SUNRISE — Throughout this up-and-down season, Florida Panthers coach Paul Maurice has been gearing his team to win a big game with its defensive play.
Grind one out, as he likes to say.
He got that and more on Thursday night in the 4-1 win over the San Jose Sharks.
The Panthers found themselves down a man with under five minutes left, holding a one-goal lead against San Jose.
Aaron Ekblad got hit with a four-minute penalty for high-sticking, meaning the Panthers were probably going to give up a late goal and this one would go to overtime.
Hey, we were all thinking it, right?
Instead, thanks to the Eric Staal-led penalty kill, the Panthers not only kept the Sharks from getting anything past Sergei Bobrovsky, but he ended up popping two into the empty net as Florida pulled out a very nice 4-1 win.
“We were not tentative in the most pressure-filled part of the game,” Maurice said. “I think, maybe that had been missing. … If you had put that there when Staal was out with our penalty kill, I would agree (with the game probably being tied).
“But there is a lot of confidence in that group. Even with Barkov out, we still run six aggressive guys on the kill and they all did a good job.”
It was their third consecutive win, their first true winning streak of the season.
For all of the accomplishments this team had last season, winning three straight seems kind of minor.
It is most definitely a modest winning streak.
But, this is the first time this team has done that.
Celebrate the little things — and move on.
The Panthers are now two points behind the Washington Capitals for the first wild card spot although there are three other teams in front of them.
“I think the important thing is we know we need to go on a bit of a run here,’’ Sam Reinhart said.
“We have to take advantage of home ice especially with all the opportunities we have in front of us. Nights when you’re not feeling your best, you have to find ways to win. Tonight, we did a good job of that.”
The Panthers did not find themselves in a great spot early as Alexander Bararanov followed up a rebound from an Erik Karlsson shot and gave San Jose the early lead.
But on Sasha Barkov Bobblehead Night, Florida’s top line did OK without their captain.
Barkov was missing Thursday’s game with that hand injury from Monday night — only Eetu Luostarinen filled in admirably.
Reinhart tied the score early in the second period by getting some space and whipping a shot past Kaapo Kahkonen.
In the final minute of the second, Luostarinen sent a soft offering toward the net as he tripped up on the ice only Reinhart was in front of the net and knocked it through.
The Panthers had the lead, and, had it for good.
The game stayed uncomfortably close for the Panthers, a team desperate for wins as they try to make up ground and make a serious run at a berth in the playoffs.
Then Timo Meier hit the deck in front of the net with Ekblad’s stick the culprit. Four minutes of penalties with just under five minutes left.
Only the Sharks kept their goalie in net until there was 2:15 remaining and the one-deficit still in play.
“We got stronger,’’ Maurice said, “as the game went on.”
With 1:39 left, Luostarinen made a terrific play at center ice, fed Staal for the empty net goal for some much-needed breathing room.
A few moments later, Staal got another one and became the fourth player in franchise history with two shorthanded — albeit empty net — goals in the same game and the first since Olli Jokinen did it in 2002.
Staal and Jokinen (very coincidentally, we might add) both wore/wear No. 12 for the Panthers.
“This was a good game, they came out fast and we defended well,” said Bobrovsky, who became the 25th NHL goalie to win 350 games.
“The penalty kill in the end, they did a great job in front of me, clearing pucks out and then scoring two big goals.”
PANTHERS ON DECK
COLORADO AVALANCHE AT FLORIDA PANTHERS
- When: Saturday, 6 p.m.
- Where: FLA Live Arena, Sunrise
- 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
- Last season: Split 1-1
- This season (Florida leads 1-0): Panthers 5, Avalanche 4 (Jan. 10)
- All-time regular season series: Colorado leads 26-12-5, 3 ties
- Up Next for the Panthers: Monday at Minnesota, 8 p.m.