As the Florida Panthers welcomed the Los Angeles Kings into the Bank Atlantic Center, the home crowd had one team on the ice, and another watching the out of town scoreboard. With the Panthers within two points of the Capitals for the Southeast Division lead, and within three points of the Maple Leafs for playoff seeding, the opportunity to get themselves above the playoff bar is captivating for a team who has not reached the postseason in 12 years.
For Los Angeles, a victory would have placed them into a potential tie with the Sharks for the Pacific Division lead, and the club was willing to try the same defense-first approach that allowed them to grind a victory out against the Tampa Bay Lightning earlier in the week.
With Jonathan Quick and Scott Clemmensen given the starting duties for their clubs, the first period saw the Kings dominate possession, but neither team was able to open their scoring until the second period, when the ice slowly began to tilt back in favor of the home team.
With neither team unable to get much going due to repeated turnovers and disrupted passing, it seemed likely that the goal would stand as the only one allowed until Tomas Fleischmann dug into the corner for a loose puck as the second period wound down, passing up to Mike Santorelli at the right faceoff circle. Santorelli cradled the puck, then fired a hard shot to the top corner that bounced off of Quick's glove and into the net, giving the Panthers a 2-0 lead. The Kings only mustered a total of 14 shots on Clemmensen for the game after 40 minutes.
Surprisingly, Quick would not lead the Kings back out for the third period - head coach Darryl Sutter instead gave the net to backup netminder Jonathan Bernier, and Quick would watch the remainder of the game from the bench. Los Angeles and Florida media members asked if the potential Vezina candidate had injured himself, but the club refused to comment other than saying that Quick was healthy.
By midway through the third period, the Panthers still held a 2-0 lead and had been informed that the Capitals had fallen to the Winnipeg Jets in the shootout. The team began to turn up their aggression, looking to put the game away, but Bernier performed well, making several stops close in against Kris Versteeg and Stephen Weiss. As time wound down in regulation, the Kings finally broke through with less than three minutes to go after Drew Doughty pinched in on the play and took a centering pass from Anze Kopitar, hammering a quick shot into the net.
The goal gave Los Angeles a sudden infusion of life, and the Kings appeared to have Florida back on their heels when Bernier was called back to the bench in exchange for an extra attacker. The Panthers sent a few attempts back to slow the Kings, but could not complete a proper line change until an icing call against Mike Santorelli resulted in Sutter making the decision to use his timeout to plan a final push.
The call backfired, however, as the Panthers took the chance to catch their breath, winning the faceoff and heading up ice before Matt Bradley deposited the puck into the open cage to secure the win and put the Panthers into prime striking position as they look to return to the postseason.