Joel Quenneville insisted when he agreed to coach the Florida Panthers last spring the perpetually struggling club was close to figuring it out.
Following a sluggish start, it looks as if Quenneville might be right.
Mike Hoffman had a goal and an assist, rookie Chris Driedger stopped 31 shots and the Panthers ended an eight-game losing streak on Pittsburgh ice with a 4-1 victory over the Penguins on Sunday night.
“It was good that we played a full 60 minutes,” said center Vincent Trochek, who set up Brett Connolly's goal late midway through the first period that gave the Panthers a lead they would never relinquish. “It’s been an issue of ours, closing out games in the third period, coming out a little bit flat when we have a lead. Tonight, we came out in the third and played just as well as we did in the first and second."
Frank Vatrano had his ninth and Evgenii Dadonov added an empty-netter for his 18th. Florida bounced back from a loss to Buffalo on Saturday by winning in Pittsburgh for the first time since Jan. 20, 2014.
Driedger, who played well in relief after replacing Sergei Bobrovsky was pulled against the Sabres, didn't hesitate when asked if the victory felt like the most important of the season.
“Yeah, honestly,” Driedger said. "The guys did a great job. I think, the last game, we weren’t happy with the loss there. Kind of rallied and try to do little things a little bit better.”
Jared McCann scored his 11th for Pittsburgh. Tristan Jarry finished with 31 saves, but the Penguins looked out of gas at times while playing for the third time in four nights.
“I don’t think we had the juice that we have had in a number of the games, in most of the games this year,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said. "But I think one of the challenges of this league is the grind of the schedule and good teams just need to understand how to manage those games.”
For once, the Penguins couldn't.
Pittsburgh reached the season's halfway point with the NHL's fourth-best record following an overtime victory in Montreal on Saturday night, heady territory for a club that's been riddled with injuries since opening night and spent the last two months playing without captain Sidney Crosby. Their formula during the first 41 games has been remarkably simple: avoid major mistakes, play smart in front Jarry and Matt Murray and take care of business at PPG Paints Arena.
Pittsburgh arrived at work Sunday with an NHL-high 16 home victories thanks in large part to stellar play from Jarry, who leads the NHL in save percentage and goals-against average and entered Sunday unbeaten in regulation in his last seven home starts.
Yet a sluggish opening period less than 24 hours removed from a quick trip to Canada cost Pittsburgh. Vatrano chased down a lead pass from Hoffman then raced around Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang — one of the fastest skaters in the league — and jammed the puck by Jarry to give the Panthers the lead just 2:28 into the game.
McCann tied it 1:24 later thanks to some excellent work by linemate Dominik Simon. Simon skated through the neutral zone, drew two Panthers and passed to McCann, who ripped one by Driedger to pull the Penguins even.
Yet Pittsburgh isn't the only pleasant surprise during the NHL's first half. The Panthers are in the mix in the Atlantic Division behind a potent offense that ranks fourth in the league in goals. Florida can skate and score, and Connolly put the Panthers in front 10:44 into the first when Trochek — working behind the net — found Connolly in the slot.
And for the first time in a long time for Florida in Pittsburgh, the Panthers didn't give it back.
Though Jarry settled down and kept the Penguins in the game with some timely stops, Driedger was every bit his match. Jarry made a sprawling stick save on Aaron Ekblad early in the second and Driedger matched it with a terrific blocker save on a charging Simon.
“They had a couple two--on-ones tonight that he bailed us out on, that’s huge,” Trochek said.
Hoffman gave the Panthers a two-goal advantage 8:52 into the third with a shot that zipped over Jarry's shoulder. Driedger and the defense did the rest to give Florida just its second victory in Pittsburgh since 2009.
“I think we played the clock, the score, against a good team," Quenneville said. “They've been on a roll. I liked the commitment that the guys had, putting the puck in the safe areas. You don't always have to manufacture stuff and if we keep improving that in our game, we're going to be a much better team."