SUNRISE — Over the past couple of years, Radko Gudas was front and center when it came to postgame celebrations for the Florida Panthers — with captain Sasha Barkov always coming off the ice last for the final high-five with his smiling defenseman.
While Gudas gave everyone coming off the ice a large hand, he usually saved his best for last.
Gudas and Barkov coming off the ice together definitely became a thing.
Only now, Gudas is playing in Anaheim having left the Panthers for a three-year, $12 million deal as a free agent in July.
On Monday night, Barkov wanted to keep things going.
The Panthers filed off the ice and into the tunnel at Prudential Center following their 4-3 win over the Devils — Florida’s first victory of the young season.
Barkov, as usual, was the last one off the ice.
He raised his right arm up as if Gudas was standing there waiting for him before pulling it down and into the tunnel.
The image of Barkov keeping the tradition going, with or without Gudas, went viral.
“He is one of those guys you love to have on your team,” Barkov said on Thursday morning, a few hours before the Panthers’ home opener against the Maple Leafs. “As a person, especially. He is a great person and, for sure, everyone in this organization misses him. But know he is there and we’re happy for him.”
Barkov said the ghost celebration was probably just a one-time thing to honor Gudas, but the Panthers could have something new following wins moving forward.
The Panthers are already poised to introduce a new goal song tonight, so a new postgame ritual would be in line.
“I think one game was enough,” Barkov said. “Maybe we find someone else to do that with.”
As for Gudas, Barkov said he saw the celebration from Newark and sent his former captain a moving text.
“Yeah,” Barkov said, “he said he loves me.”
The Panthers playing host to the Maple Leafs for their home opener certainly does not feel the same without Gudas being here.
After the way things ended in the Eastern Conference semifinals last spring in Toronto, Gudas certainly would have been the center of attention following morning skate on Thursday.
In overtime of Game 5, Gudas ran blocker as the Panthers rolled up the ice with Nick Cousins scoring the game-winner — putting Florida in the conference finals and ending Toronto’s season.
The image of that series and, perhaps the entire playoffs, was Gudas crashing to a halt right in front of beaten Toronto goalie Joseph Woll and screaming in his face.
The fantastic picture was captured by Toronto Star photographer Steve Russell who said he was focused on the Leafs’ goalie the entire time.
Russell was the only one to capture the picture — which, like Barkov’s celebration Monday — took on a life of its own.
“We thought it was kind of funny,’’ Florida coach Paul Maurice said. “He is such an emotional guy and it was his barbaric yell.
“People in Toronto probably didn’t appreciate it too much.”
PANTHERS ON DECK
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS @ FLORIDA PANTHERS
- When: Thursday, 7 p.m.
- Where: Amerant Bank Arena, Sunrise
- TV/Streaming: Bally Sports Florida/ESPN+
- Radio: WPOW 96.5-FM2; WBZT 1230-AM (West Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); WCZR 101.7-FM (Treasure Coast); SiriusXM
- Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932
- Last Season: Toronto won Regular Season Series 3-1; Florida won Eastern Conference Semifinals 4-1
- This season: @Florida, Thursday/April 16; @Toronto, Nov. 28/April 1
- All-time Regular Season Series: Toronto leads 48-36-7, 7 ties
- Up Next for the Panthers: Saturday vs. Vancouver Canucks, 7 p.m.