The Florida Panthers have known for a long time that they will make the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs. That’s why they always talk about the ‘biggest prize’, as Andrew Brunette put it on Thursday, rather than too much. dwell on the many milestones they have reached along the way this year.

They spent most of the season as the best team in the Eastern Conference and most of the year in first place in the Atlantic Division. Their goal is the Stanley Cup – nothing less will disappoint them at the end of the season – so there was no extra celebration on the ice as the Panthers completed their 5-3 win over the Buffalo Sabers Sunday to become the first team this season to clinch a playoff berth.

Still, that’s not something Florida (48-15-6) should take for granted, especially given where this team was not too long ago. For only the eighth time in their 29-year history, the Panthers are heading to the Stanley Cup playoffs and they did so by setting a single-season winning record and scoring a Jonathan Huberdeau tying goal. which earned him a franchise-record single-season 97th point.

Now comes the hardest part. For the remainder of April, Florida will look to hold on to its nine-point lead in the Atlantic, fend off the Carolina Hurricanes for first place in the East, and chase the Colorado Avalanche to win the Presidents trophy and then in May they begin their quest for the Cup.

The Panthers, who now lead the Hurricanes by four points and trail the Avalanche by two, haven’t won a playoff since reaching the 1996 Stanley Cup Finals in just their third season. It was Florida’s first trip to the Cup playoffs and the Panthers have been successful in each of their six trips since – including a six-game outing in the 2020 Stanley Cup Expanded Playoff Qualifying Round – while winning just nine games total.

However, Florida has never had a team like this. Over the past week, the Panthers have set franchise single-season records for wins, home wins and goals and they can clinch the franchise single-season record for points on Tuesday when they return to Sunrise. to face the Toronto Maple Leafs. If it can stay close to its current rate of 4.15 goals per game, Florida will be the first team to average at least four goals per game since the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 1995-96 season. NHL.

On Thursday, Huberdeau set an NHL record for single-season assists by a left winger, then broke star center Aleksander Barkov’s franchise record for single-season points in the second period on Sunday. On Saturday, the Panthers managed a historic four-goal comeback in the third period – only the 20th in league history – to tie an NHL single-season record for three-goal comebacks and break the 100 mark. points for only the second time. in the history of the team.

They actually needed another win from behind on Sunday — their 22nd of the season — to beat the Sabers (25-34-11) at Buffalo. Florida trailed 1-0 in the first period, then snatched four in a row to hold off the Sabers, even after a few third-period goals energized the crowd of 11,787 at KeyBank Center. After being beaten 10-9 in the first period, the Panthers outscored the Sabres, 30-20, for the final two, and finished with a 30-21 advantage in scoring chances and 18-7 in chances. high risk. Wing Anthony Duclair scored twice in the second and third periods, and rookie center Anton Lundell – just his second game after missing 11 straight games with a lower-body injury – also found the bottom from the net for the go-ahead goal in the second period.

The return to school, however, began with Huberdeau. The All-Star winger, who leads the NHL with 73 assists, skated in the middle of the offensive zone after a Buffalo giveaway left Claude Giroux carrying the puck down the right board with little resistance. The All-Star forward skated to the net and drew a defender in his path, then made a center pass to tee Huberdeau up for a tie with 13:42 left in the second.

Florida never hung around again. Lundell scored with 4:05 left in the second period to put the Panthers ahead for good and Duclair scored his first 1:06 later to give Florida a two-goal cushion.

Duclair scored again in the first minute of the third period and it was enough to keep the Sabers at bay, even after scoring two power-play goals in 1:54 to cut the Panthers’ lead to 4-3 with 9 :41 remaining.

© 2022 Miami Herald. Visit miamiherald.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Copyright 2022 Tribune Content Agency.

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