SUNRISE — Brandon Montour has come up huge for the Florida Panthers time and again throughout this breakout season.
Of his 16 goals — which tied for the most in Florida’s franchise history by a defenseman in a single season — five are game-winners with two being scored in overtime.
Perhaps his biggest of the season fits in neither category.
With 10:24 to go in Monday’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Montour jumped up into the rush and fired a feed from Carter Verhaeghe past Ilya Samsonov to tie the game and eventually send it to overtime.
He might not have known it after John Tavares scored the overtime winner but that goal ended up securing the point Florida needed to clinch a playoff spot.
Montour was upset with himself for losing a net-front battle Auston Matthews on his deflection goal that put the Maple Leafs up 1-0 but the sting hurts a little less after the Panthers got the help they needed with losses by the Penguins and Sabres to officially secure a spot in the postseason.
”As a player growing up, and especially now that I’m getting the opportunity, I want to take the opportunity to and run with it,” Montour said.
”I trust myself. On that first goal, I was a little upset with that play, I thought I could have made something there but you shake that off and you want to make the next big play and luckily that puck popped out into the slot and I found the lane.”
His game on Monday was indicative of his whole season.
No matter what happened during a game or during a season where Florida has faced many trials and tribulations, he has been able to shake it off and make big plays for the Panthers.
Montour’s five game-winning goals are tied for the fourth-most in the NHL among defensemen.
It is one of many categories Montour ranks in the Top 5 among defensemen in during a breakout season for the ages.
As a 28-year-old, he went from being a bottom-pair defenseman and a second-unit power play quarterback with 37 points to ranking fourth at his position in points with 73.
His knack for finding holes in the opposing team’s defense and picking his spots at the right time has helped him reach those heights.
”I think you just have to be a little patient,” Montour said.
”Trusting your skating is important, obviously you have to make the defensive plays there. Especially on that goal there, it does not get noticed as much, but my partner made a heck of a play in our own end and you just watch where the forwards are.
”I trust my skating and I get up there when I can and obviously Marc Staal made a great play to Carter Verhaeghe and he just went right to the middle and I was right in the slot.”
Montour has credited much of his rise to coach Paul Maurice’s confidence in him with an increased role and the stability Staal has given him on his left side.
The 36-year-old does not get talked about a lot — and sometimes negatively after a few early season turnovers — but he settled in and has made huge defensive plays next to Montour.
And it has given him the confidence he needs to jump up into the rush often.
“It starts in our own end,” Montour said. ”You have to be patient and I have been working on that all year and I feel like I’ve been doing that all year and just being smart with that and bearing down on my chances.”
With the improvement of his game came more responsibility that he had not seen before in his career.
Florida needed to find defensemen from within to eat minutes after trading MacKenzie Weegar in the blockbuster Matthew Tkachuk deal after free-agency was all said and done and Montour answered the bell quickly.
He ranks 16th among defensemen averaging a shade over 24 minutes per game, which is six more than his average last season.
Montour had to shoulder close to — or even over — 30 minutes at times when star defenseman Aaron Ekblad went down with injury and his skating ability and endurance made him a viable option to answer the bell every time.
”The grind hits and he gets up the ice so very fast,” Maurice said Monday night.
”He is an incredibly fit man. We had him at 28 minutes and none of that is easy because against a team like Toronto, you have to skate. Then he gets up the ice in the third period and he has a lot in the tank.”
His skating ability is something that Staal — despite playing in the NHL for 16 seasons — has not seen a lot of.
”I knew he was a good skater but not at the level I have seen him play,” Staal said.
”A lot of times when I’m playing with him, I don’t think he is back and he is back. I’ll watch the clip after and I’ll be like ‘he was in position because he can cover so much ground so fast,’ and that part of his game is so impressive.”
Maurice has trusted him in many different situations because of it.
He quarterbacks Florida’s power play — and has even been the lone defenseman over Ekblad at times — and is also often trusted alongside Ekblad when the Panthers pull the goalie for the extra attacker.
”I think that goes back to maturity and experience,” Maurice said.
”Now he is on the power play, he has put up numbers, so he does not have to be up the ice the entire night indiscriminately. He picks his spots now to find the hole and then he can get into it.
”There are a lot of guys that can see the hole but there are not a lot of guys that can get into it.”
Montour has not gotten much love from national media in the conversation for the Norris Trophy, which is handed out to the NHL’s best defenseman, but he certainly deserves to be in the conversation.
Combining his point total with his knack for showing up in big situations and stability on both ends of the ice, he fits the bill.
Not to mention the fact he filled a massive hole while Ekblad was dealing with and recovering from multiple serious injuries this season.
“I think when you have the emergence of a player like that and it’s extreme, when he goes from playing in the five, six hole to running a power play and putting up the numbers that he has, I think you can look at the individual and certainly say he’s been a key piece to our success,” Maurice said.
”As that relates to the Norris Trophy, who is the most important defenseman on a team, he might be able to argue that he is. When there is a guy that is scoring 100 points and there’s some defensemen with some big, big numbers, at the end, that’s the easiest measure and that’ll be looked at.”
PANTHERS ON DECK
CAROLINA HURRICANES AT FLORIDA PANTHERS
- When: Thursday, 7 p.m.
- Where: FLA Live Arena, Sunrise
- TV/Streaming-: Bally Sports Florida/ESPN+
- 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 (Series tied 1-1): Florida 3, Carolina 2 (Nov. 9); Carolina 4, Florida 0 (Dec. 30)
- All-time regular season series: Carolina leads 70-46-10, 11 ties
- Up Next for the Panthers — First Round of Stanley Cup Playoffs, Game 1 (Time, Opponent TBD)