Marcel Goc scored the game-winning goal and added an assist, and Scott Clemmensen made 25 saves in leading the surprising Florida Panthers to a 2-1 victory over the Vancouver Canucks at BankAtlantic Center in South Florida. With the win, the Panthers increased their Southeast Division lead over the Winnipeg Jets to five points. After enduring a 2-4-2 stretch in their last eight games, the triumph over Vancouver was imperative as they have seen their once-large lead dwindling quite rapidly.
Goc and Clemmensen were unlikely heroes, as both have not figured prominently into the Cats' success for much of the season. But in just his third game back after missing 22 contests with a head injury, Goc has now recorded points in all three contests for a total of four points since his return, while Clemmensen, filling in for injured netminder Jose Theodore, improved his record to 5-1-3.
It was the first time the Panthers were able to beat Roberto Luongo, who was dealt from Florida to Vancouver in 2006. Luongo had been 3-0-1 with a 1.68 goals-against average against his former teammates prior to Monday night. The goaltender had been red-hot coming into the game, sporting a 10-2-2 record in his last 14 decisions.
With 55 points entering the game, the Canucks, who were 12-3-2 in their previous 17 contests, had a chance to take over the NHL's overall lead in the standings, but instead failed to pass the New York Rangers total of 56. The physical and emotional toll taken on the club in Saturday's 4-3 triumph over the Boston Bruins in a rematch of the Stanley Cup Finals appeared to leave Vancouver a bit flat.
After the Cats dominated territorial play in the early going, throwing the first three shots of the game on Luongo, it was Vancouver who would put the initial dent on the scoreboard. Manny Malhotra poked the puck past Erik Gudbranson at the point, and broke away with Dale Weise on a partial two-on-zero. Malhotra flipped a pass from the left circle to Weise to Clemmensen's left, and the rugged winger made no mistake as he hit the back of the net for his third goal of the year at 3:11.
Coming into Monday's action, Vancouver had been lethal when scoring first, boasting an NHL-best record when scoring the game's opening goal of 22-5-1. Tonight would prove to be just the sixth time they would fall after taking the early lead.
Weise's goal completely changed the game's momentum and energized the Canucks, as they put steady pressure on Clemmensen, who had to make big stops on a Cody Hodgson backhander, and a Weise breakaway after poking the puck past defenseman Dmitry Kulikov at the point.
Florida would tie the game early in the second period, as Kulikov was able to pick up a Goc rebound and blow a slap shot from the left circle over Luongo's right shoulder at the 5:00 mark. Kulikov's fourth goal of the season broke a personal scoring slump, as it was his first goal in 15 games and first point in the last 14.
Kulikov took a hooking penalty shortly after, giving the dangerous Canucks' power play unit an opportunity. But it was the Panthers who would have the best scoring chance, as Jason Garrison was sent in on Luongo, who had the answer in making the stop.
Florida took the lead soon after while on a man advantage of their own. With Weise sitting in the sin bin, ex-Canuck Mikael Samuelsson sent a pass across the crease to Kris Versteeg, who flipped the puck in front. After a mad scramble, Goc was able to knock Tomas Kopecky's rebound past Luongo for his third goal of the year to give the home team a 2-1 lead after two periods.
The Panthers dominated play in the middle frame, outshooting Vancouver by a 14-2 count, and the Canucks didn't register a single shot during the final 14:30 of the period.
Vancouver had a glorious chance to tie the game midway through the third period, but Clemmensen was able to kick out the left pad to stop a Ryan Kesler offering from in close off a beautiful feed from Hodgson.
Late in the game with the Canucks pressing, Stephen Weiss broke out of the Florida zone with Versteeg on a two-on-one. Weiss hit Versteeg with a flat pass, and the Cats' leading scorer rang it off the post to give the visitors hope in tying it up.
Vancouver, who turned the tables in the third period by outshooting Florida by a 14-2 count, was buzzing with Luongo pulled for an extra attacker, but Alex Burrows took an interference minor with just 29 seconds remaining, effectively killing any chance for the visitors to score the equalizer and send the game to overtime.