SUNRISE, Fla. – The Florida Panthers are champions of the NHL's Atlantic Division. They look like a team that's ready to win even more.
Aleksander Barkov scored his 38th goal of the season and the Panthers tied a franchise record with their 12th straight win, beating the Detroit Red Wings 5-2 on Thursday night.
That, combined with Tampa Bay's 8-1 win over Toronto later Thursday, locked up the Atlantic title and home-ice advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs for the Panthers. It's the third time that Florida has won a division title in its 28-season history.
“It means a lot. We put a lot of hard work into the season and locking up the division is a big accomplishment for us,” Florida’s MacKenzie Weegar said. “But there’s obviously the bigger picture here and we’ll enjoy that, locking up the division and getting the home-ice advantage for the playoffs here. But other than that, we're trying to build our game and have fun while we're doing it.”
Mason Marchment had a goal and an assist, and Sam Reinhart, Noel Acciari and Weegar also scored for the Eastern Conference-leading Panthers, who moved two points ahead of West-leading Colorado in the race for the best record in the NHL. Florida (118 points) and the Avalanche have five games remaining.
“We're taking care of business," Acciari said.
The Panthers matched the 12-game winning streak they posted from Dec. 15, 2015, to Jan. 10, 2016. Florida has outscored opponents 61-31 in that span, 27-9 in the last six games.
“We kind of just go game-by-game and I’m happy we’re racking up the wins here,” Weegar said. “We’re a great team and it’s obviously shown all year.”
Jonathan Huberdeau had two assists and moved into a tie with Connor McDavid of idle Edmonton for the league lead in points at 113.
Sergei Bobrovsky stopped 28 shots for the Panthers.
Tyler Bertuzzi and Sam Gagner scored for Detroit, and Alex Nedeljkovic stopped 22 shots.
“They have this many points for a reason,” Detroit coach Jeff Blashill said of the Panthers. “Overall, we were in the position to win the hockey game. We’ve just got to find a way. One or two less mistakes and make sure to capitalize on our chances.”
The Red Wings closed within 3-2 when Bertuzzi’s shot from the right circle got past Bobrovsky with 13:45 left in the second, but the Panthers moved ahead 4-2 after Weegar poked the puck in from the slot about 10 minutes later.
Reinhart scored a power-play goal early in the third to stretch the Panthers’ lead to 5-2.
“I thought we got a little physical in the second and we seemed to get a little momentum and kind of took over the hockey game,” Florida interim coach Andrew Brunette said. “Our focus hasn’t been on anything other than doing the right things and that will start again on Saturday and that’s kind of been a tribute to the guys. I think we’ve been able to do that all season long.”
The Panthers scored three goals on seven shots in the first period.
After Gagner’s wrist shot went under Bobrovsky’s glove to give the Red Wings a 1-0 lead at 4:08, Acciari tied the score 1-all on a shot from the low slot at 9:19.
Barkov’s power-play goal came on a blast from the high slot with 1:07 left to give the Panthers a 2-1 lead. Then, Marchment’s shot deflected off a defender and into the net with 21 seconds left to make it 3-1.
“They seemingly can create offense out of nothing,” Gagner said. “You feel like you’re playing well against them, they create odd man breaks and their defensive finds guys up-ice open. Ultimately they found a way to break through.”
DOWN 1-0, AGAIN
Florida surrendered the first goal of a game for the 35th time this season. The Panthers have the NHL’s best record, by far, in games in which they face a 1-0 deficit. Florida improved to 23-8-4 in that situation; St. Louis is second at 19-12-5 entering Thursday.
NOTES: Florida and St. Louis are the only NHL teams to not be shut out this season. ... Joe Thornton’s first-period assist on Acciari’s goal made it his fourth game with a point in his five most recent appearances. Thornton hadn’t played since April 3. ... Detroit will miss the playoffs for the sixth consecutive year, its longest such streak since missing seven consecutive postseasons from 1971 through 1977. ... Detroit’s home finale is Saturday.
Red Wings: Host Pittsburgh on Saturday.
Panthers: Host Toronto on Saturday.
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