SUNRISE — The Florida Panthers look like a very different team with Sasha Barkov and Sam Bennett back in the lineup.
Riding a goal from Bennett and an assist from Barkov to an early lead, the Panthers took down the Pittsburgh Penguins 4-1 as both returned to the lineup from injury.
Florida had one of its best first periods in a month to put the pressure on Pittsburgh early.
Not that it comes as a shocker with this being the closest they have been to full-strength since Anthony Duclair returned to the lineup from an offseason Achilles tear last Friday.
After getting outscored 11-7 in first periods since returning from the All-Star break on Feb. 6, the Panthers outshot the Penguins 13-3 and out-chanced them 9-1 in the opening frame
They only got one goal from Bennett with 22 seconds to go in the frame but it was enough to give them momentum to ride in the second period.
And it certainly worked when they extended their lead with a power play goal from Aaron Ekblad 4:11 in.
Pittsburgh got one back after the Panthers found themselves on an extended 5-on-3 that Kris Letang took full advantage of but that seemed to be the lone blip in what was an otherwise near-perfect game for Florida.
Sergei Bobrovsky made the save of the game with 44 seconds to go, sprawling across the ice to make a low-blocker save on Sidney Crosby as his stick was falling out of his hands.
Eetu Luostarinen scored on the other end of the ice 30 seconds later to extend Florida’s lead.
The frustration in the Penguins’ game was showing after Carter Verhaeghe pulled Florida ahead by three goals with his 32nd goal of the year.
Jason Zucker ran Bobrovsky as he was clearing the puck and it caused a line brawl and gave the Panthers a power play.
Shortly after, Josh Archibald and Ryan Lomberg got into it and received matching game misconducts for their trouble.
But Bobrovsky and the Panthers held on and took what might be the most important game of their season.
He finished with 31 saves on the night.
It’s a phrase that has been said plenty of times this season and will be heard plenty more during this stretch run but it certainly applies here.
With the win, Florida now trails Pittsburgh — the holder of the final wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference — by three points.
Albeit with two more games played.
The Panthers will still have to play near-perfect hockey in their last 18 games of the season and this game serves as the perfect example of what that looks like.
They have not been able to string games like this together recently — dropping five of their last nine games going into this game — but getting Barkov and Bennett back will certainly help their case going forward.
GOALS OF THE GAME
- Panthers 1, Penguins 0 (19:38, 1st): Sam Bennett knocked home a Carter Verhaeghe rebound on a 2-on-1 as time was winding down in the first period.
- Panthers 2, Penguins 0 (4:11, 2nd, PPG): Aaron Ekblad blasted a one-timer from Sasha Barkov past Casey DeSmith to extend Florida’s lead on the power play.
- Panthers 2, Penguins 1 (8:51, 2nd. PPG): Kris Letang beat Sergei Bobrovsky with a wrist shot from the circle off of a pass from Jake Guentzel on a 5-on-3 power play.
- Panthers 3, Penguins 1 (19:50, 2nd): Eetu Luostarinen slipped a loose puck into an open net with chaos brewing in front.
- Panthers 4, Penguins 1 (9:53, 2nd): Carter Verhaeghe rocketed a wrister off the rush past DeSmith with a defender closing in nearby.
COLBY’S 3 STARS OF THE NIGHT
1. Sergei Bobrovsky, Florida
2. Sam Bennett, Florida
3. Sasha Barkov, Florida
PANTHERS ON DECK
VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS AT FLORIDA PANTHERS
- When: Tuesday, 7 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
- This season (Vegas leads 1-0): Golden Knights 4, Panthers 2 (Jan. 12)
- Last season: Split 1-1
- All-time regular season series: Vegas leads 6-2-1
- Up Next for the Panthers: Friday vs. Chicago. 7 p.m.