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Halfway Home: Panthers solidify playoff standing, beat Blackhawks again

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The Florida Panthers celebrate one of their 19 wins during the 2021 NHL season. Florida took over first place at the midway point of its season by beating Chicago 6-3 on Monday night. // Photo by Roger Topalian, 21st Century Photography

The Panthers seem to rather enjoy being down and coming back to win games. We know this. Monday night, the Florida comeback against the Blackhawks wasn’t all that dramatic but impressive nonetheless.

Florida found itself down two goals in the second, but got those back within a span of 62 seconds before opening the flood gates in the third and beating Chicago 6-3 at BB&T Center.

The Panthers, who have won six of seven games now, are 4-0 against Chicago as they hit the midway point in this 56-game season in pretty darned good shape.

With the win, the Panthers will finish the first half of their season atop the Central Division standings with 19 wins in 28 games.

The Panthers and Islanders are tied for the most points in the entire NHL.

Florida got 42 of the available 56 points.

Not shabby by any means.

”We have a great group of guys,” said captain Sasha Barkov, whose shorthanded goal in the third stood as the game-winner.

“We come here almost every day … and work really hard. We enjoy every moment and we’re having a lot of fun right now. That’s the biggest thing.”

If you, our dear reader, would not have taken those results if offered at the start of the season well, you’re a dear reader who likes to lie.

Joel Quenneville is certainly happy with how this first half went.

”Excellent first half, excellent start,” said Quenneville, who like Barkov and Ekblad is getting national attention as a potential postseason award winner.

“Almost all positives when you evaluate the competitiveness of our team, playing the right way, staying composed from start to finish. We have balance in all four lines, we are deep on the backend and our goaltending has been outstanding.

“You can’t say enough good things but, we want to get better as we go along. We have pretty standards to start, but lets try and achieve it.”

Sergei Bobrovsky was strong again for the Panthers as he won his sixth consecutive start by making 26 saves.

Bobrovsky was playing from behind a few times but the Panthers always came back.

In the first, Owen Tippett tied the score at 1 with a fortunate power play goal (his third goal in four games) in which his shot off a broken stick hit not one, but two Chicago players on its way past goalie Kevin Lankinen.

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The Panthers then trailed 3-1 in the second period before getting another power play chance.

On this one, it was Aaron Ekblad crushing a pass from Keith Yandle to pull the Panthers within one.

Just over a minute later, Gus Forsling took his shot from inside the blue line and tied things up.

Florida took its first lead of the night with 5:34 left when Barkov scored the Panthers’ first shorthanded goal of the season.

With Jonathan Huberdeau in on a questionable tripping call, the Florida penalty killers — who were flat-out terrific in this two-game sweep as Chicago went 0-for-8 — broke loose.

MacKenzie Weegar trailed the rush and let a shot fly off a Barkov pass; Noel Acciari chopped at it first with Barkov finally knocking the puck in.

Barkov scored three goals in the past two games against the Blackhawks and old pal Lankinen.

The Panthers ended things in the final minutes by getting not one (Carter Verhaeghe) but two (Alex Wennberg) empty net goals.

As for all that playoff talk, well, by beating Chicago on Monday night the Panthers really created some separation within the Central.

The top four teams in each division will make the playoffs this season and the Panthers now have a nine-point lead on Chicago — which holds the fourth and final spot in the division.

While the Blackhawks have to watch their backs (Columbus is four points back of Chicago and Dallas is still ticking), the Panthers look pretty snug and warm among the top three of the division with 28 games left.

Of course, anything can happen.

It looked like the Panthers were a playoff team at their All-Star break last year and then came February — one of the worst months in franchise history.

For this particular franchise, that’s saying something.

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”We have a lot of work ahead of us. We know that,” Ekblad said. “The mindset of us only taking it day-by-day and only worrying about the next game is going to be beneficial to us.

“I don’t think anyone is watching the standings right now. We just want to win the next game. That’s the mentality we have to have. That’s it. Win the next game, not worry about anything else.”

Right now, however, the Panthers don’t just look like a sure-fire playoff team but they look like one of the best teams in the entire league.

FIRST PERIOD HIGHLIGHTS

The first period was one filled with whistles — including a premature stoppage around the Chicago net.

As it was, the Blackhawks got two power plays (Florida was called for three penalties in the period) but failed to cash in on any of them.

The Blackhawks did take a second 1-0 lead in this two-game series when Patrick Kane picked up a loose puck, barely got a stick on it and swept it through.

Florida ended up getting a power play chance of its own with 3:37 left and tied up the score when Tippett broke his stick on a hard slapshot — with the puck ricocheting off a pair of Chicago defenders on its way past Lankinen.

The Panthers ended up outshooting the Hawks 13-8 in the period.

Florida had a nice period and were shooting from the middle of the ice as well as controlling the offensive flow despite the tied score.

SECOND PERIOD HIGHLIGHTS

This was a period that was all Chicago — until it wasn’t.

The Blackhawks saw Verhaeghe and huberdeau get a couple early looks before Philipp Kurashev took a cross-ice pass from Mattias Janmark in front of Bobrovsky and scored.

Less than three minutes later, Brandon Hagel bodied in front of Forsling and jumped on a rebound from a Duncan Keith shot at 13:02.

Florida did not take long to rumble back.

The Panthers scored their first goal on their first power play chance and got their second on their second.

At 14:58 of the second, Ekblad trashed a pass from Keith Yandle for his 10th of the season. It was the sixth time in his seven-year career that Ekblad has eclipsed the 10-goal mark.

Just 90 seconds after the Panthers pulled within a goal, Forlsing teed off on a pass from Sasha Barkov to tie things up.

Even without the two power plays in the period, the Panthers again carried the pace of the game and outshot the Hawks 10-8 in the period.

THIRD PERIOD HIGHLIGHTS

The Panthers penalty killers were out in full effect this entire series as Chicago, which came to town with the No. 3 power play but failed to score with the advantage in either game.

In the third, Radko Gudas went to the box at 10:29 with Huberdeau following suit at 13:11.

Florida then won the faceoff and were off to the races with Barkov and Acciari leading the charge.

”We knew they had a pretty good power play,’’ Weegar said. “We had a lot of penalty kills tonight, too many. But for Barky to see me there was pretty incredible. We did the job — Bob, again, was incredible. It was big for the PK to step up in these two games.”

With 1:44 left, Verhaeghe iced it with an empty net goal.

If that wasn’t enough, Wennberg did as well with 55.5 seconds remaining.

GEORGE’S THREE STARS OF THE NIGHT

1. Sasha Barkov, Florida

2. Gus Forsling, Florida

3. Sergei Bobrovsky, Florida

ON DECK: PREDATORS AT PANTHERS

When: Thursday, 7

Where: BB&T Center, Sunrise

Tickets: AVAILABLE HERE

TV/Radio: FSF/560-AM

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[…] The Panthers seem to rather enjoy being down and coming back to win games. We know this. Monday night, the Florida comeback against the Blackhawks wasn’t all that dramatic but impressive nonetheless. (Florida Hockey Now) […]

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