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It has become a familiar sound in Sunrise since the NHL season restarted last month following an uptick in COVID-19 cases around the league: The Florida Panthers pile up goals and creep their way toward history, and the crowd rewards them with a simple chant.
“We want 10! We want 10!”
On some nights, it takes until the third period. Sometimes, it pops up in the second. In the Panthers’ 9-2 rout of the Columbus Blue Jackets, the crowd didn’t even wait until 10 minutes were gone to serenade Florida again.
“It was a pretty special game,” rookie center Anton Lundell said, “again.”
The chant frustrated the Blue Jackets and only further invigorated the Panthers, who kept using the word “fun” to describe their ongoing otherworldly scoring binge. They scored three goals in the first half of the first period Saturday — one at even strength, one on a power play and one on the penalty kill — and finished with nine for the second time in less than three weeks.
They’ve won 8 of 9 and scored at least four in every one, and five in seven of them. They scored seven Friday and followed it up with nine Saturday, and now they’re averaging six goals per game since the coronavirus pause. Their 16 goals in two days are tied for the second most in a two-day period since the 1986-87 NHL season and they’re now one of only two teams in the league averaging more than four goals per game for the season.
Florida (28-7-5) was up 4-0 at the end of the first and 6-0 at the end of the second. With 9:46 left, right wing Patric Hornqvist scored to give the Panthers a 9-1 lead and the crowd started chanting again. Florida never could quite give the 15,088 inside FLA Live Arena the last thing they wanted, but they did give them another beatdown — the type the Panthers have made routine in the last three weeks.
A month ago, Florida was in the middle of losing three straight by an average of 3.3 goals per game and then its season halted. A rash of COVID cases forced the Panthers to pause their season and the rest of the league soon followed suit. They took nearly two weeks off and have been the best team in the league since, scoring at a pace Andrew Brunette can’t remember seeing during his time in hockey.
The first comparison the interim coach threw out: The Wayne Gretzky-led Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s.
“But in my time of playing and coach,” he said, “no. It’s been a while.”
The nine-game points streak — Florida’s only loss came against the Dallas Stars in a shootout on the road Jan. 6 — has the Panthers tied for first place in the Atlantic Division, with two fewer games played than the defending-champion Tampa Bay Lightning, and sitting alone with the best points percentage in the league, just ahead of the Carolina Hurricanes.
The nine-game stretch has included an overtime win against Hurricanes on the road last Saturday, a nine-goal explosion against the Lightning last month and a seven-goal outburst against the Stars on Friday to avenge their one loss.
A lopsided win for Florida, even against a playoff-contending team like Columbus, isn’t surprising at this point. The latest one, however, might have been the purest distillation of what makes this team so incredible.
In the first period, the Panthers fired 19 shots on goal, generated 14 scoring chances and got eight high-danger chances. They scored at even strength after a pretty passing sequence drew Blue Jackets goaltender Elvis Merzlikins out of the goal to create an empty net for forward Carter Verhaeghe. They scored on a power play when Jonathan Huberdeau, the newly minted All-Star left wing, found fellow winger Anthony Duclair in the slot for a quick one-timer goal. Florida even got a goal shorthanded when MacKenzie Weegar, of all people, led a breakaway and finished past Merzlikins for a 3-0 lead with 10:11 left in the first period.
“We’ve realized how good we are and how fast we can skate,” the star defenseman said. “We’ve just really established that at home and it’s really been a great feeling.”
Weegar also had three assists to lead the way with four points and star defenseman Aaron Ekblad, Weegar’s blue-line partner, added three assists of his own. Verhaghe and Lundell both scored twice. Ten Panthers contributed multiple points — including Huberdeau and forward Sam Bennett, who scored his fourth goal in two days after notching a hat trick Friday — and Florida got multiple goals from three of its four forward lines. All but two of the Panthers’ forwards tallied at least one point.
While Brunette said he never told his team to ease up, he also insists Florida wasn’t trying to run up the score.
“All four lines, the way they’re playing,” he said, “you’re not sure what else you can do.”
Right now, it’s hard for Brunette to find too much to critique about his group. The Panthers were already firmly entrenched as a Stanley Cup contender and the last three weeks have just proved it even further.
Inevitably, they won’t keep up this pace. Their six-goals-per-game average will tilt back closer to four and they might even lose in front of their home fans every once in a while.
Columbus (17-18-2) did give Weegar one gripe, though.
“As much as fun as they’ve been having,” he said, “I really wish I could’ve given them 10.”