SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) The Florida Panthers have made the playoffs only four times in their 21-year history. Their furious rally Saturday night moved them even closer to a fifth appearance.
Aleksander Barkov scored the winning goal with 28.1 seconds left and the Panthers scored four unanswered goals to rally from a three-goal deficit and defeat the Montreal Canadiens 4-3.
With the score tied at 3 in the final minute, Barkov deflected in Aaron Ekbald’s shot from the right circle for the winner, putting the finishing touches on his four-point night.
“We were thinking about tying the game and win this game and we wanted to win this game,” Barkov said. “That’s why we won.”
The win reduced Florida’s magic number to one for a playoff spot, which would be its first since the 2011-12 season.
Detroit’s 3-2 win over Toronto prevented Florida from clinching at home with the comeback rally.
Florida’s victory also helped the team keep its two-point first-place lead in the Atlantic Division over Tampa Bay, which beat New Jersey 3-1 on Saturday night.
It was the Panthers’ first three-goal comeback since Nov. 21, 2011, in a 4-3 win over New Jersey and former head coach Peter DeBoer – in DeBoer’s first game against Florida.
“We were putting the pucks deep and on turnovers at the blue line and in the neutral zone,” Barkov said. “We put them deep and tried to work there and that’s how we scored the goals.”
The Finnish center finished with two goals and two assists, and Jaromir Jagr and Jonathan Huberdeau also scored for Florida. Ekblad also had a pair of assists, while Huberdeau and Brian Campbell had one each.
“It looked like we didn’t think it was a game till 8 o’clock, so we woke up and started playing real well,” Florida coach Gerard Gallant said. “We didn’t show up the first half. We didn’t play well enough, didn’t compete well enough. Then, the second half of the game, that (top) line led us, but the other lines were good, too.”
Down 3-0 in the second period, Jagr scored his 26th goal when Barkov’s shot at 13:13 bounced off the 44-year-old forward.
Barkov trimmed the lead to 3-2 at 19:24 when he put in a rebound of Ekblad’s shot.
“We can’t keep doing that – having a tough start like that – but it was a huge goal by (Barkov) in the second to be one goal behind instead of two going into the third,” Huberdeau said.
Bjugstad’s cross-ice pass led to Huberdeau’s 19th goal on the power play at 12:17 of the third to tie it at 3.
“It was a nice pass by (Bjugstad) backdoor. I think our line is playing hard,” Huberdeau said.
Brendan Gallagher scored in his return to the Montreal lineup, and David Desharnais and Torrey Mitchell added goals. Joel Hanley, Max Pacioretty, Lars Eller, Paul Byron, Darren Dietz and Tomas Plekanec recorded assists.
Canadiens coach Michel Therrien said his defense, which lost newcomer Brett Lernout to injury in his NHL debut, could not handle Florida’s top line of Huberdeau-Barkov-Jagr.
“They’re phenomenal,” Therrien said. “They’ve got size and they’re strong on the puck. They dominate the game. It’s pretty simple. On that line with Barkov, you need to go on the ice and have full energy. If you don’t have that full energy, they’re going to beat you.”
The Canadiens blanked Tampa Bay 3-0 on Thursday, and it took just over half of the third meeting against the Panthers to reach that margin.
Gallagher, who missed 12 games with a lower-body injury, scored his 19th goal on a twisting shot from the slot at 10:14 of the first period.
Montreal appeared to add to the lead at 18:23 on Andrei Markov‘s deflection from the right circle on a pass from Gallagher, but Florida challenged that the play was offside.
Video review upheld the Panthers’ challenge that Pacioretty was still in the offensive zone before the puck returned across the blue line from the neutral zone, and the goal was disallowed.
Desharnais tipped in his 11th goal at 10:10 of the second, then Mitchell tapped in his 11th at 11:19 for a three-goal lead.
NOTES: Montreal LW Daniel Carr returned after missing 29 games. … LW Max Pacioretty is the only player to record a shot in every game his club has played. … Florida’s 44th win broke the franchise record set in the 1999-00 season. . Barkov’s goals put him in company with C Vincent Trocheck and Jagr as the Panthers with at least 25 goals. It’s the first time the club has had three 25-goal scorers in a season since the 2005-06 campaign, when Olli Jokinen, Nathan Horton and Joe Nieuwendyk did it.