The Florida Panthers organEYEzation had pegged this night as a very special night. The retiring of Roberto Luongo’s number on a night that the Panthers would host the Montreal Canadiens promised to be the perfect set up for a victorious evening all around. The ceremony itself was top notch. The list of people who paid tribute to Luongo during the ceremony included:- Kevin Weekes, Alex Burrows, Ed Jovanovski, Martin Brodeur, Sean Thornton, Shane Doan, Bryan McCabe. Erik Gudbranson, Nick Bjugstad, Fred Guttenberg, Fabio Luongo (brother), His billet family, his grandparents, his youth hockey coach, Aaron Ekblad, Jonathan Huberdeau, Aaron Barkov and Dale Tallon. I guess Mike Keenan wasn’t available.
The speeches were heartfelt, the messages were genuine, and the tears were flowing. There were not many dry eyes in attendance. That included Lu, his wife Gina, and his children. The almost 60 ceremony went without a hiccup, and ended with the number 1 hanging in the rafters. Never to be worn by a Florida Panther again.
Congratulations to a player who has exemplified not only what a good teammate is, but has shown that athletes are human beings that have feelings, have the ability to be a friend, and that they too care about community they live in.
On to the game itself. There was a lot at stake Saturday night, and the Panthers needed to be on point with all of it. Five points out of a playoff spot, needing to end an eight game home losing streak, and trying to get their confidence back, the Florida Panthers had to be the best version of themselves.
The good thing is that as the game started the Panthers controlled a good portion of the first period, peppering Montreal goaltender Charlie Lindgren, maintaining offensive zone control and even some sorely missing puck possession time, but they were unable to finish. There were easily three or four solid scoring chances that Lindgren thwarted. The Canadiens also appeared to be a bit slow. Not disinterested, but not exactly reacting quickly, or creating their own pace.
Florida outshot Montreal 13-8 in the opening period, and despite the fact that neither team scored, you could tell that if the Panthers stuck with their game plan, things would work out in their favor. Starting for the second game in a row was goaltender Chris Driedger, as Sergei Bobrovsky remained out of the lineup with a lower body injury. Driedger who made 33 saves last night won his 6th game of the season, and was voted as the games number one star.
It was well deserved, as he not only kept the Canadiens off the scoresheet until the middle part of the third period, he did it confidently and calmly. One of the things that I have noticed with Driedger is how relaxed he looks even when the opposition is peppering him with shots. Which doesn’t happen all too often.
Dridger’s rebound control is excellent, and he doesn’t flop around all over the crease. His positioning and technique is very sound. His mechanics are solid, and he follows the puck very well. He actually reminds me of another goaltender who also took awhile to make it to the NHL……Corey Crawford. As you would expect, I’ve seen a lot of Crawford and Driedger reminds me a little of him.
The games first goal wasn’t scored until midway in the second period when Lucas Wallmark sped into the Habs zone, faked a shot, then back handed one over the sprawling Lindgren to gain his first goal as a Panther and give the Cats the lead. A true Hallmark moment for the youngster Lindgren. It was his 12th goal of the season.
Shortly after that the Panthers almost dug themselves a hole when Dominik Toninato took a 4 minute minor for hi-sticking, followed by Aaron Ekblad for 2 minutes for his own hi-sticking call. The Canadiens ended up with just over a minute of 5 on 3 hockey. Driedger stood tall, and the penalty killing unit would not give in. This would be a major momentum advantage for the Panthers.
I personally have heard Joel Quenneville say many times that if you can defend a 2 man advantage and not give anything up, it could be the difference maker in the game. Last night it certainly was.
MacKenzie Weegar gave the Panthers a bit of a cushion very early in the third period with a blast from just inside the blueline that Lindgren really didn’t have a chance on, despite having a good look. It was Weegars 7th goal of the season and gave the Panthers even more confidence.
The Cats needed to close this one out, and they needed to do it in a way that wouldn’t cause them to be nervous about it. Jonathan Huberdeau who was dropped to the second line with Erik Haula and Mike Hoffman, caught a neat pass as he was standing in the crease. Huberdeau was unattended, and he put down his plate of sweediish meatballs (pressbox food Saturday), and stuck the puck past Lindgren. A goal that the Panthers don’t get very often, but have had scored against them a hundred times this season. Proving as always that good things can happen when you go to the net.
The newly formed Triple H line as I am calling it with Hoffman, Haula and Huberdeau had a great night. Mike Hoffman added an empty netter late in the third on a long (160 foot) shot from the side wall that made it’s way into Montreal’s empty net, sealing the victory at 4-1.
Jake Evans scored the lone Montreal goal, midway through the third period, but the Panthers were not threatened, and didn’t lose a beat. They maintained their composure, and played with confidence. Something they haven’t shown all too much of lately.
It could also be that Luongo’s pep talk during his tribute was taken to heart as well:
We have to believe in ourselves right now and enjoy the moment. Work your hearts out.
With so much on the line, and obviously wanting to win the game for their retired teammate, the Panthers did just that. They worked hard, looked serious, and played with intent. All good things that they need to continue doing if they plan to see any action beyond game 82.
The St. Louis Blues are next for the Panthers. A road game. They seem to play well there, and will be catching a Blues team that will be playing the second game of a back to back. The Stanley Cup defending champs are looking as good this year as they did last year, and the Panthers cannot afford a let down.
Despite this being a game against a western conference opponent, the two points are meaningful. Getting them continues the new found confidence, and would indicate that they have some swagger back.
Take care of your business boys, and don’t worry about what the others are doing.
Thanks for reading.
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