SUNRISE, Fla. — The way the Florida Panthers are playing, they might not even want an All-Star break.
Simply put, they just keep rolling.
Aleksander Barkov – hours after signing a six-year contract extension – and Vincent Trocheck had power-play goals, Roberto Luongo made 22 saves and the Panthers tacked on one more win before the break by topping the Toronto Maple Leafs 5-1 on Tuesday night.
“It was an important game before the break,” said Luongo, who tied Tony Esposito for seventh in NHL history by earning his 423rd career win. “We wanted to end on the right note, feeling good about our team.”
Reilly Smith and Jussi Jokinen each had a goal and an assist for Florida, which is 15-3-1 in its last 19 games. Brian Campbell had two assists and Alex Petrovic added the first goal of his career for the Panthers, who go into the break atop the Atlantic Division and firmly holding second place in the Eastern Conference.
“It’s a great break for everybody,” Panthers coach Gerard Gallant said. “Not just for our team, but for every team in the National Hockey League.”
“They got going, we made mistakes and they capitalized,” Toronto coach Mike Babcock said. “We had lots of chances, too, but we didn’t capitalize. We’ve seen that before.”
The only thing that hadn’t been working of late for the Panthers was the power play – they were in a 3-for-51 slide over the last five weeks. That is, until they went 2 for 2 in a 4-minute span of the second period.
Barkov’s 13th goal for the season tied the game at 3:49, then Trocheck’s 14th came at 7:40 and put Florida up for good. After Luongo made five saves in a span of just more than a minute to keep the Panthers on top, some breathing room for Florida came at 14:13 of the second when Jokinen connected for his ninth goal of the season.
“It’s a good day for me,” said Barkov, the 20-year-old whose new deal will be worth $35.4 million over the next six years. “A lot has happened today.”
After Jokinen’s goal, it was academic.
For Florida, three goals just about always means two points – the Panthers are 20-0-1 this season when scoring at least three times.
“The game can get away from you very quick against a team like Florida,” Toronto captain Dion Phaneuf said.
Smith scored to make it 4-1, and Petrovic’s shot from the right point just happened to get through and past Reimer for the clincher.
It was Petrovic’s first goal in 82 career NHL games – his first 66 shots were all stopped over the last four years – and teammate Jonathan Huberdeau alertly grabbed the puck out of the crease after the play and sent it to the Florida bench for safe keeping.
“Got a nice lucky one,” Petrovic said.
Toronto’s goal came on one of Florida’s lone missteps of the night. Panthers defenceman Erik Gudbranson fell down while pursuing a play, allowing Kadri to skate in on Luongo unbothered and beat him for his 10th goal of the season at 17:35 of the first.
“We have lots of work to do,” Babcock said. “When you see the really good teams play and you see their talent base, you see where we’ve got to get to and we all understand that. It’s going to be a process. That doesn’t make it any easier on game night.”
NOTES: At a Maple Leafs-Panthers game, a Devils reunion broke out. Toronto general manager Lou Lamoriello and St. Louis assistant GM Martin Brodeur – who teamed together to win three Stanley Cups in New Jersey – had a long chat in the press box between the second and third periods. … Toronto didn’t get its first shot until 6:55 remained in the first period. … Florida is 15-2-0 when Campbell gets a point, and 20-2-3 when leading after two periods. … Panthers defenceman Aaron Ekblad got the first fighting penalty of his career.