Entering Friday night's 4-1 win over the Buffalo Sabres, the Florida Panthers rode a five-game losing streak. Potted with the holes of a leaky defense and speckled with an inconsistent penalty kill, the road to the bottom of the Eastern Conference was a treacherous one for Florida through the season's first month.
The Panthers weren't supposed to be in the conference's cellar. Not after winning a division title two seasons ago. Not after last season's disappointing disaster couldn't even push the Panthers into last place.
Friday's win in Buffalo gave the Panthers a rope to climb out of the hole.
Panthers defenseman Ian McCoshen netted the game-winning goal less than four minutes into the third period with a shot from the blue line to lift Florida. Aleksander Barkov pushed his way into Sabres goaltender Robin Lehner's sight, opening up a shooting lane for McCoshen's wrist shot.
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It was McCoshen's third goal of the season, tying him with Aaron Ekblad for the team lead among defensemen. McCoshen, a rookie, is generally regarded as a defensive defenseman.
Evgenii Dadonov also scored a goal for the Panthers, burying a rebound of Barkov's shot with 13:08 remaining in the second period. It was the first time Florida's top line scored since losing to Tampa Bay on Oct. 30, having gone scoreless the last three games.
Barkov and Vincent Trocheck each added empty-net goals to ice the game.
Sabres forward Kyle Okposo tipped in a shot from the point on a Buffalo power play in the first period. It was the fourth time in the last five games that the Panthers have given up a power-play goal to their opponent.
The Panthers defense that allowed 48 shots on goal during a loss to Carolina on Tuesday was dramatically different on Friday night. Buffalo didn't fire its 20th shot on goal until Friday's third period. The Hurricanes did it in one period on Tuesday.
Instead, Florida controlled play for portions of Friday's game, including a sequence in the second period while on the power play. Jonathan Huberdeau collected the puck down low and spun it towards the open area in front of the crease. But Dadonov couldn't get his stick on it. Neither could a crashing Barkov. Lehner covered up for a sprawling save.
The Panthers had 15 shots on goal in the second period alone on Friday night.
The Sabres threats came few and far between. But Luongo came up big in the third period, making a huge save on Sam Reinhart that kept the game tied.
With the win, Luongo passed Curtis Joseph for sole possession of fourth place on the all-time wins list. Luongo now has 455 victories.
Through the Panthers' first month under new coach Bob Boughner, the losses have come in a variety of ways.
They've masked themselves in decent performances against the two-time defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins. They've come in debacles against Tampa Bay and Columbus that saw Florida allow 15 total goals. They've even come despite Herculean efforts from their stars (like a 10-point effort from the top line against the Lightning) and their goaltenders (like Luongo's 45-save game against the Hurricanes).
"It's been a rollercoaster," Boughner said before Friday's game.
The first two games of the Panthers' current road trip looked to be the vaccine for whatever ailed them. Carolina lost four straight games before playing the Panthers. Florida was the only team in the Eastern Conference with fewer points than Buffalo. The Panthers collected two points in the two games. They play New Jersey on Saturday night.
A loss on Friday night would have tied the longest losing streak from a season ago for the Panthers, a six-game skid down the stretch last year.
"We're just really looking for that one game to get us back on track," Boughner said. "I believe it's going to happen. So do the guys."