The Florida Panthers are officially heading to the Stanley Cup playoffs as they became the first team to punch their ticket to the NHL’s big dance on Sunday.
Florida trailed the host Buffalo Sabres by a goal heading into the second but absolutely dominated that period and scored three goals en route to a 5-3 win at KeyBank Center.
Jonathan Huberdeau got Florida’s first goal at 6:18 of the second and that gave him the franchise record for points in a single season — with 13 more left on the schedule.
Huberdeau’s 97th point passed Sasha Barkov for most points in one season; Barkov got 96 in 2018-19.
The Panthers set their franchise high with their 48th victory this season. Florida has 102 points which is one shy of the record set by the 2015-16 division champs.
”We did it together,” Huberdeau said of Barkov while speaking to Bally Sports Florida during the second intermission. “It’s pretty cool to get the franchise record but it’s all about the team. I couldn’t do that without the guys.”
The Panthers are now headed to the postseason for a third consecutive season, which is another franchise first.
Florida extended its lead in both the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference standings. If the season were to end today, the Panthers would open up against second Wild Card Washington.
The lead in the Atlantic on Toronto and Tampa Bay is nine points; Florida now leads Carolina by four in the East.
The Panthers, coming off an incredible four-goal rally to beat the Devils on Saturday, played a strong first period — but Buffalo came to play.
The Sabres were able to bottle Florida up in the first as possession time was about even. The Sabres took a 1-0 lead with 2:47 left in the period when Kyle Okposo deflected a shot past Spencer Knight.
Florida also played most of the period without Sam Bennett after he went to the room following taking a Rasmus Dahlin elbow to the face.
Bennett returned for the second — and the Panthers opened things up.
Florida took complete control of the game both in pace of play and on the scoreboard as it outshot the Sabres 22-8 in the period and had a 17-3 advantage in scoring chances.
Huberdeau tied the score at 6:18 off a nice feed from Claude Giroux but the score remain tied until the Florida got a pair of quick ones.
Anton Lundell, who missed almost a month after getting hurt in Florida’s previous trip to Buffalo, broke the stalemate by popping a loose puck at 15:55.
Just 61 seconds later, Anthony Duclair got his first of the season on a snapshot from the right circle.
The Panthers gave themselves some insurance — which they would need — early in the third when Duclair got his second of the day after camping out in front of the net and putting in a Barkov delivery.
Buffalo got a goal back at 8:25 of the third when Tage Thompson scored on the power play with former Sabres’ defenseman Robert Hagg in the box.
The play was initially waved off by the officials but after review, it was determined to be a good goal.
Moments later, Duclair was called for slashing and the Sabres cashed in, making it a one-goal game with 9:41 remaining.
Buffalo came strong at Spencer Knight and the Panthers but a pair of late penalties hampered the Sabres’ attack.
With 2:58 left, Thompson was called for tripping Carter Verhaeghe; a minute later, Huberdeau was hooked by Mattias Samuelsson.
MacKenzie Weegar took advantage of the two-man advantage, scoring with 1:35 left.
GR’S THREE STARS OF THE GAME
1. Anthony Duclair, Florida
2. Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida
3. Anton Lundell, Florida