The Florida Panthers had multiple moments Saturday where they very well could have mailed it in.
Especially coming in against a desperate New Jersey team which still is ranked second in the Eastern Conference.
Despite losing captain Sasha Barkov to a suspected knee injury and giving up a second-period goal on a questionable call, the Panthers kept plugging away and never trailed in a 4-2 win over the Devils at Prudential Center.
Seconds before the buzzer sounded to end the first period, Nico Hischier cross-checked Sasha Barkov in the knee during a faceoff which sent him to the ice in pain.
Barkov had to be helped to the room and did not return, coach Paul Maurice saying afterward he would be evaluated on Sunday.
Coming into the night, the Panthers were 2-3-2 with Barkov out of the lineup.
After missing him for the entirety of their five-game road trip with pneumonia a couple of weeks ago and playing shorthanded for six whole games already, they are used to conditions like these.
They were already without young star Anton Lundell and defensive stalwart Radko Gudas, among others, and had just gotten Matthew Tkachuk back from a one-game absence from illness.
All-in-all, the Panthers have had 10 different players miss time since Barkov first felt sick on Nov. 15 and they know that it is not stopping any time soon.
”We are grinding every single day now,” Maurice said.
“Barkov is back out of our lineup, others are back in, Tkachuk is back in but not at 100 percent. … In truth, we are going to be dealing with this until the end of January, that’s just our mindset.”
It was a grind that set the once high-flying Panthers back to the outside of the playoff race but one that helped them earn a much-needed win in New Jersey.
”It’s tough when your captain goes down, especially in those situations you want him out there,” Sam Reinhart said
”Tonight was a matter of not doing too much and we had a lot of guys playing that role that led to our success.”
The Panthers came back out to start the second period with a 1-0 lead still intact and they extended that lead 7:49 into the frame via a wrist shot from Gus Forsling.
A second wave of adversity hit Florida four minutes later when John Marino scored on a play where Sergei Bobrovsky appeared to be interfered with.
Bobrovsky thought it was Devils forward Dawson Mercer who made contact with him, sending him to the ice, that allowed Marino to fire a shot into an empty net.
After Maurice used his coach’s challenge to review the play, it was determined by the league that Eric Staal’s stick that clipped Bobrovsky while the Panthers forward was challenging Mercer in front of the net.
Right or wrong, that was the call.
“It’s Christmas,” Maurice said with a grin. ”I get fined after tax dollars, so everything was fine.”
Florida did not let that deter them either.
They kept chugging along and restored their two-goal lead with a Sam Reinhart deflection of an Aaron Ekblad shot with 41 seconds to go in the period.
Erik Haula brought the Devils back within a goal with 3:30 to go in the game after an unsuccessful Panthers power play.
Florida was able to close out the game with an empty net goal by Carter Verhaeghe with some help by some tenacious play on the puck by Grigori Denisenko to get the puck up to him. He was rewarded with his first point of the season.
Bobrovsky was solid despite the frustration he had midway through the second period, stopping 30 of 32 shots.
It was his third-straight game with a save percentage of over .900 and his fifth in seven games since coming in to relieve a sick Spencer Knight on Dec. 6.
He started all six games since stopping 14 of 15 shots against the Winnipeg Jets with Knight working his way back from the illness.
”He was in a very difficult situation,” Maurice said.
”He had a couple of tough outings ant then going into the net in Winnipeg kind of seemed to get a little bit of his fight back. It’s not an easy thing to do, especially with his pedigree, to struggle and then fight your way out of it.”
The Panthers snapped a six-game power play goal drought dating back to that Dec. 6 game in Winnipeg with a Reinhart shot that ricocheted off a Devils defenseman and past Devils goalie Akira Schmid 8:54 into the first period.
Florida finished the game 1-for-2 on the power play and a perfect 2-for-2 on the penalty kill.
Even with Barkov, the Panthers have a tough road ahead regardless.
They will finish off a two-game road trip with a date with the top-seeded Boston Bruins before meeting these Devils back in Sunrise for a grudge match on Wednesday.
COLBY’S THREE STARS OF THE GAME
1. Sam Reinhart, Florida (2 goals)
2. Sergei Bobrovsky, Florida (30 saves)
3. Erik Haula, New Jersey (goal, assist)
FLORIDA PANTHERS ON DECK
FLORIDA PANTHERS AT BOSTON BRUINS
- When: Monday, 7 p.m.
- Where: TD Garden, Boston
- 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
- Season Series: Boston 5, Florida 3 (Oct. 17); Florida 5, Boston 2 (Nov. 23)
- Last season: Boston won 2-1
- All-time regular season series: Boston leads 59-37-6, 6 ties