SUNRISE — The Florida Panthers saved their biggest offensive output for their final game of the 2021 calendar year Thursday night against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Panthers had fans chanting “We want 10!” for the final seven minutes after Sasha Barkov got a shorthanded goal for Florida’s ninth goal of the night.
Florida did not get that 10th goal — it would have tied the franchise record set in 1997 against the Bruins — but certainly got what it wanted when it came to beating a rival.
Boy, did the Panthers beat the Lightning.
Sure, the Lightning were missing perhaps the best goalie in the NHL — not to mention Andrei Vasilevskiy’s backup.
But for the Panthers, closing out 2021 with a 9-3 win over the Lightning was cause for cracking open bottles of the good stuff a little early.
Florida went 56-21-9 in the regular season over 2021 — 2-4 against the Lightning in the playoffs — and won 36 of 47 on home ice.
That is certainly worth toasting.
Counting three preseason dates, the Panthers and Lightning met for the 20th time in 2021 on Thursday.
Over the course of 2021, the two teams have shown a true distain for one another with some of the bad blood roiling to the surface again Thursday.
Florida got this party started early.
With the Lightning missing some key players — including its top two goalies — Florida took quick advantage despite playing the night before.
The Panthers scored three goals in the third period of Wednesday’s win over the Rangers and kept the flow rolling by getting three in the first Thursday to take a 3-1 lead into the break.
Anthony Duclair, who ended the Florida scoring Wednesday, kicked things off Thursday.
Duclair strolled in on Maxime Legace off a Brandon Montour stretch pass, went forehand-backhand-forehand and befuddled the overmatched Tampa goalie at 2:10 of the first.
Next up was Jonathan Huberdeau, following up a rebound with a hard backhand to give the Panthers just their fourth power play goal of the month.
With 5:39 remaining in the first, Frank Vatrano — who was benched Wednesday but played with Sam Bennett out — hit the post so hard the rebound came right back at him 15 feet out. Vatrano didn’t miss on his second shot, making it 3-0.
The Lightning got on the board with Zach Bogosian’s follow up shot and that’s when tempers started to flare up a little. After Aaron Ekblad and Alex Killorn were seperated, Killorn and MacKenzie Weegar went at it.
Barkov was then called for roughing — yeah, no one could believe it — and the Lightning had an extended power play.
Florida’s penalty kill was strong, however, and it remained 3-1 until Eetu Luostarinen scored on a rebound early in the second to give the Panthers a three-goal lead again.
Steven Stamkos, who has more goals against the Panthers than any other team in his Hall of Fame career, got No. 35 against Florida by putting one past Spencer Knight at 6:19 of the second.
That was, to be sure, as close as the Lightning got.
Florida ended up scoring two goals in the final three minutes of the second — Maxim Mamin cleaned up a Carter Verhaeghe shot with Anton Lundell sending a backhand past Legace — to give the Panthers a 6-2 lead going into the third.
For Knight, that was plenty.
Knight, whose last start with the Panthers was the 8-2 loss to Ottawa before the Covid/Christmas break, ended the night with 39 saves.
Tampa Bay, it shall be noted, did get a third goal in the third period.
But, Duclair got his second of the night as he walked in on 20-year-old goalie Hugo Alnefelt (who was called in out of the pen to start the period) and made it a 7-3 ballgame.
Ekblad jumped in on the fun at 6:46 of the third, his slapper from the right circle giving the Panthers a five-goal lead.
Barkov then got his first goal since returning to the lineup to make it 9-3 and put that franchise record within reach.
GR’S THREE STARS OF THE GAME
1. Anthony Duclair, Florida
2. Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida
3. Frank Vatrano, Florida