SUNRISE — The ‘We Want 10’ chants have made frequent appearances at FLA Live Arena over the past few weeks and the Florida Panthers were close to giving them what they wanted Saturday against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Those vocal fans had to settle for a 9-2 win by a Florida team which is dominating opponents like never before.
“They have absolutely been unbelievable,” MacKenzie Weegar said of the party atmosphere at Florida home games this season.
“It’s so much fun playing behind them every night. They’re loud and they’re having fun with it.”
Weegar was close to giving them No. 10.
With just over four minutes left and the Panthers up 9-2, Weegar was sprung out on a breakaway after exiting the penalty box, but Joonas Korpisalo came up with the save to keep Florida from hitting double digits.
“As much fun as they’ve been having, I really wish I could have given them 10 goals with that breakaway, but unfortunately, I couldn’t,” Weegar said. “But I’m glad they’re having fun and it gives us a lot of energy out here.”
During their most recent homestand, that energy has been felt.
The Panthers outscored their opponents 21-5 during the three-game set, scoring at least five goals in all three games.
“In my time of playing and coaching, no, it’s been a while,” interim coach Andrew Brunette said when asked if he has seen anything like this.
The only teams he could compare to this stretch of Panthers hockey were the Colorado Avalanche and Detroit Red Wings of the late 90s and Wayne Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers.
All teams that went on to win multiple Stanley Cups.
“The joy they’re playing with right now is contagious throughout the bench and throughout the lineup,’’ Brunette said. “They’re having fun and they’re really enjoying each other’s company and they’re a pleasure to be around right now.”
Despite turmoil early on in the season that saw then-coach Joel Quenneville resign after an 8-0 start, the team still managed to stick together and have fun.
Since Brunette took over on Oct. 27, the Panthers have the fourth-best record in the league, going 20-7-5 in 32 games.
What has kept the players going through all of it?
If you asked them, it has been the fans.
“You have to feel that energy,” Sergei Bobrovsky said. “It’s tough to describe how much much fun it is to play in that building and have that Panthers jersey on your chest.
“The fans are great, they support us and we try to play our best for them.”
Carter Verhaeghe got things started just 46 seconds in, potting a rebound past a sprawled-out Elvis Merzlikins after a slew of chances to put the Panthers up 1-0.
Under 90 seconds later, Anthony Duclair lasered a wrist shot from the slot to the back of the net to put Florida up 2-0 with a power play goal 2:07 in.
The goals kept on coming for Florida in that opening period, even on the penalty kill.
Weegar went coast-to-coast and roofed a shorthanded wrist shot past Merzlikins 9:27 into the game to extend Florida’s lead to 3-0.
That goal marked the 100th point of his NHL career.
“Looking back on the short career I’ve had in the NHL right now, looking back to when I was in the [ECHL], I never thought I would get 100 points in the NHL,” Weegar said.
“It’s a great milestone and I’m really happy we got the two points along with it, getting that [shorthanded] goal was big and I’m glad I can contribute to winning as well.”
Verhaeghe went top shelf with a wrist shot for his second goal of the game with 6:32 to go to put Florida up 4-0.
Merzlikins’ night was over after that, as Korpisalo came in to replace him.
Jonathan Huberdeau got in on the fun, deflecting a Sam Bennett feed past Korpisalo to make it a 5-0 game.
Anton Lundell then scored the eighth goal of his rookie season with 8:50 left in the second period to give Florida a six-goal lead.
For the second night in a row, Bobrovsky’s shutout bid was spoiled early in the third period.
Gustav Nyqvist was able to shoot the puck past Bobrovsky from the front of the net 2:11 into the period to cut Florida’s lead to five goals.
“He’s been great, I was kinda hoping we would shut the door for him against his former team,” Brunette said.
“He’s been outstanding, and in these games, a lot of times it’s hard to stay focused and stay in the moment and he’s done a great job both nights and made big saves when he had to in different parts of both games.”
The Panthers scored three unanswered goals in a seven-minute span to boost their lead to 9-1.
One of those three goals was Lundell’s second goal of the game, giving him the second multi-goal game of his career.
While Boone Jenner — now the captain of Bobrovsky’s former team — scored with 9:10 to go, the game was over at that point. The only thing left was whether Florida would tie a franchise record for goals in a single game.
The Panthers got 10 in a game against Boston in 1997 — in the first game after Bryan Murray temporarily stepped in behind the bench after firing Doug MacLean.
Bobrovsky finished the game with 28 saves on 30 shots to notch his 19th win of the season and second win in as many days.
“I like to play, I feel good, I got a rhythm,” Bobrovsky said. “I like to play, but it has to be smart.
“It’s a good workload and there is rest, so I trust the team and the coaches, so I believe that they do the best for the team and they manage me smart, so I’m happy to be on the ice when the team needs me.”