SUNRISE (The Sports Xchange) — Hockey is rocking in South Florida like its 1996.
The Florida Panthers, a franchise with just four playoff appearances since their inaugural 1993 season, probably haven’t been as popular since their famous “Year of the Rat” run to the Stanley Cup Finals 20 years ago.
The Atlantic Division-leading Panthers extended their franchise-record win streak to nine games as they wrapped up a perfect six-game homestand on Sunday with a 2-1 victory over the Minnesota Wild at the BB&T Center.
Right winger Jaromir Jagr scored a pair of goals, defenseman Dmitry Kulikov had assists on both of them and goaltender Al Montoya was exceptional in net.
Jagr scored the game-winning goal 8:52 into the third period with a sweeping wrist shot from the high slot to send the 15,426 on hand into a frenzy.
“It’s our house and lately the fans are supporting us a lot and I’m very happy about,” Jagr said. “The fans are realizing that we have a pretty good team and we have a chance to make the playoffs.”
The Wild fell on the third outing of a four-game road trip as both teams were on the second night of a back-to-back.
The Panthers (23-12-4) increased their lead in the Atlantic Division to three points over the Montreal Canadiens. The Wild (20-11-7) remain in fourth in the Central Division and fell further behind the third-place Chicago Blackhawks after their win against the Ottawa Senators.
Montoya, who has been historically successful against the Wild and was in net over Roberto Luongo for the first time in seven games, saved 38 of 39 shots.
“For me, it’s about giving my team a chance to win every single night no matter what the score is,” said Montoya, who now has four consecutive wins giving up just one goal in each. “It’s about making that one extra save that I have to.”
Wild goaltender Devan Dubnyk had 26 saves.
It only took 27 seconds for the Panthers to get the scoring started as Jagr scored his first on a backhand through Dubnyk’s legs.
With two more goals on the future Hall of Famer’s resume, Jagr now has 735 goals in his career, moving him to six behind Brett Hull for third in NHL history.
He broke the four-way tie for the team lead in goals with his 12th and 13th on the season – the first off Kulikov’s 100th assist in his career with additional help from center Jonathan Huberdeau.
Postgame, the 43-year-old Jagr didn’t appear particularly thrilled about getting voted into the All-Star Game.
“I’d rather be in Florida or the Bahamas,” Jagr said. “I asked the fans don’t vote for me, and they didn’t listen.
“Probably the fans think I need to get into shape. I don’t deserve the break.”
Wild left winger Jason Zucker tied it at 1-1 48 seconds into the second period when he scored his 10th goal of the season off assists from defenseman Ryan Suter and center Mikko Koivu. The goal snapped Florida’s streak of holding opponents scoreless for 128 minutes and nine seconds.
Minnesota was tenacious on the penalty kill, shutting out Florida on five power-play opportunities.
“It’s too bad [we lost]. Actually, it was one of our better road games, but obviously we didn’t
put the puck in the net and came away short-handed,” Wild coach Mike Yeo said.
The Wild came up empty on four power plays of their own.
“It sucks that we weren’t able to capitalize, but at least we’re getting power plays,” Suter said. “Hopefully our 5-on-5 play continues to go the way it has been, so we can draw penalties. I mean, in the past we haven’t drawn penalties.”
Minnesota entered Sunday with historical success against the Panthers with points in 15 of 17 meetings.
The Wild outplayed the Panthers in multiple categories, including 39 shots on goal to Florida’s 28 and a 41-23 advantage in faceoffs.
“We had good looks,” said Suter, who had a career-high eight shots. “They’ll come, and hopefully they’ll come in bunches.”
Suter added that when Montoya, who was once his teammate on American teams at World Juniors, would come up with close deflections, he would give him a subtle smile or a wink.
Zucker’s game-tying goal in the second period was a tip-in on a rebound off an impressive save by Montoya. Sunday’s contest marked Panthers defenseman Willie Mitchell’s 900th career game.
The Panthers now take their act on the road and start a six-game road trip against the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday. The Wild will finish their current road trip against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday.
NOTES: Panthers C Nick Bjugstad (migraines) was activated from injured reserve on Sunday. The move comes just in time for the 23-year-old Minneapolis native to face his hometown team. Bjugstad was placed on IR on Dec. 11. … Wild C Jordan Schroeder was reassigned to the Iowa Wild of the American Hockey League. He was recalled to Minnesota on Saturday but did not appear in the Wild’s overtime loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning. … LW Shawn Thornton, C Dave Bolland and LW Connor Brickley were the Panthers scratches. … LW Erik Haula was scratched for the Wild. RW Justin Fontaine was reactivated. D Tyson Strachan was the other Wild scratch.
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