The puck dropped at 7:51 p.m. on Thursday night, a seemingly trivial gesture in the minutes following a touching, gripping pregame ceremony that honored the 17 victims of the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas last week.
Before the Florida Panthers’ 3-2 comeback win over the Washington Capitals on Thursday night, the result had already descended the list of the most important things to happen at the BB&T Center.
There were the 17 spotlights that carried the names of victims. There was the video tribute that memorialized the 14 children and three teachers. There was the blood drive all day in the parking lot. There were the “MSD” patches, whose sale directly benefitted the The Stoneman Douglas Victims Fund. There was the clutching speech by Roberto Luongo before the game to the crowd.
Hockey hardly mattered on this night in South Florida, the first Panthers home game since the shooting on Feb. 14. Then it reminded the BB&T Center what the sport could mean to the South Florida community.
Vincent Trocheck won the game by deflecting a pass from Jonathan Huberdeau with just 18.7 seconds remaining. Trocheck’s heroics came shortly after Nick Bjugstad tied the game at two, with the puck bouncing off him on a feed from Aleksander Barkov.
The Panthers erased a late one-goal deficit. They believe they had some help.
“We had little angels helping us tonight,” Luongo said.
After the game, the Panthers dedicated their customary rugby game ball to Stoneman Douglas. The white ball was surrounded by black Stoneman Douglas hats that Florida donned during warmups. Outside the Panthers dressing room, the Stoneman Douglas hockey team stood, draped in jerseys and just ahead of competing in the state championships this weekend.
Thursday served as another stop as the South Florida community continues to heal. The Panthers realize this is bigger than hockey.
“We’re just hockey players at the end of the day,” Trocheck said. “There’s a whole world going on out there that is a lot bigger than us. Lu made a great speech before the game, kind of pointing at that and speaking about how us as a community need to come to together to stop all this nonsense.
“I guess at the end of the day, all it really comes down to is everybody coming together as one. We’re all brothers and sisters at the end of the day. It goes back to whenever you were a young kid. Parents teach you to treat others as you want to be treated. We got to go back to the basics.”
On Thursday morning, Luongo said what happened before the game would be just as important as what happened during it. He re-emphasized that hockey is simply a game played by people who enjoy playing it.
In the minutes before he started against Washington, his mind was on the families affected by last week’s shooting. His speech to the 15,312 people at the BB&T Center stressed that the community must take action, a sentiment that vibrated through both Broward County and the hockey universe on Thursday night.
“It was tough to focus on the game because I wanted to make sure I got my message across,” Luongo said.
During the video tribute that flashed pictures and names of the 17 victims, Luongo looked up from the Panthers bench and watched. The pictures of the teenagers reminded him of his own children, ages 7 and 10.
Before the game, Panthers coach Bob Boughner heard about Luongo’s planned speech. He was concerned for his 38-year-old goaltender. He approached Luongo.
“I went up to him and asked him ‘Are you comfortable with this and if not, we can figure it out,’” Boughner said. “He wouldn’t take no for an answer. He said ‘No, this is something I got to do.’ Not only was his speech unbelievable, but his game was even better. What can you say? He’s the ultimate pro.”
In the smallest of footnotes on Thursday night, Luongo made 33 saves and earned the victory.
“The first 10 minutes of the game was very difficult, to be honest with you,” Luongo said. “I was very not in the zone is a good way to put it. Still emotions running high from the ceremony. I’m happy they didn’t get to score and I was able to settle down and just play my game. We had a little help from above on those last couple goals.”
The Panthers’ playoff race took a backseat. Florida entered Thursday seven points back of Columbus for the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference with three games in hand. As the Blue Jackets lost again on Thursday night, the Panthers had a chance to close the gap to five points.
Thursday also kicked off a stretch of critical games that could decide Florida’s fate in an Eastern Conference chase. The Panthers began a season-long six-game home stand on Thursday. They play 11 of their next 12 games at home. They don’t leave the state of Florida until a March 19 date in Montreal.
In March, the schedule retracts its claws, presenting Florida with struggling teams like Buffalo, Arizona, Ottawa, Edmonton and the Rangers.
“This is it,” Boughner said before the game. “We can make our own destiny.”
The Panthers opened Thursday night’s scoring, courtesy of Maxim Mamin’s first career NHL goal at 4:50 of the first period. After Washington goaltender Braden Holtby stopped Ian McCoshen’s shot from the point, Mamin pounced on the rebound and banged it home.
But the Capitals tied the game on Lars Eller’s deflection of a shot from the point with only 65 seconds remaining in the first period.
Washington took the lead about midway through the second period on Andre Burakovsky’s power-play goal. Burakovsky was left alone in the slot and beat Luongo for his seventh goal of the season.
The Panthers had chances throughout the game. Holtby robbed Trocheck as the second period began by diving across the crease to stop Florida’s top goal-scorer. In the third period, Jared McCann stole the puck while shorthanded in the Capitals zone. Holtby had vacated his crease, but McCann waited and then missed the net.
But Thursday night was not about hockey. It was about Parkland. It was about Stoneman Douglas. It was about unity. It was about healing. It was about Roberto Luongo’s speech.
“To get in the net and to throw a performance out like that after,” Boughner said, “it was one of the most impressive things I’ve seen in a long time.”
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