The Florida Panthers jumped out to a big four-goal lead before barely holding on for a 5-3 victory over the Washington Capitals to sweep the Stanley Cup champions and former division rivals for the first time in franchise history.
Speaking of the franchise, Aleksander Barkov dished out three assists to tie Pavel Bure for the most points in a season at 94. Barkov has two games left to set a new mark.
Frank Vatrano opened the scoring with 6:12 left in the first period, when he converted from the slot after Henrik Borgstrom forced a turnover and Colton Sceviour kicked the puck back out in front for Vatrano to snipe home.
Jonathan Huberdeau scored an unassisted marker to put the Panthers up by two 3:34 into the second period and set a new career-high of 28 goals. Evgenii Dadonov centered from behind the net and Niklas Backstrom played hot potato with the puck before Huberdeau swatted it by Pheonix Copley.
Barkov would help the Cats tack on two more before the end of the frame with some pinpoint passing. A good thing, as those goals would come in handy later.
After Mike Matheson started a breakout following a defensive stop, Barkov put a crossing pass right on the blade of Vincent Trocheck’s stick in the neutral zone, allowing him to motor around Evgeny Kuznetsov and beat Copley five-hole from the right circle at the 12:01 mark. That’s back-to-back games with a shorthanded goals for the Panthers, who had only scored one shorty prior. The goal was the 100th of Trocheck’s career.
Barkov’s next master class in pass came at 17:57 when he took a backhand cross from Dryden Hunt and then immediately went back against the grain to Troy Brouwer, who put the biscuit into the yawning net for his 12th goal of the campaign and one of the prettier Panther goals this season.
At the midway point of the third period it looked like the Cats and Roberto Luongo might blank the disinterested Capitals, but a defensive error (surprise, surprise) sparked a Washington surge,
Matheson had the time and space to make a safe play in his own end, but instead he rushed, and his pass missed Trocheck and went directly to John Carlson at the right point. Carlson let go of a shot and a wide-open Kuznetsov deflected it in to crack the goose egg at 10:55.
Backstrom would cut the deficit to two at the 16:25 mark after T.J. Oshie split Mark Pysyk and Huberdeau to make a sweet backhand dish to the waiting Swede. Alex Ovechkin picked up the secondary assist on the goal.
The Caps would pot another on the crumbling Cats 1:14 later when Oshie collected the rebound of Matt Niskanen’s drive and made another great pass over to Jakub Vrana, who slammed the puck by a helpless Luongo.
Florida would survive the late onslaught and extend its winning streak to three thanks in part to a late Luongo save, who stopped 27 shots in all, on Ovechkin. Barkov took control of the rebound and got the puck up to Dadonov, who passed off to Trocheck, who clinched it with 27 ticks left on the clock to hit double digit goals. The assist was Barkov’s 60th of the year. He joined linemate Huberdeau as the only Panthers to ever amass that many helpers in a season.
The Cats looked really good for the first 50 minutes of the game, bringing the same kind of strong defensive effort we saw in Boston on Saturday. Unfortunately, the wheels fell off towards the end, with another unforced defensive mistake providing the Caps with a spark that almost led to overtime. Luckily, they held on and picked up win number 36 and point number 84. The Panthers are now assured of finishing above NHL .500. The Panthers didn’t really play spoilers in this one, but they did keep the Capitals from the clinching the Metropolitan Division. In an odd turn of fortune, if the Panthers beat the Islanders on Thursday they can help Washington win the division. These are the things of note when one’s time is not going to the playoffs.
Video Recap (courtesy of NHL.com)