SUNRISE, Fla. – A little bit of Florida Panthers history was made on Sunday night at the BB&T Center.
While the team was focused on the bigger picture, which was claiming an important two points against a Toronto Maple Leafs team three points up in the standings, there was a simmering subplot that boiled over quite nicely thanks to one of the best starts to a game Florida has had all year.
The Panthers pounced all over Toronto, jumping out to a 5-0 lead early in the second period en route to an 8-4 romping of the Leafs, but it was the final two Florida goals that made the night such a special one.
Jonathan Huberdeau entered the game one point shy of tying the Panthers franchise record of 419, set by former Florida captain Olli Jokinen during the 2007-08 season.
Huby had been on a tear of late, with 22 points over his previous 12 games, so it was slightly odd that, while more than half the roster had cracked the scoresheet when Florida held a 6-1 lead after 26 minutes of hockey, Huberdeau’s name did not appear anywhere on it.
Considering the five goal lead the Panthers were enjoying, that was just fine with the former Calder Trophy winner.
“When everybody gets some points, we’re one of the best teams in the league,” Huberdeau said. “That’s how we’ve got to play to be in the playoffs.”
For what it's worth, his teammates didn't seem concerned about his lack of production either.
"He still made plays, he still got chances," laughed Huberdeau's linemate, Aleksander Barkov. "He's been unbelievable this season. He finds a way to contribute."
And sure enough, he did.
As it turns out, hockey is a sport where teams are inclined to keep their collective foot on the gas until the very end of the game, as even the surest of victories can vanish in the blink of an eye (see: “Goodnight, Boston” or “Sunrise Duck Hunt”).
With about 7:30 left in the middle frame, Panthers rearguard Riley Stillman knocked the puck out of Florida’s zone and towards Leafs defenseman Cody Ceci, who was jumping up in the neutral zone in an attempt to create some offense for Toronto.
Huberdeau snuck up on Ceci and lifted his stick from behind, stealing the puck and immediately starting an odd-man break with Barkov.
It was Barkov that led the rush, and after enticing defenseman Morgan Reilly to commit the wrong way, he slid the puck to a cutting Huberdeau, who changed direction and guided the frozen rubber disc past goaltender Michael Hutchinson into a yawning cage.
It was wonderfully appropriate for the record to be tied on such a quintessential sequence by the dynamic duo. A great defensive play fueled an offensive rush that was finished by some way-too-easy-looking dipsy-doodling around the net.
The pair found each other below the goal line and embraced, exchanging a smile and a quick message.
“Me and Barky kind of looked at each other and said, ‘why not go get another point and make the night even better?’” Huberdeau recalled.
About 40 minutes later, they would do just that.
It was another eye-popping offensive display that Florida has begun to make on a regular basis, and this time it came on the power play.
All five Panthers players touched the puck within seconds, and a quick-moving passing play led to Huberdeau with the puck on his stick, towards the top of the left face-off circle.
He faked a quick shot after gathering in the pass, causing every Leafs penalty killer to turn and face him. Then Huberdeau, all in one motion, dropped his shoulder, turned his hips, and flung a pass to Mike Hoffman, who one-timed the puck into a wide open net.
Point number 420, a new Florida Panthers franchise record, on a gorgeous assist.
"Couldn’t have asked for better," Huberdeau said. "It was a big win. We knew we needed it tonight, and on top of that, to be first in franchise history is pretty cool. I’m going to try to enjoy that."
Indeed, the win was huge.
It pulled Florida (24-16-5) to within one point of Toronto (24-16-6) for third place in the Atlantic Division, with the Panthers holding a game in hand.
The victory also leapfrogged the Panthers over idle Philadelphia (23-16-6) and Columbus (22-16-8) into the second Wild Card spot.
After the game, however, the focus remained on Huberdeau and his amazing accomplishment.
Much of Florida's core group of players, which includes Huebrdeau, Barkov, Vincent Trocheck, Aaron Ekblad, Keith Yandle and others, have been together in Sunrise for quite a while.
Sharing in so much together, both on and off the ice, makes these kind of moments that much greater to experience.
"There's a lot of people in this world that you personally feel happy for when they accomplish something as great as he did, and he's one of those people for me," Trocheck said. "He's become one of my best friends over the seven years that we've been together. He was a groomsman in my wedding. It was almost like a tear-jerker seeing him do what he's done. It was a special moment."
Said Hoffman: "I’ve known Huby since he was 16 (years old) in juniors. You could tell right then that he was going to be a special player, and he’s worked hard to blossom into one of the best in the league."
Considering how tight-knit this Panthers locker room has become, watching the team not only grow as players, but learn how to be a successful hockey team, is a beautiful sight to behold.
Hearing the words of Huberdeau's teammates as they described just how happy they were to see him succeed is another thing entirely.
It's more than hockey.
It's friendship. It's family.
"It's awesome," Barkov said. "He's the franchise point leader. It's unbelievable.
“He’s one of the best guys I’ve ever met.”