5 TAKEAWAYS: Panthers ‘grind it out’ to even series with Capitals

“I thought early on that we weren’t as sharp as we wanted to be, but we honed it out,” said Andrew Brunette, interim head coach for the Panthers. “It’s a really good building block for our group.”

He found the top scorer back in just his second game from a lengthy stint on the injury list. Aaron Ekblad opened the scoring for the Panthers when his shot from the top of the right circle ricocheted off a defender and fluttered right past Vitek Vanecek to make it 1-0 at 16:20 of the first period.

doubling the lead less than two minutes later, Jonathan Huberdeauwho likely earned a spot in SportsCenter’s games of the night, dangled around a defender before allowing the puck through the slot Alexander Barkovwho then hit the front door to make it 2-0 (17:58).

On the second-half power play, Nicklas Backstrom put the Capitals on the board when he sneaked a short shot past Sergei Bobrovsky from an acute angle to 2: 1 (2:44). But just 27 seconds later, bricklaying march went five holes to Vanecek to make it 3-1 at 3:11.

Later, the Panthers killed a double minor penalty to get a firmer grip on the game.

“We kind of found our rhythm, found our game, and especially after the big kill in the second, we calmed our nerves a little and started playing how we want to play,” said Brunette of the tremendous momentum Florida’s Favor. “I thought we did a lot of good things at this track.”

The 20-year-old rookie scored the first playoff goal of his career Anton Lundell extended the Panthers’ lead even further when he finished a give-and-go sequence with Sam Reinhart by tapping the rubber past Vanecek from the right outside the blue paint to make it 4-1 at 15:24.

Riding from that momentum and with the crowd roaring in the arena Carter Verhaeghe crowned the scoring midframe for the Panthers as he blasted a sharp wrist shot over Vanecek’s glove and into the top corner of the cage from the high slot to make it 5-1 at 5:32.

At the beginning of the third period, Ilya Samsonov took over for Vanecek in the Washington net.

“Bob kept us in the game in the first game and then we scored a couple of goals,” Lundell said. “We heard that out loud [FLA Live Arena] here at the Cats fans. That gave us a lot of confidence and energy to just keep going. It was a good team effort today.”

The Panthers stayed on the gas and beat the Capitals 17:3 in the third period. Bobrovsky finished the game with 26 saves, while Samsonov stopped all 17 shots, which he saw with relief.

After the series ended 1-1, the Panthers will now face the Capitals in Games 3 and 4 on Saturday and Monday respectively at the Capital One Arena in Washington, DC.

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

Here are five takeaways from Thursday’s win in Sunrise…

1. EK OPENS IT

Since the Panthers needed a jump, Ekblad was there to deliver.

The star defender, who found the back of the net in just his second game after a long absence through injury, broke the ice late in the first half when he fired a point shot at the cage that ricocheted off an accidental rebound from a defender before slowing down fluttered past Vanecek to make it 1-0.

Video: WSH@FLA, Sp2: Ekblad shoots one from the point

“He’s doing great,” said Brunette of Ekblad’s game since he’s back in the lineup. “He gets better and better the more he plays. I thought he would get better as the game progressed. He’s an ambitious kid. He will compete and be at his best.”

Ekblad set a new career high with 57 points (15 goals, 42 assists) in the regular season and has been in full swing since his return. After leading the Panthers in Game 1 in the Ice Age, he scored a goal, two shots on target and a 19-13 skate takeaway tonight.

“It was great to score from him,” said Barkov. “He is a true warrior.”

2. THE DYNAMIC DUO

That’s what happens when two superstars team up.

Huberdeau created an unforgettable highlight together as he skillfully played around a defender before dishing the puck to Barkov for a 2-0 goal in the second period.

Video: WSH@FLA, Gm2: Connection Huberdeau to Barkov

“He’s an incredible player,” Barkov said of his long-time team-mate.

Barkov (one goal, one assist) and Huberdeau (one assist), after being held back by the goalscoring chart in Game 1, recovered three points together in Game 2. In the regular season, Huberdeau led the team with a franchise-record 115 points, while Barkov placed second with 88 of his own.

When they played 5-on-5 together tonight, Florida led 2-0 in goals.

3. MILESTONE PUCK

There’s no way he’s only 20, is there?

Lundell took home a milestone puck and recorded the first playoff goal of his career when he hammered home a slot pass from Reinhart to give the Panthers a 5-1 lead in the second half.

Video: WSH@FLA, Gm2: Reinhart vs. Lundell goes tic-tac-toe

“It was really great,” said Lundell. “First win too. That’s even bigger. We wanted to make a fresh start today. We know the last game wasn’t our best, but we could play even better today.”

Lundell went into the playoffs after a stellar rookie campaign, recording 44 points (18 goals, 26 assists) in 65 regular-season games. Barring an unfortunate injury, there’s a very good chance he would have broken Florida’s single-season rookie points record of 50.

When he hit the ice 5-on-5 tonight, the Panthers led 10-2 in shots on goal.

4. TURN THE LEAF OVER

The Panthers were 11-6 behind in shots on goal after the first half.

When the last horn sounded, they were leading 36-27.

“We got better as the game went on,” said Barkov. “Bob kept us in the game and gave us a chance to win and then we kept building. Now the series is balanced and we are ready to go.”

Looking at the chart on NaturalStatTrick.com, towards the middle of the second period there was a sharp rise in Florida’s favour. The goals from Lundell and Verhaeghe gained momentum as the game progressed, essentially shattering Washington’s comeback hopes.

Video: WSH@FLA, Gm2: Verhaeghe’s wrist off the rack and in

“I thought our wall puck fight got a little better,” said Brunette. “I found our support, like we did all year but didn’t really do in the first game, much better. I thought we could wear them down a bit as the game went on by winning those fights and having possession. “

In the last two periods, Florida led 27-12 in scoring chances in 5-on-5.

5. BOB CONTINUES TO BUILD

Another game, another outstanding performance from No. 72.

After being upside down in Game 1 with 34 saves, Bobrovsky was even better the second time around against the Capitals, turning 26 of 27 shots aside to earn the Game 2 win.

“It’s a good win for us,” said the two-time Vezina Trophy winner. “We’re back in the series. It’s fun to play hockey, fun to be involved with, and fun to rub shoulders with your teammates and do it. It was a great game tonight and we’re happy with the win.”

Bobrovsky, who finished first in the NHL with 39 wins late in the regular season, has a 14-2-0 record in his last 16 decisions, including the playoffs.

“I had a couple of good games before I got to the playoffs, so I felt good,” Bobrovsky said. “I see the puck well, I follow the puck well and I’m trying to do my best to give the boys a chance to win.”

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