On Tuesday night, the Florida Panthers clinched just their sixth playoff berth in franchise history by rallying to beat the host Predators 7-4 at Bridgestone Arena.
Florida could have clinched a spot with a win Monday night but that did not happen.
The Panthers made sure things were different on Tuesday as they brought speed and puck possession throughout.
Florida even tied a franchise record by taking 55 shots on goal.
It did not come easy, however. Florida trailed going into the third but were terrific in the final period and rolled to what turned out to be a blowout victory.
”It’s an awesome feeling and it is something we have been waiting for a long time,” said Frank Vatrano, who scored the game-winner in the third period. “We have been close many times, but this feels good. Really good. We knew we needed a big third period, needed to score goals and play better defensively. We were a desperate team and wanted those points.’’
Still, as good as these Panthers are this season, nothing comes easy, eh?
Florida found itself trailing by a goal going into the third period despite outshooting the Predators 42-21 through the first 40.
”The first two periods were outstanding,” Joel Quenneville said. “We had possession, good speed, made some nice plays and were way more inside than (Monday). … You generate that much offense against this team, you’re doing something right.”
The Panthers yanked starter Sergei Bobrovsky in favor of rookie Spencer Knight (who, may just find some more playing time) to start the third.
In facing Juuse Saros for the second consecutive night, the Panthers came out firing.
Sometimes that’s all you can do against Saros. This time it worked.
Saros was strong as usual as it took some really nice efforts to get anything through.
The Panthers ended up getting two goals from both Sasha Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau as they outshot the Preds 55-30 in the game.
The Panthers have not made it to the Stanley Cup playoffs since 2016 — last year was an extended postseason and Florida did not make it out of the qualifying round.
Florida will try to win their first playoff series since 1996 sometime next month.
”Obviously we’re feeling good, it’s a big win and a big third period for us,” Huberdeau said. “Being in the playoffs, clinching, it’s a plus. It’s nice to know we’re in the playoffs but we can’t take the final games easy. We can still finish in first so we have to work hard and play these (final) games like they are playoff games.”
BATTLE IN NASHVILLE
On Tuesday night, the Panthers found themselves trailing the Predators a number of times despite dominating possession and the shot clock.
The Panthers, and Bobrovsky in particular, just couldn’t keep the Preds off the scoreboard.
Florida outshot Nashville 20-8 in the first period but the game was tied 1-1 at the break.
Nashville got the opening goal of when defenseman Ryan Ellis got his first of two with a long shot 6:07 into the game.
But then Barkov got one on the power play and the game remained tied until Anthony Duclair scored off a nice timed pass from Huberdeau 2:56 into the second.
Only Nashville ended up scoring three times in the second despite being outshot 21-13 in the period.
Yakov Trenin tied it on Nashville’s first shot on goal in the period at 6:50 before Tanner Jeannot made it 3-2 at 12:40. Both players scored off rebounds left by Bobrovsky that were not cleaned up.
On Jeannot’s goal, Florida was outshooting the Preds 37-13.
Florida tied it at 3 on a fantastic effort from Barkov as he kept the puck alive along the boards, worked his way toward the net and wristed one past Saros with 2:28 left in the second.
Nashville took the momentum into the room at the second intermission, however, as Ellis got his second of the night with 22.9 seconds remaining.
Bobrovsky was pulled in favor of Knight (nine saves) to start the third period. It was the first time Florida has pulled a goalie — save for Monday’s injury issue with Chris Driedger — based on performance.
Nashville scored on four of its 21 shots against Bobrovsky in the opening 40.
”At that point in the game, we had a big advantage territorially and the change of momentum in that area … we all thought that was the right thing,” Quenneville said.
As for Knight?
“Solid, composed, comporable to how he played in his first start in how he handles the puck, makes plays,’’ Quenneville said. “He shows complete composure. It was a pretty important game. He came in like ‘hey, been there.’ He did his thing.”
Owen Tippett gave the Panthers a chance as he scored when Florida swarmed the net. After a Huberdeau shot went off the cage, he hustled to get the puck back and Tippett and Sam Bennett fought over it.
At 7:15, Vatrano gave the Panthers the lead for good as he one-timed a pass from Alex Wennberg and Florida had all that momentum back.
Huberdeau all but ended things by scoring Florida’s third power play goal of the night with 6:12 left.
He got his second goal of the night when he was pulled down trying to score into an empty net.
It was time for the Panthers to get this party started.
”We’re playing the game we love and when you’re having fun doing it, there’s nothing better than winning,” Vatrano said. “You can see it on our bench, can see it in our interactions. We love each other, play for each other every night. It is great to be a part of it.”
INJURIES, REST TIME
Quenneville said Tuesday that the reason Hornqvist was missing the past two games due to an upper body injury and that he was day-to-day.
Duclair took advantage of filling in for Hornqvist on the top power play unit, scoring in the second to give Florida’s a lead.
This being a back-to-back game and the Panthers only with a handful of games remaining in the regular season offered Quenneville a chance to look at some different combinations.
Playing Tuesday included Matt Kiersted, Grigori Denisenko and Aleksi Heponiemi. Out: Noel Acciari, Lucas Wallmark and Radko Gudas.
— The Panthers ended up winning five of eight games against the Predators this season and took three of the four in Nashville.
GEORGE’S THREE STARS OF THE NIGHT
1. Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida
2. Sasha Barkov, Florida
3. Frank Vatrano, Florida
ON DECK: PANTHERS AT BLACKHAWKS
When: Thursday, 8
Where: United Center, Chicago
Season series: Florida leads 4-2
Radio: WQAM 560-AM