SUNRISE — Less than 24 hours removed from a physically taxing battle with the NHL’s best team, the Florida Panthers needed an unlikely hero to step up.
“It wasn’t the most exciting game in the National Hockey League, but last night’s was,” coach Paul Maurice said after his Panthers beat Montreal 4-1 on Saturday night but still thinking about their win against the Rangers.
“We didn’t have much in the tank, so it was an bit of a grinder.”
Enter Eetu Luostarinen.
The 25-year-old picked up his first-career multi-goal game as the Panthers slogged through yet another win against the Canadiens.
Only it was the not the two power play goals which seemed to impress Maurice when it came to Luostarinen.
No, it was how he came to the arena ready to go.
What did impress him the most?
“How hard he worked last night,” Maurice said.
“I think Montreal played hard defensively, but he was able to drive through it. There was a big cost for the penalty kill and the physicality that he was able to drive through, and I think that’s what he is. He is one of those guys who pushes himself every day in practice and in the games and he keeps driving. Those guys can make plays late in games because their hands aren’t wobbly and they’re not fatigued.
“He has just been a great force.”
With both teams off to a slow start in the first period — combining for just nine total shots — someone needed to break the ice in the second.
“Obviously there were a couple of lulls there where they didn’t have a shot,” said Anthony Stolarz, who faced four Montreal shots in the opening period.
“But that’s why talking to the defensemen and going out and playing the puck a little bit keeps you engaged in the game. When you are able to do that, it keeps you sharp so you know when they get a chance, that you’re ready for it.”
Luostarinen did just that, deflecting an Evan Rodrigues shot past Jake Allen 4:05 into the second period on the power play.
Cole Caufield tied the game up 3 minutes later with a wicked backhand shot on a Montreal power play.
Carter Verhaeghe appeared to put Florida ahead with 10:05 to go in the second period but it was taken off the board after a successful offside challenge from Montreal coach Martin St. Louis.
Caufield’s goal ended a 16-for-16 streak for Florida’s penalty kill that was active since their Dec. 14 loss to the Vancouver Canucks.
Luostarinen put the Panthers ahead 7:34 into the third period with his second power play goal of the night.
“It was a big night for him and a big night for the second power play unit,” Sam Bennett said.
“We got a couple and he works so hard, so it is great so we him get rewarded.”
Bennett deflected an Oliver Ekman-Larsson shot past Allen with 4:34 to go to put the Panthers up by 2.
Verhaeghe scored the empty netter to put the game away.
Stolarz made 18 saves on 19 shots in his first start since Dec. 18 to help the Panthers to victory.
The Panthers finish 2023 on a four-game winning streak and will look to keep it going as they head out West to start a four-game trip on Jan. 2.
“We played some great teams and got some huge wins,” Luostarinen said. “It’s a good end of the year for us.”
FLORIDA PANTHERS @ ARIZONA COYOTES
- When: Tuesday, 9 p.m.
- Where: Mullett Arena at Arizona State University, Tempe
- 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, NHL app
- Season Series — At Arizona: Tuesday. At Florida: Jan. 24.
- Last Season: Tied 1-1
- All-time Regular Season Series: Arizona leads 20-17-2, 3 ties
- Up Next for the Panthers: Thursday night at Vegas Golden Knights, 10 p.m.