SUNRISE, Fla. — The Florida Panthers are breaking franchise records and moved into sole possession of first place in the Atlantic Division, but everyone was talking about a controversy surrounding rubber rats.
Jonathan Huberdeau scored two goals, Jaromir Jagr had two assists and the Panthers earned a 3-2 victory the New Jersey Devils on Thursday at the BB&T; Center.
After each of Huberdeau’s goals — plus Aleksander Barkov’s key insurance score late — South Florida hockey aficionados tossed a portion of 10,000 small rubber rats that were handed out to fans pregame onto the ice in celebration reminiscent to the 1996 season that had the team make the franchise’s lone run to the Stanley Cup Finals.
The first time: a warning was given. The second and third time: the referees stuck true to their guns, penalizing the Panthers two minutes for delay of game on each occurrence.
Jaromir Jagr, who with two assists notched the 18th 60-point season of his career, expressed his hot take on the matter.
“I’m pretty upset — not at the fans; they can do anything they want. But the referees, I don’t think they handled it right,” Jagr said. “You shouldn’t get penalized for selling the game. It doesn’t make sense. It shouldn’t be like that.”
Panthers coach Gerard Gallant took the opposite stance.
“They called it like they’re supposed to call it. There’s nothing they can do when we throw stuff on the ice. It’s a rule, it’s been a rule for a long time,” Gallant said. “Got to know better than that. I hope it doesn’t happen again because we’re battling for a playoff spot and we’re trying to kill penalties.”
The Panthers (43-25-9) tied the franchise record for wins in a season set in 1999-2000 and their 95 points put this year’s team second in franchise history, surpassing the 2011-12 division champion squad.
More importantly, the two points put them two in front of Tampa Bay for the Atlantic Division lead after the Lightning lost to Montreal on Thursday.
The Devils (37-33-8) have any remaining playoff aspirations dwindling as they have four games remaining and didn’t gain any ground after entering action seven points behind the idle Philadelphia Flyers for the Eastern Conference’s second wild-card spot.
Huberdeau, who extended his goal streak to four games, stuffed the game-winning goal from close range through Devils goaltender Keith Kinkaid early in the third period.
“I see a little hole and said, ‘Why not just shoot it?’ and squeezed it in,” said Huberdeau, who has 18 goals on the year. “We needed that (win), especially at home in front of our fans. We’re right back at the top and we have to stay there, play better consistently.”
Said Kinkaid on how the game-winner got through: “I moved off to take the pass away. Good players are going to find holes. It hit off my back and went in. I should’ve just hugged the post tighter.”
Barkov forehanded an insurance goal past Kinkaid with just over two minutes remaining off a crisp pass from Jagr. It proved necessary as the Devils pulled within one on what would’ve been a tying goal when left winger Blake Pietila scored off a rebound with 5.7 seconds remaining.
Although Kinkaid saved 37 of the 40 shots against him, Al Montoya came away victorious in the battle of backup goalies with 14 of his 23 saves coming in the third period. The Panthers were outshooting the Devils 31-10 through two before New Jersey saw a flurry of opportunities in the third with four Florida penalties — two from the fans tossing the rats.
“I think it was a bonus for us to get those power plays, but unfortunately we couldn’t find a way to make them pay a bigger price for it,” Devils coach John Hynes said.
The Devils scored first 8:30 into the action with a power-play goal from Mike Sislo on a wrist shot from the left circle. Adam Henrique earned his 200th career point with the secondary assist on the goal that also earned Devante Smith-Pelly an assist.
Huberdeau tied it up 7:57 into the second period with his first of the night as he worked the puck around and behind Kinkaid on a breakaway. He was assisted by Shawn Thornton and Aaron Ekblad.
New Jersey stays in Florida to visit Tampa Bay on Saturday night while Florida stays home to battle the Montreal Canadiens.
NOTES: Panthers C Vincent Trocheck, who is tied for the team lead with a career-high 25 goals, will miss the remainder of the regular season after fracturing a bone in his left foot blocking a shot in Tuesday night’s loss to Toronto. Florida recalled C Rocco Grimaldi from Portland of the American Hockey League on Wednesday. … Devils LW Patrik Elias (knee), who has not played since Dec. 19, traveled with the team to Florida but did not play Thursday. … Devils G Cory Schneider is expected to return Saturday against Tampa Bay. He has not played since March 4 when he sprained the MCL in his right knee. … Panthers D Erik Gudbranson (foot) returned to the lineup after missing the last seven games. … Florida’s scratches in addition to Trocheck were D Alex Petrovic, LW Garrett Wilson, C Greg McKegg and RW Logan Shaw. … Devils C Tyler Kennedy returned to the lineup after missing four games with a lower-body injury. … New Jersey’s scratches were D David Schlemko, C Jacob Josefson, RW Tuomo Ruutu and D Vojtech Mozik.