With time running out for the Florida Panthers’ to keep their winning streak alive Tuesday, Aleksander Barkov, as he so often has been this season, was the savior the Panthers needed.

A mass of bodies battled for the puck in front of the New York Islanders’ net with less than five minutes to go and Barkov waited patiently away from the fray, prowling in the slot and waiting for a chance to be the hero. After five seconds of battling, the puck bounced right where the star center wanted it and he pounced. The captain lifted a shot over Ilya Sorokin to force overtime, and then all he needed was 20 seconds in the extra period to complete his hat trick and beat the Islanders, 3-2, in Elmont, New York.

“That’s why he’s our captain,” interim coach Andrew Brunette said. “He’s had a great season, kind of quietly.”

In a season of career years and franchise records, Barkov’s 37 goals are a career high and his Panthers (55-15-6) have now won 11 in a row — the second longest winning streak in team history and the longest in the NHL this season.

It has been a dream season for Florida and Tuesday brought a shower of memorable regular-season milestones, as well as positive signs for the upcoming Stanley Cup playoffs.

The day started with star defenseman Aaron Ekblad, who has missed more than a month with a right knee injury, participating in a morning skate for the first time. By the end of regulation, the Panthers had clinched home-ice advantage for at least the first round of the 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs, by virtue of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s loss to the Detroit Red Wings. Barkov’s overtime goal moved him into a tie with former captain Olli Jokinen for the franchise record for game-winning goals and All-Star left wing Jonathan Huberdeau’s three-assist performance vaulted him into the league lead in points.

With six games left in the regular season, Huberdeau is in pole position to win the Art Ross Trophy, the Panthers are a virtual lock to finish in first place in both the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference, and Florida has a real shot to win the Presidents’ Trophy for the first time.

With an eight-point lead on the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Panthers can clinch both the Atlantic and the East as early as Thursday, and tie a franchise record with a 12th straight win. They’re also now tied with the Colorado Avalanche for the top spot in the league, although the Avalanche has the tiebreaker with five more regulation wins

Florida, however, insists it’s not worried about finishing with the best record in the NHL. The Panthers just want to be playing their best when the Cup playoffs begin in May and right now they’re playing as complete a game as they have all year.

Their offense is still far and away the best in the league with 4.17 goals per game, and they need to score just 11 more to become the first team to average four goals per game since the 1995-96 NHL season. More importantly, their defense is trending in the right direction and is up to No. 10 in the league with 2.84 goals against per game after giving up just seven in their last five games.

“We just talked a lot about keeping games tight, not to let them score a lot of goals,” Barkov said. “We’re heading in the right direction.”

Their win Tuesday was in some ways a step back, but impressive in the way they were able to survive an imperfect performance. Florida was sloppy in its own end of the ice with 16 giveaways and it let the Islanders (35-32-9) pile up 17 high-danger chances — the most the Panthers have allowed since they rallied from four down to beat the Maple Leafs in overtime April 5. Florida twice had to rally from a goal down and Sorokin’s stalwart performance — the New York goaltender had 39 saves and didn’t give up a 5-on-5 goal — made it a challenge.

Barkov was good enough to overcome it. With 5:48 left in the second period, he scored from the slot on a power play to tie the game 1-1. With 3:58 left in the third, he scored in a 4-on-4 situation to tie the game at 2-2. In overtime, he fielded a perfectly placed stretch pass from Huberdeau right along the crease and beat Sorokin to win the game 3-2 with 4:40 left in the five-minute, 3-on-3 period.

Every time, he deflated the crowd of 17,255 at UBS Arena, which was energized to celebrate the life of late Hockey Hall of Famer Mike Bossy.

“He’s a great player,” Brunette said, “and he shows it every night.”

002 Blue Jackets at Panthers DS.jpg
Florida Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad (5) skates during warmups an NHL game against the Columbus Blue Jackets at the FLA Live Arena on Thursday, February 24, 2022 in Sunrise, Fl. David Santiago [email protected]

Aaron Ekblad skates with Panthers

The Panthers are still hoping Ekblad will be able to return from his right knee injury at some point during the first round of the Cup playoffs and the star defenseman took a major step in his recovery Tuesday.

The 26-year-old Canadian joined Florida on its two-game road trip and participated in the Panthers’ optional morning skate Tuesday on Long Island, FloridaHockeyNow.com reported. Ekblad has missed more than a month after injuring his knee against the Anaheim Ducks in March, and the Panthers have already ruled him out for the rest of the regular season and placed him on long-term injured reserve ahead of the trade deadline last month.

Brunette said April 7 he expects Ekblad to return at some point in the first or second round of the playoffs, if Florida gets there. Ekblad has been skating in non-team settings for more than a week.

Prior to his injury, Ekblad was a contender for
the James Norris Memorial Trophy and one of the top goal-scoring defensemen in the league. He’ll finish the regular season with 15 goals and 42 assists.

This story was originally published April 19, 2022 10:19 PM.

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David Wilson, a Maryland native, is the Miami Herald’s utility man for sports coverage.


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