It was as unlikely a 500th franchise win as could have been imagined by weary - and wary - Cats fans: A two-goal deficit heading into the third period against a foe not vanquished since February 7th, 2001.
At that point, the Minnesota Wild held a tenuous lead while languishing far behind the pace in shots: Minnesota had scared up barely 7 in the preceeding forty minutes to Florida's 21. As fine a job as the Panthers had so far done all season in their own end, forgetting the two goals allowed in the opening frame to Mikko Koivu (PP) and Robbie Earl. Even all-universe netminder Tomas Vokoun was looking a bit too human for a job demanding super-human abilities on a nightly basis.
What could not have been predicted was Florida's mix-and-match defensive core dropping to their knees: to block shots. A lot of them.
And the Cats were supposed to be - on paper - a lesser club following the subtractions last week of defensemen Jordan Leopold and Dennis Seidenberg.
Not content with merely racking up yet another loss to the Wild, the Panthers' "D" played as if smoke from a closing fire hung three feet above the St. Paul ice: Bryan Allen led the brigade with 5 blocked shots, followed by Keith Ballard and Bryan McCabe (each with 4); rookie Dmitry Kulikov's 2 were equaled by forwards Stephen Weiss and Rostislav Olesz.
In all, the Cats combined for 20 blocked shots; still two less than the opposition, but good enough to prevent the expected third-period meltdown which never arose.
The eleven Minnesota shots were a Panthers franchise record for fewest-allowed, as well as the smallest number the Wild ever gained at home.
Time-on-ice among the top four defensemen proved fascinating as well, considering where the Panthers were just eight days ago; the "losses" of Leo and Seids opened up swaths of ice time for those previously on the outside looking in, and it's worked rather well over the past three games. Against the Wild, Ballard led all cats with 29:55 (0p,1sog), McCabe clocking in with 26:39 (1a, 1sog), 19 year-old Kulikov snagging 25:28 (0p, 0sog), and Allen with 22:41 (0p, 3sog). Even suddenly-relevant Jason Garrison received a healthy 20:43 (0p, 2sog).
Vokoun proved to get better as the game wore on; his four saves on four shots in the shootout mirrored the total he faced in the final twenty-five minutes of regulation and overtime. He simply looked like Tomas Vokoun once more.
Of course, the Panthers would have been on the lousy side had Michael Frolik and Cory Stillman not received tremendous support from McCabe, David Booth, and (especially) Steven Reinprecht. Stiller's winner in the fourth frame of the SO against Niklas Backstrom was as heartstopping as it was unbelievable.
A side note: the Cats won 55% of their faceoffs; Stephen Weiss was an astounding 12-for-18 (67%). And what of captain McCabe's recent run: a five-game point streak (1g, 9a)?
A come-from-behind, 31-shot road victory against a club Florida had not tamed since Minnesota's inaugural season. That's three in a row for those counting.
Next up: Craig Anderson and the Colorado Avalanche Thursday.