By Bill Whitehead
SUNRISE –After Florida’s 2-1 Saturday night shootout win over Boston courtesy of Roberto Luongo and Brandon Pirri, Panthers captain Willie Mitchell was asked what the young Panthers could possibly learn from the enormous moment at the BB&T Center.
Frankly, there hadn’t been a moment like that since April 26, 2012, when Adam Henrique broke the hearts of the entire arena.
Mitchell’s advice to his young teammates was clear: “We believe in here that if we stay in the present and take care of what’s ahead of us, we’ll be there until the end. You just try to stay in the moment.”
And after a slow start by the Panthers – the first 15 minutes were very nervy ones by the home team – there were plenty of moments.
The Cats settled in and battled the Bruins, desperately chipping away at a 5-point wildcard deficit in a game that was like a heavyweight match. In the second and third periods, the physical play reached a crescendo with the Panthers doing the majority of the smacking.
“You’re playing Boston,” said defenseman Erik Gudbranson. “That’s what they bring game in and game out. There wasn’t much space out there, that’s for sure. We didn’t have much time with the puck; you had to move your feet to open up a spot. You needed to be physical to create opportunities. Our forwards did a really good job of that in the second half of the second and the third. We really got physical, created those holes and created opportunities for us.”
The two expressions I heard most often in the Florida dressing room post-game from Gudbranson , Luongo and Pirri were the lack of space on the ice and the playoff-style energy to the contest. Gudbranson said the Panthers didn’t designate a must-get number of points in the three tilts versus the Bruins, the first of which went to Florida in a single-point gain.
“Our playoffs started a long time ago. Knowing where we are in the standing in relation to Boston, it had to be tonight. It was a physical affair all night long. They brought it, we brought it. We’re really happy to come out on the top end,” Gudbranson said.
“At this point of the season, you’re going shift by shift, trying to match the intensity of your linemates and teammates, and trying to keep that strong momentum going forward.”
Luongo said the crowd’s enthusiasm was palpable. He easily stopped Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand before Pirri slowly skated in and 5-holed Tuukka Rask.
“It was a playoff game, playoff intensity,” Luongo said. “You could feel it. There was not a lot of room on the ice. We’re happy we got the win; you’d have liked to have got it in regulation, obviously, but we’ll take the two points and move on here.”
In his second start since returning from injury, Luongo said he had no history on Boston center Ryan Spooner, the Bruins’ last chance at prolonging the game. Florida improved to 8-10 in shootouts while Boston slipped to 3-9.
“I didn’t know what he was going to do,” Luongo said. “Once he went to the backhand, I tried to close the 5-hole and get a glove on it. He wasn’t able to get it high enough to get it over my shoulder, which was nice. Whenever you’re involved in those (playoff) types of games, the crowd goes along with it and it brings the energy in the building.”
Luongo has seen Pirri’s game-winning move on Rask, too. The Finnish goalie stopped Pirri in a 2-on-1 in overtime, then Pirri’s last blast of the 5-minute session whistled by the near post off a pass from Aleksander Barkov.
“Rask made one huge save on him, and (Pirri) missed on another, but Pirri’s so good and patient with the puck in the shootout. I see it in practice every day. It’s a tough move to stop,” Luongo said.
Pirri laugh and added of his molasses-like approach in the shootout: “I give Lu fits with that. It takes too long and wastes time.”
It wasn’t a perfect night for Florida. In fact, the scenario that played out was maybe third-best in the pecking order. Ottawa won over Toronto – whom the Senators play two more times – and Boston gained a point.
As always, there were many near misses for the Cats, too, most noticeably Dave Bolland failing on a tap-in. The center had a chance to quiet the belly-aching over his acquisition, and his assist on Jimmy Hayes’ tally in the first was a beautiful backhanded pass. But he came up short on Rask’s doorstep in his efforts to be the game’s No. 1 star. ESPN had that save in its top 10 plays, but the result was more about Bolland whiffing than Rask stonewalling.
Still, it was perhaps the best night of the year in Sunrise. A dramatic win over a tough opponent whom Florida has struggled against, all in the thick of a playoff race and played out in a front of a loud crowd.
“We’re a good group in here, and we know where we are. There’s a very, very strong belief in here that we’re going to make the playoffs and go far in the playoffs once we get there. We’re just going to continue the way we’re going and stay strong,” Gudranson said.
Florida did just that. They held strong, put pressure on Boston and won a game that felt like the postseason all over again — just with no Henrique ending.
They stayed in what amounted to a very important moment.
Follow Bill Whitehead on Twitter @BillWhiteheadFL and in Scripps newspapers online at TCPalm.com