‘It wasn’t pretty,’ but Panthers win again. Sometimes, that’s how they’ll have to do it

For 60 minutes Thursday, the Florida Panthers were far from perfect.

In overtime, they were.

The Panthers, after blowing a three-goal lead in the final 22 minutes of regulation, never let the Washington Capitals possess the puck in overtime. They won the opening faceoff, got one takeaway deep in the offensive zone and then were patient, content to wait until just the right moment to strike for a 5-4 win in Sunrise.

Center Eetu Luostarinen scored the game-winning goal with 3:05 left in overtime when Capitals right wing Tom Wilson inadvertently knocked his centering pass into the net. The Panthers (9-0-1) never let Washington (5-1-4) get out of its zone after superstar center Aleksander Barkov won the opening faceoff and stripped Wilson deep in the offensive zone as the Capitals got their one chance to set up a rush the other way.

“In overtime, we did some very unselfish things,” interim coach Andrew Brunette said. “We did a lot of things for each other tonight and that’s kind of been the identity for this team.“

Depth wins the game

Their biggest stars set the table. The role players won the game.

Barkov, star left wing Jonathan Huberdeau and star defenseman Aaron Ekblad didn’t just trying to be heroes, and were happy to hop over the boards for a line change to get fresh legs on the ice after probing the defense for close to a minute in overtime. Forwards Anthony Duclair and Sam Reinhart, the next two into the game, were willing to do the same and let the third pairing deliver a win.

It’s why Florida is now back atop the NHL standings after bouncing back from its only loss of the season in front of 12,542 at FLA Live Arena. Barkov was deservedly the first star, scoring twice and tying Olli Jokinen for the most goals in franchise history, but the Panthers won on a goal by a third-line center after two goaltenders had to play and two defensemen scored in regulation.

“That game had everything in it,” said defenseman Chase Priskie, who made his NHL debut for his hometown team.

The two teams combined for four goalie changes in the first 27:16 because of injuries, performance and an “issue” for Capitals goaltender Ilya Samsonov, as Washington coach Peter Laviolette put it. They combined for seven goals in the first two periods and three needed some sort of deliberations from the referees because of potential goaltender-interference calls. Barkov scored twice for Florida to tie the franchise record for goals and superstar left wing Alex Ovechkin scored once for the Capitals to move within one of Brett Hull for fourth on the NHL’s all-time list.

The Panthers, playing for the first time since their first loss of the season Saturday, had a 2-0 lead at the end of the first and a 4-1 lead late in the second, and let Washington battle back to tie the game at 4-4 with 13:04 left in the third.

For most of the first month of the season, Florida has been a juggernaut. The last week — including the overtime win Thursday — has been about surviving.

“We’ve been a resilient group,” Brunette said.

Florida Panthers interim head coach Andrew Brunette looks from the bench during the first period of an NHL game against the Washington Capitals at the FLA Live Arena on Thursday, November 4, 2021 in Sunrise, Fl.

Another overtime win

The Panthers were thrown into the middle of the league’s biggest scandal in years last week when Joel Quenneville’s role in the Chicago Blackhawks’ mishandling of 2010 sexual assault allegations came to light and the coach decided to resign. Florida played the next day and won in overtime, then played again the day after and lost in a shootout. After they finally got a rest, the Panthers came out Thursday to face another Stanley Cup contender and delivered a masterful opening period.

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Barkov opened the game with a rebound goal in the first four minutes and star defenseman Aaron Ekblad followed with a slap-shot score with 9:56 left in the first. On the other end, Sergei Bobrovsky stopped all 13 shots he saw, including one of Ovechkin’s signature power-play one-timers from the left faceoff circle.

The goaltender, though, didn’t come out of the dressing room to start the second period. He never returned to the bench. An upper-body injury knocked him out of the game — he’s “day-to-day,” Brunette said — and left Spencer Knight to take over in net. The rookie goaltender gave up a goal on the first shot he faced — a breakaway for Capitals winger Daniel Sprong just 43 seconds into the second period — and he never could quite settle in, even as the Panthers gave him a 4-1 lead when Barkov scored again — the record-tying 188th of his Florida career — with 4:28 left in the second.

By the time there was 13:04 left in regulation, the lead was gone. Knight gave up three goals on 19 shots in the second period, and the Capitals had cut Florida’s lead to 4-3 by the start of the third on goals by Wilson and Ovechkin. Washington center Connor McMichael scored the first goal of his career early in the third when the Panthers lost track of a bouncing puck in front of the next and a three-goal comeback was complete in 8:45.

The Capitals finished with a 42-33 edge in shots on goal. It was only the fourth time all year Florida was outshot and only the second time being outshot by more than four.

The Panthers rose to the top of the league standings by playing better hockey than anyone else in the league. To stay there, they’ll have to win on days like Thursday, when they aren’t at their best. With a two-way superstar and one of the deepest rosters in the league, they have the right recipe.

“It wasn’t pretty today, but managing to get the win against a really good team — you’ve got to be happy with that,” Barkov said. “At the end of the day, it’s all about winning games. You’re not going to have your best night every night, but we have played some really good hockey at the beginning of the season. Everything goes the way we want to because we’ve played so well, but then there’s going to be games like this.

“We’ve got to handle it a little better than we did today, but we managed to handle it.”