On November 27, the Florida Panthers trailed the first place Montreal Canadiens by a whopping sixteen points, but a month later, that gap has been erased. The Cats jumped out to a first period lead and never trailed in a 3-2 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets that gave the club its twentieth win and put them on top of the Atlantic Division.
The Panthers shook off four days of rust and absolutely dominated the opening period, outshooting Columbus by a 19-1 margin, and took a 2-0 lead into the dressing room on goals from Aaron Ekblad and Aleksander Barkov.
Ekblad scored his ninth at the 4:34 mark after collecting the rebound of a Reilly Smith shot, which rang the iron, and firing it by a screened Curtis McElhinney. Vincent Trocheck picked up the secondary assist on the play.
Barkov put home the second tally with 18 seconds left in the frame, getting open in the slot after winning an offensive zone draw to finish off a nifty backhand pass from Jonathan Huberdeau.
The Blue Jackets brought a much better effort in the second period and halved the deficit at 7:59 when Brandon Saad beat Roberto Luongo from a sharp angle for his thirteenth of the season after collecting his own rebound along the goal line. Saad's goal was set up by Justin Falk and Kevin Connauton.
Another highlight-worthy effort from the dynamic duo of Barkov and Huberdeau restored Florida's two-goal lead 7:23 into the final frame. With the Jackets starting a line change, Barkov forced a turnover by knocking the puck out the of air and moving it to a wide open Huberdeau to start a 2-on-1 break. Huberdeau looked like he was going to test McElhinney, but wisely sent it back to Barkov, who easily lit the lamp for his second of evening.
It looked like the Panthers had the game firmly in control but a tripping penalty on Trocheck put Columbus on a power play that they were able to convert to pull back within one. Saad tipped Alexander Wennberg's shot on goal and Cam Atkinson was there to clean up the rebound with 8:34 left to go in regulation.
Luongo, who finished with 16 stops, and company were able to shut the surging visitors down the rest of the way to pick up their sixth win in a row. The veteran goaltender robbed Brandon Dubinsky with a leg pad stop and Willie Mitchell came up with a key shot block with time running out to foil the Blue Jackets bid for overtime.
Up next for the red-hot Cats on the holiday homestand are those aforementoined Canadiens on Tuesday night. With a huge crowd slated to be on hand and division bragging rights on the line, it should be a doozy.
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Highlights (courtesy of NHL.com)