SUNRISE (The Sports Xchange) — From the perspective of the Florida Panthers, who were playing their final home game of the season, this was a bittersweet goodbye to their fans.
Jonathan Huberdeau scored twice and James Reimer posted his second shutout of the season as Florida defeated the Buffalo Sabres 3-0 on Saturday night at the BB&T Center.
Reimer made 30 saves and Nick Bjugstad added a goal. Huberdeau has 10 goals this season and Bjugstad has seven.
Ironically, Huberdeau and Bjugstad were the two top-six Panthers forwards who started the season on the injured list, which contributed greatly to Florida’s descent from 2016 Atlantic Division champions to a 2017 campaign with no playoffs.
Huberdeau said the motivation for Saturday’s win was the retirement of teammate Shawn Thornton, who is taking a job in the Panthers’ front office.
“With this being Shawn’s last game,” Huberdeau said, “we wanted to get this win.”
Thornton, a left winger known more for fighting than offensive skill, didn’t register a point or play particularly well in 15:06 of ice time. Yet the 39-year-old was announced as the game’s first star, a sign of his popularity with his team and the respect he has around the league.
“It was like watching something go extinct,” Panthers center and team captain Derek MacKenzie said of Thornton retiring after this game. “It was pretty special to watch him (go out). There’s not going to be a guy like him ever again.”
Florida (34-36-11) broke a season-worst six-game losing streak, claiming just its sixth victory in its past 23 games.
“It’s not good enough,” MacKenzie said of a Panthers season that ended, in terms of playoff contention, last week. “We’re disappointed and frustrated that this was our last game at home. … We’re not proud of that.
“We need to come back in September and be ready to go.”
Before that can happen, Florida will play its season finale on Sunday at the Washington Capitals.
Meanwhile, Buffalo (33-36-12), which has also been eliminated from playoff contention, could not beat Reimer on Saturday. Reimer’s counterpart, Sabres goalie Robin Lehner, made 34 saves.
Perhaps the only highlight for Buffalo was the debut of rookie center Sean Malone, who played 12:12 in his first NHL game and was not on the ice for any of Florida’s goals.
“I was happy to be out there for sure,” Malone said. “The first few shifts, I was just adjusting to the pace.”
Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said Malone made the adjustment well.
“He was pretty solid,” Bylsma said. “I like the way he made outlet passes. I think his line was probably our best all game long.”
There were no goals in the first period, but Huberdeau almost got one with 3:55 remaining. Huberdeau’s breakaway attempt was thwarted by Lehner’s right pad, and the puck stopped just a few inches from going in before being cleared off the line by defenseman Josh Gorges.
Bjugstad, on a wrist shot from the left side of the net, opened the scoring with 7:45 elapsed in the second period. Bjugstad took a pass from Thomas Vanek, and Reilly Smith picked up the secondary assist.
After a penalty on Evander Kane for high-sticking MacKenzie, Huberdeau’s power-play goal made it 2-0 with 17:03 gone in the second period. When Huberdeau saw the loose puck sitting behind Lehner and just a foot off the line, he swooped in and his entire body was in the net when he dragged the puck in behind him.
Huberdeau scored again with 5:55 left in the third period as his wraparound attempt bounced in off of Lehner.
That was the final score in the last game for Thornton, who said he is grateful to Panthers ownership.
“It was a great send-off,” Thornton said. “I’m happy to have (a job) lined up — I would’ve been lost if I were going into the dark not knowing what I was doing.”
NOTES: The Panthers were without three injured stars: G Roberto Luongo (lower body), D Aaron Ekblad (concussion) and C Aleksander Barkov (upper body). … Panthers LW Jussi Jokinen is out with an undisclosed injury. … Florida rested D Jason Demers and D Jakub Kindl in order to play rookie defensemen Ian McCoshen and MacKenzie Weegar. … Sabres RW Kyle Okposo has been hospitalized due to an undisclosed illness that has the team and coach Dan Bylsma “very concerned.” … Buffalo was also without LW Marcus Foligno (knee) and G Anders Nilsson (undisclosed). Sabres previously ruled out for the season were D Taylor Fedun (foot) and C Johan Larsson (wrist). … Buffalo ends its season on Sunday at the Tampa Bay Lightning.