The Florida Panthers won a crazy, back-and-forth affair against the Pittsburgh Penguins in front of the largest crowd at the BB&T Center this season in the last game before breaking for Christmas. Florida prevailed 4-3 in a shootout, after a coughing up a 3-1 lead in the third period, when Aleksander Barkov beat Marc-Andre Fleury with a cheeky, one-armed backhand in the seventh round. Roberto Luongo stopped all seven Penguins shooters in the skills competition.
Pittsburgh got the only goal of an evenly played opening period when Patric Hornqvist deflected Simon Despres' wrist shot from the point past Luongo at the 4:39 mark. Sidney Crosby picked up the second assist on Hornqvist 12th of the season.
The Cats seized momentum in the middle frame, out-shooting the Penguins 13-7 and drawing three minors penalties that went for naught. Immediately after failing to convert on power play number three, the Panthers finally solved Fleury, who was without a stick, when Jussi Jokinen fired home from a close range after taking a pass from Dave Bolland. Dmitry Kulikov also drew a helper on the goal.
Florida kept rolling in the third period thanks to the hard work of Sean Bergenheim and Jimmy Hayes. Hayes got his 8th goal just 47 seconds into the frame after Bergenheim found him down low and his shot dribbled through Fleury past the goal line.
Hayes struck again 4:33 later to give the Panthers a 3-1 lead. Barkov got the puck to Bergenheim behind the net and after his backhand attempt was turned away by Fleury, Hayes was there to clean up the garbage for his second of the night.
The Panthers held the Pens in check until an iffy slashing call on Derek MacKenzie gave Pittsburgh the break they were looking for. Nick Spaling redirected Derrick Pouliot's shot by Luongo to cut the deficit to one with 4:52 remaining. Despres collected his second assist on the power-play goal.
Pittsburgh tied the game a 1:52 later on a Evgeni Malkin stuff job. Scottie Upshall was under pressure in the Panthers' zone and made a poor decision when he reversed the puck behind the goal and found Malkin instead of a teammate. Luongo stopped the Penguins' forward twice, but the third time was the charm for the determined Malkin.
After an aggressively played overtime by both sides, the game went to the shootout, where Luongo put on a show by denying Malkin, Crosby, Kris Letang (who caught iron in overtime), Chris Kunitz, Hornqvist, Pouliot and Despres. Brother Louie's glove save on Kunitz in round four was a jaw-dropper.
The Panthers made things relatively easy on Fleury as Vincent Trocheck, Nick Bjugstad and Jonathan Huberdeau failed to get shots on goal. Brandon Pirri, Jokinen and Bolland were actually stopped by the Pittsburgh netminder before Barkov potted the winner.
If there was any doubt about whether the Panthers were for real or not, I think they cleared that up for good in this two-game set with the Penguins. The Cats outplayed the Pens for large stretches and if not for Fleury's 45-save gem on Saturday, could have taken four points from the Eastern Conference's top team. Florida was on its way to a statement win before gagging late in the third, but the Panthers showed their mettle with another extra-innings shootout win. Well done boys!
Odds & Ends
- Just an absolutely huge game for Jimmy Hayes. Two goals, five shots, six hits, and +3 rating. Wow! Hayes, who sat out on Saturday, was simply a force to be reckoned with and had a bid for a third goal denied right before the Penguins started their late comeback.
- Aleksander Barkov's assist was his first point since November 11. Hopefully, the shootout winner will give the second-year center a confidence boost in the offensive end of the ice.
- Jussi Jokinen picked up his fourth goal of the season and registered a game-high six shots.
- Marc-Andre Fleury finished with 34 saves, while Roberto Luongo stopped 24 shots to post his 386th win, placing him 12th on the NHL's all-time list.
- Florida is now 15-9-8 and tied with the New York Rangers, who hold the conference's second wild card spot, with 38 points. The Rangers have a game in hand and will play Washington tonight at Madison Square Garden. Capitals in regulation, please.
- The game drew a crowd of 15,720 to the BB&T Center, a welcome sight indeed. Hopefully, the exciting tilt will inspire some return customers.
- Steel away to Pensburgh for more on the Cats' latest shootout shenanigans.