Takeaways as Florida Panthers score early, late to open road trip with win over Blue Jackets

The Florida Panthers left South Florida on Saturday afternoon feeling good about themselves. They had just closed their homestand with a pair of gritty, playoff-style wins before getting ready for their longest road trip of the season.

”10 days, five games,” defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson said. “We have to take it one game at a time and try to make the best of it. We have been good on the road so we have to keep playing the way that we have.”

They made their mark early on the first leg of the trip, beating the Columbus Blue Jackets 5-2 on Sunday afternoon at Nationwide Arena.

Florida improves to 17-8-2 on the season. Columbus falls to 9-16-5.

All of the action came in the opening 7:30 and final seven minutes of the game.

Gustav Forsling and Carter Verhaeghe each scored in the opening 7:30 of the game to give Florida an early 2-1 lead.

Aleksander Barkov pushed Florida’s lead to 3-1 with 6:48 left in regulation at the end of an extended power play following an instigating penalty from Columbus’ Erik Gudbranson against Florida’s Nick Cousins.

Columbus cut Florida’s lead to one goal with 3:49 left on a Dmitri Voronkov goal before Matthew Tkachuk and Eetu Luostarinen each scored empty-net goals in the final two minutes.

“They played hard,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said. “We have the better offense, but it was a bit of a grinder. It was difficult for both teams to finish on some of the opportunities they had.”

Forsling’s goal came 62 seconds into regulation when he fired a shot from the left circle that got past Columbus goaltender Jet Greaves. The Blue Jackets tied the game at 1-1 on a Yegor Chinakhov shot from the slot 7:06 into the game before Carter Verhaeghe gave Florida the lead for good 22 seconds later by deflecting in a long shot from Sam Reinhert. Verhaeghe’s goal was the 200th point of his NHL career.

Barkov’s goal, his 10th of the season, came as he jammed in a pass from Sam Bennett after Florida was on the power play for nearly six-and-a-half minutes.

Reinhart assisted on four of Florida’s five goals. Barkov had a goal and two assists. Forsling also had two points.

The defense and goaltender Anthony Stolarz did everything else from there, holding Columbus to just 19 shots on goal.

“Mo has kind of instilled this playoff attitude,” Stolarz said. “You want to play good defense in the playoffs and I think the guys did a great job today going out, shutting them down and not letting them get speed through the neutral zone.”

Here are three takeaways from the game.

Sam Reinhart’s All-Star caliber season continues

Reinhart’s breakout has been well documented through the first third of the season.

But with the NHL All-Star Game less than two months away, it’s worth recapping what Reinhart has done to this point as Florida’s most likely candidate to be nominated.

Through 27 games, he leads the Panthers in goals (17), assists (20) and points (37). His 17 goals and 37 points are both tied for fourth in the NHL.

Reinhart is on pace for 112 points this season. That would not only shatter his career high of 82 but would be just the second-most in a season in Panthers history behind only Jonathan Huberdeau’s 115-point campaign in the 2021-22 season. Tkachuk (109 in 2022-23 season) is the only other Panthers player with a 100-point season.

Reinhart’s 13 multi-point games are tied for the NHL lead with the Boston Bruins’ David Pastrnak, New York Rangers’ Artemi Panarin and the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Nikita Kucherov.

Lineup changes

In addition to Stolarz starting in net in favor of Sergei Bobrovsky, forward Steven Lorentz and defenseman Uvis Balinskis drew into the lineup on Sunday for Jonah Gadjovich and Dmitry Kulikov, respectively. Lorentz played on the fourth line with Kevin Stenlund and Ryan Lomberg while Balinskis was on Florida’s third defense pairing with Ekman-Larsson.

Balinskis played in his first game since Nov. 24, while Lorentz was in the lineup for just the second time in Florida’s past eight games.

Also, Maurice opted to keep the Panthers’ top three forward lines the same as they were when they ended their home game Friday against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

That put Verhaeghe on the top line with Barkov and Reinhart, Cousins on the second line with Bennett and Tkachuk, and Evan Rodrigues down to the third line with Anton Lundell and Luostarinen.

Before the swap late in Friday’s game, Rodrigues had primarily been on the top line, Verhaege on the second and Cousins on the third.

The road trip continues

The Panthers will now head west for the rest of their road trip.

The full schedule for the rest of this extended slate away from home: Tuesday at 10 p.m. against the Seattle Kraken, 10 p.m. Thursday against the Vancouver Canucks, 10 p.m. Saturday against the Edmonton Oilers and 9:30 p.m. Dec. 18 against the Calgary Flames.

Florida is 8-4-2 overall on the road so far this season, 6-1-1 in their past eight road games and has picked up points in each of its past five road contests.