The Florida Panthers just kept getting better as the game went on after a long layoff. That was enough to erase a late deficit then pounce for an overtime winner in a matchup of two of the Eastern Conference's best teams.
Sam Reinhart tied it in the final minute of regulation, then Aaron Ekblad got free for a breakaway goal just 16 seconds into OT to give the Panthers a 3-2 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes on Wednesday night, an abrupt turnaround to a game Florida otherwise controlled despite being behind late.
Florida never led in regulation but outshot the Hurricanes 22-8 over the final two periods in a matchup of the conference's top two teams in terms of points percentage, as well as marking the Panthers’ first game in more than two weeks due to the All-Star break.
“For us coming off that break, it was grinding game," interim Panthers coach Andrew Brunette said. "And we were very ready to grind, ready to do the little things, to find a way.
"We didn't have our best game with the puck, but I thought we did a lot of the right things. We defended in packs. We kept them a little bit to the outside. And we had energy, and I thought we got better as the game went on — especially in the third period.”
Aleksander Barkov also scored a highlight-reel goal in the second period for Florida, which had notched a franchise-record 12 wins in January along with scoring 74 goals for the highest single-month output by any NHL team in more than 26 years.
Things didn’t come nearly as easily in a chippy and physical matchup, but the Panthers beat Carolina’s Frederik Andersen when they had to.
Reinhart struck first by chasing down a loose puck along the left side and zipping the puck past Andersen as he tried to recover to the post at 19:11 of the third after the Panthers had pulled Sergei Bobrovsky for the extra attacker.
Ekblad’s goal came suddenly, with NHL assists leader Jonathan Huberdeau zipping a perfect stretch pass from deep in Florida’s own end to find Ekblad near center ice for the winning chance.
“I went in on the breakaway and I truly have absolutely no idea what to do on breakaways," the defenseman said. "I just tried to slow down a little bit and make a move. I think it's just kind of trickled in.”
Teuvo Teravainen and Tony DeAngelo each scored goals for the Hurricanes, who had lost three of four — all on the road — since returning from a shorter layoff. Andersen finished with 28 saves, though the Hurricanes' inability to convert on a 2-minute 5-on-3 opportunity in the first period loomed larger as shots became harder to come by.
“The better team won tonight," Carolina coach Rod Brind'Amour said. “We were not the better team. So yeah, it's disappointing. we should've won because we're up (2-1 late in regulation). But really in the bigger picture, that's not how I'm looking at it.”
Barkov and defenseman Lucas Carlsson each had incredible second-period plays that proved critical.
First there was Carlsson sliding in from the left side behind Bobrovsky to deflect Jesperi Kotkaniemi’s seemingly easy rebound put away with the shaft of his stick and keep the deficit at 1-0.
As for Barkov, he skated in for a 1-on-1 matchup with Brady Skjei, then flipped the puck behind his back to his right side to his backhand side to beat Andersen at 13:09 with what Brind'Amour called a “world-class goal."
“He never ceases to amaze,” Brunette said. “Such an underrated, talented player. It was kind of fun it was on national TV. Hopefully the world got to see what he brings to us every night and maybe shine a light on how skilled he is and how hard he competes.”
Officials had to separate the teams in multiple first-period scrums in a game that had a playoff flavor, twice with those exchanges involving hits to or delivered by Carolina forward Andrei Svechnikov.
There was also Florida's Mason Marchment laying out former Panthers player Vincent Trocheck with a jarring hit that sent Trocheck's helmet flying. Trocheck kept playing, only to be sent to the box for playing without his helmet.
Panthers: At Minnesota on Friday night.
Hurricanes: Host Nashville on Friday night.
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