Panthers rediscover offense, roll past Capitals in Game 2

SUNRISE, Fla. — It took some time, but the Florida Panthers looked a lot more like themselves in their 5-1 victory against the Washington Capitals in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference First Round at FLA Live Arena on Thursday.

Following a slow start, the Presidents’ Trophy winners as the NHL leader in points and the League’s highest-scoring team during the regular season broke out offensively with five players scoring a goal. Sergei Bobrovsky took care of the rest, making 26 saves to help Florida even the best-of-7 series, with Game 3 at Washington on Saturday (1 p.m. ET; ESPN, SN, TVAS, NBCSWA, BSFL).

“It’s nice to win. That’s all we want to do,” Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov said. “Obviously, we didn’t play the right way in the first game and this game we kept building. We got better once the game went on and ‘Bob’ kept us in the game, gave us a chance to win, and then we kept building and got better as the game went on. So now the series is even and we’re ready to go.”

Barkov and Carter Verhaeghe each had a goal and an assist. Aaron Ekblad and Anton Lundell each scored his first Stanley Cup Playoff goal, and Mason Marchment also scored as Florida demonstrated the scoring depth that helped it lead the NHL by averaging 4.11 goals per game during the regular season.

But there were some nervous moments in the first period when the Panthers had a lot of the same problems that plagued them during their 4-2 loss in Game 1 on Tuesday. The Capitals pressured them with their forecheck and bottled up the Panthers’ speed and skill with their strong structure in the neutral and defensive zones.

Florida was limited to four shots on goal in the opening 16 minutes, and one of them was a 77-footer from the neutral zone by defenseman Ben Chiarot at 14:35 that drew mocking cheers from the crowd. Bobrovsky was sharp, though, stopping all nine Washington shots on goal to that point to keep the score 0-0 and give Florida time until it got the break it needed.

“I believed the group would get around and ‘Bob’ was really good, really solid, and kind of gave us a chance to find our game,” Panthers coach Andrew Brunette said. “I knew we’d get our game, but it a little bit kind of caught me off guard that we came out a little nervous and we weren’t quite sharp. But we found it.”

Florida got the bounce it needed and took a 1-0 lead when Ekblad’s shot from the top of the right circle deflected off the leg of Washington defenseman Martin Fehervary and bounced over goalie Vitek Vanecek at 16:20 of the first period.

Jonathan Huberdeau then made a dazzling play to puck-handle around Capitals forward Nicklas Backstrom in the right circle before feeding Barkov in front to make it 2-0 at 17:58.

And just like that, the Panthers’ nerves were gone.

“It was good to score two goals at the end of the first period, take the momentum from there, and then kept building from that,” Barkov said. “Obviously, they had their chances. We didn’t get the best start, the start we wanted to into this game, but ‘Bob’ was really good in the net, kept us in the game, gave us a chance and we took it, and we took the momentum.”

Backstrom’s sharp-angle shot slipped past Bobrovsky for a 4-on-3 power-play goal that pulled the Capitals within 2-1 and gave them some life 2:44 into the second period. But Marchment answered with a right-circle shot that beat Vanecek between the pads 27 seconds later to increase Florida’s lead to 3-1.

Bobrovsky redeemed himself for Backstrom’s goal by making four saves during a four-minute Capitals power play, including three on Alex Ovechkin, after Marchment was called for roughing and slashing defenseman Nick Jensen at 5:58. The Panthers pulled away late in the second, with Lundell finishing a 2-on-0 with Sam Reinhart down low to make it 4-1 at 15:24, and Verhaeghe scoring on a wrist shot past Vanecek’s glove on the rush to make it 5-1 at 17:32.

“We know how to play,” Lundell said. “In the first game, we didn’t play our best game. We lost pucks and we didn’t get guys to the net, like simple hockey terms. I think we did everything a little bit better today and that was our key to win.”

The Panthers dominated the third period, outshooting the Capitals 17-3. Although they couldn’t add to their lead against Ilya Samsonov, who replaced Vanecek to begin the third, their swagger and confidence were restored. 

That could be bad news for Washington. 

“I think the third period was good for us,” Barkov said. “We tried to keep the momentum. We played in their zone almost the whole period. We got a lot of shots. We didn’t score goals, but we got a lot of shots and kept the momentum, so we’re happy with that. But then again, Saturday is a new game.”

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