Ekblad’s big night helps lead Panthers past Nashville Predators
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With losses in their past two games, the Panthers were facing their first losing streak of the season Thursday night against the host Nashville Predators.
They made sure they weren’t going down that road, at least not right now.
Florida came out with speed and played with a purpose Thursday night, peppering goalie Pekka Rinne from start to finish in a frantic 5-4 victory at Bridgestone Arena.
Although the Panthers are prohibited from going out on the town and enjoying all NashVegas has to offer, they certainly seemed to enjoy what they were allowed to do on the ice.
Especially Aaron Ekblad, who talked before the game about how his road entertainment this season has not been going out to good restaurants but playing video games.
He did say the team hotel in Nashville had fantastic food.
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Ekblad had his biggest offensive game of his career, scoring two goals with a total of four points in the victory.
”He is really something on the ice,” said Radko Gudas, who played in his 500th game Thursday. “He is a treat to watch. He is feeling it, doing really well and I am happy to be part of the team he is on.”
Those four points tied a franchise record for single-game scoring by a defenseman with Keith Yandle getting a goal and three assists last season.
“I thought he had a great night, did everything right on both ends of the ice,” Joel Quenneville said. “He had a terrific goal on the power play, put us in a great spot. He did a lot of great things. This was one of those nights where he had the magic touch.”
Florida took a 2-0 lead into the second period thanks to Carter Verhaeghe’s first goal in three weeks and Mason Marchment’s first-ever NHL goal.
The Panthers continued the attack when the second started, getting a quick chance before Patric Hornqvist fed Jonathan Huberdeau to make it 3-0 just over a minute into the period.
Florida later got a power play goal from Ekblad on its second power play chance late in the second and led 4-2 going into the third.
In the third, Ekblad struck on the power play once again.
Sergei Bobrovsky was at his best up 3-0 when Juho Lammikko and Alex Wennberg went to the box 15 seconds apart giving Nashville a 5-on-3 power play opportunity for 1:45.
He made four saves on that kill as Nashville worked the puck in the Florida zone for all but a few seconds.
”As we go deeper in the season, every point, every win is so important,” Bobrovsky said. “We just want to make sure to get back on the winning track. Winning is fun.
“The guys did a great job. There were a lot of chances. And I played a solid game too, there were zero chances on the goals. I felt great and it’s a great team win.”
Nashville did pick up its game in the second and got goals from Mattias Ekholm (point shot) and Filip Forsberg (deflection) before an all-out press in the third where Ryan Johanssen’s goal with 1:13 left pulled the Preds within a goal.
Florida, now 7-1-1 away from Sunrise, looked sharp for much of the game (38 shots on goal) while holding off the challenge from the home squad.
The two teams meet up again Saturday at 2 p.m. and one would think the Panthers are going to need to come out with the same kind of jump they brought to the rink Thursday.
Early starts are not everyone’s forte, but at least there won’t be any of that Nashville Flu to worry about.
— Veteran defenseman Anton Stralman did not return after the second intermission.
Quenneville said Stralman was “day-to-day” with a lower body injury. “We’ll see how he is,’’ Quenneville added, “it’s not serious.”
First period highlights
The Panthers came out flying and did everything they wanted to do — save for get a couple of more pucks past Rinne.
Goodness knows they had the opportunity.
Florida came out jumping on the first shift with a big scoring chance before Marchment came down off the rush with Keith Yandle and was stopped.
Verhaeghe made it 1-0 at 6:29 of the period, hammering home a puck left off a Sasha Barkov offering after Ekblad brought the puck and made the initial shot Rinne had to stop.
It was Verhaeghe’s eighth goal of the season but first in his past 11 games. He had not scored since Feb. 11 against his former Tampa Bay teammates.
Less than three minutes later, Marchment and Noel Acciari broke out with Marchment again keeping the puck and taking his shot.
This one went right through Rinne’s legs.
”It was definitely special,” Marchment said. “I had a good opportunity to score the shift before that and I tried to go high. Here, I just went low. I was lucky it went in. It was awesome to see it go in.”
Those would be the only two goals of the period for the Panthers but it certainly was not for a lack of trying.
Just about every player on the ice had a shot at scoring including Ryan Lomberg, Keith Yandle, Patric Hornqvist, Aaron Ekblad and Gudas.
Florida ended the period outshooting the Preds 17-10 and took 26 attempted shots.
The Panthers held possession for much of the period which could have been a little more had they fared better in the faceoff circle. Nashville won 14 of 21 drops as the Panthers continue to struggle a bit on the face offs.
Second period highlights
The jump Florida brought in the first was there in the second as well as Huberdeau picked up another goal against the Preds.
He notched his first career hat trick against Nashville last month.
Huberdeau’s goal came 62 seconds into the period and Eetu Luostarinen came close to making it 4-0 not long after.
“It was important for a good start, we hadn’t scored in the first or second periods in a while,” Huberdeau said during intermission.
After Florida killed off a penalty, Ekholm broke the ice for the Preds at 12:27 of the period.
Then the Panthers killed off 1:45 of a 5-on-3 to hold momentum and took a 4-1 lead when Hornqvist got in front and Ekblad’s shot got past Rinne on Florida’s second power play within a span of a few seconds.
But Nashville did not pack it in, pinning the Panthers in their own end as the period wound down with Forsberg knocking down a shot from Viktor Arvidsson with 25.6 seconds left to make it 4-2 going into the third.
Third period highlights
Coming off an exciting end to the second, Nashville brought the heat in the third with a couple of big scoring chances.
Moments after Gudas saved a goal by sweeping a puck before it crossed the line, former Panthers winger Rocco Grimaldi scored from the left circle to make it 4-3 less than two minutes in.
Or did he?
The Panthers challenged the goal citing offside and won; the Grimaldi goal was taken off the board.
Florida previously challenged a Nashville 6-on-5 goal claiming a high-stick in the first meeting and lost. The Preds tied the score on the ensuing power play chance, forced overtime and won.
The only two video challenges the Panthers have offered this season have come against the Preds.
Both teams kept coming as the score remained 4-2.
With 13:52 left, Marchment had another prime scoring chance as Rinne was down but the shot went high.
Ekblad later got his second goal of the night to make it 5-2 but the Preds continued to keep things fun, scoring off a Colt Sissons goal with 8:40 remaining.
It looked like Nashville clawed within one with 5:30 left, but the goal was waved off as Roman Josi was called for a retaliation penalty on Gudas.
Florida then went on the power play and took a couple more whacks at Rinne and the Preds.
”That’s part of my game, playing physical especially in our zone,” Gudas said. “It obviously helped us weather the storm there a little bit, get the power play and break down the pressure.”
The Panthers did not score, but Nashville did with Rinne on the bench.
The Predators’ last-ditch effort in the final minute came up short and the Panthers two-game losing streak (0-0-2) came to an end.
”Hey, in this building, they’re going to have their turn,” Quenneville said of the Nashville rally.
”There are a lot of options for them to get some offense going. I thought we got a little loose, but we were playing a perfect game but you knew they’re going to get a turn. I thought we did a good job at the very end. You would like it solidified a little bit at the end, but hey, that’s hockey.”
Said Ekblad: “You know teams are going to make a big push at the end. We have done it a few times. We were holding on at the end. They are a great team, do a great job with their defensemen coming down and making plays. We’re happy to get the win and we’re already looking forward to the next one.”
Up Next: Panthers at Nashville
When: Saturday, 2 p.m.
Where: Bridgestone Arena, Nashville
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