game.
“We’ve done a lot of talking off the ice and we are really trying to simplify our game and not force anything and we’re going to get our chances,” Tkachuk said.
“He’s a super smart player that makes great plays and great reads. I’ve enjoyed playing with him a lot. He had a great night and made it super easy for me.”
The pressure will only continue to mount on Lundell and the Panthers as they are in the thick of a wild card race with six games to go.
They are currently one point behind the Pittsburgh Penguins for the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference.
With Bennett’s health still in question, Florida needs Lundell to continue to play at the level he has over the last couple of games.
And with Bennett’s looming return likely to shake up his spot in the lineup, Lundell has to continue to focus on building up his confidence and play regardless of who his linemates are.
For Lundell, that means loosening up and having fun out there.
“We need to get points in every game, everyone knows it, so we’re just going to go out there and enjoy the game of hockey,” he said.
“We just have to keep everything there and see what the result is.”
PANTHERS ON DECK
FLORIDA PANTHERS AT COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
- When: Saturday, 7 p.m.
- Where: Nationwide Arena, Columbus
- TV/Streaming: Bally Sports Florida, ESPN+
- Radio: WPOW 96.5 FM-2; WBZT 1230-AM (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
- Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932
- Season Series (Tied 1-1): Blue Jackets 5, Panthers 3 (Nov. 20); Panthers 4, Blue Jackets 0 (Dec. 13)
- Last season: Florida won 2-1
- All-time regular season series: Columbus leads 26-16-4
- Up Next for the Panthers: Buffalo Sabres at Florida, Tuesday, 7 p.m.