SUNRISE — The Florida Panthers ended 2021 in style, scoring nine goals against the rival Tampa Bay Lightning and rolled to a 9-3 victory in the final game of what was a pretty good calendar year for the NHL’s Southernmost team.
The Panthers took a number of huge steps forward in 2021.
After Thursday night’s goal scoring barrage, 2022 looks pretty good as well.
“I think it’s about having fun and we’re at our best when we do that,” Jonathan Huberdeau said. “When we play with confidence and swagger, that’s our team, that’s our identity. We play hard and that’s what we did tonight.”
The fans had fun with it too, chanting ‘We Want 10!’ after Sasha Barkov got the ninth goal with 7:29 to go.
Florida ended up winning 36 of 47 regular-season home games in 2021.
“We always like to have the crowd behind us, it’s been unreal for us this season.” Barkov said. “We love to play here, we love to win here and we just want to keep that going.”
The nine goals did come against a Lightning team that was missing both of its regular goalies, including perennial Vezina trophy candidate Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Don’t fault the Panthers for that. They took advantage of what was in front of them.
“We had breakaways and we played hard and I’m proud of our guys,” Huberdeau said.
Huberdeau played a big role in the win, notching a goal and four assists in the victory.
“My vision has always been my strength my whole career,” Huberdeau said. “You keep getting better and better every year and try to work on vision stuff and warming up before games. I’m not the fastest guy out there, but I think I use my toolbox and my vision is my best skill.”
That included a wicked spin-o-rama pass to Aaron Ekblad on the Panthers’ eighth goal of the game.
“It was uneccesary,” he said with a chuckle. “I was just confident, I hit Ekblad, and he had a hell of a shot.”
Anthony Duclair got the scoring started 2:10 into the game, notching his 100th career goal on the breakaway.
That was also Duclair’s 11th goal of the season, which passed Barkov’s total of 10 for the team lead in goals.
“He’s unreal, he’s such a great hockey player,” Barkov said. “He’s doing really good things on the ice, he’s always dangerous, he’s always there to score a goal, to get a breakaway and to make some nice plays and I’m really, really happy for him.”
The Panthers got their first power play of the night when Ondrej Palat took a goaltender interference minor with 9:26 to go in the first.
It was a power play unit that was 1-16 (6.3 percent) since Dec. 12 and 3-32 (9.4) in the month of December, but they finally were able to get one.
Huberdeau found a rebound and slid it past Tampa Bay starter Maxime Lagace on his backhand to make it a 2-0 game with 8:38 left in the opening frame.
Frank Vatrano, who was in the midst of a 10-game drought, appeared to have yet another unlucky shot as his attempt from the slot just hit the post.
That was until the rebound came right back to him.
He fired the rebound top shelf to notch his first goal since his two-goal night against the Minnesota Wild on Nov. 20 to give the Panthers a 3-0 lead with 5:39 to go in the first.
“As a guy who’s been around for three years and knowing how much he means to this group, it felt really good that he got one,” interim coach Andrew Brunette said of Vatrano.
“I was teasing him. I thought the way things were going for him, when he hit the crossbar, I was watching it live and I’m like ‘Ah, poor Frankie, no way it’s coming back to him,’ and it landed on his stick and he scores.”
Tampa struck back 50 seconds later, cutting Florida’s lead to 3-1 with a Zach Bogosian slapshot that trickled past Spencer Knight.
Eetu Luostarinen started the goal scoring party back up 3:02 into the second period, potting home a rebound of a Radko Gudas shot to make it 4-1.
Steven Stamkos brought the Lightning back within two goals with 13:41 remaining in the second period.
That was the closest Tampa would get to getting back into the game.
Just over 10 minutes later, Maxim Mamin poked home a Verhaeghe shot that was sitting on the goal line with under three minutes to go in the second to make it 5-2.
Anton Lundell scored off another rebound again to make it 6-2 with 36.2 seconds left in the period.
That was the fifth goal the Panthers scored off of a rebound on the night — and that was it for Lagace.
“We have a lot of skill up front and in the back end, but we get a little cutesy at times where we don’t put pucks on net,” Brunette said.
“It was good to see us being hungrier on the net and putting pucks on net and winning those little battles in that areas because we all know there’s not going to be many nights like this.”
Brayden Point scored a power play goal to make it a 6-3 game with 15:33 to go in the third period, but that was the last goal the Lightning could muster.
Just 11 seconds later, Duclair restored the four-goal Panthers lead with another breakaway goal.
With 13:14 to go Huberdeau sent that sweet pass to Ekblad and he buried it.
Just under six minutes later, Huberdeau fed Barkov for a one-timer on the penalty kill to make it a 9-3 game.
Behind the goal scoring frenzy, Knight had a solid outing of his own, stopping 39 of Tampa’s 42 shots on the game.