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Red-hot Panthers top Senators 3-2 for 11th straight win

Ottawa Senators goalie Craig Anderson watches a shot from Florida Panthers right winger Reilly Smith sail wide of the net in Ottawa on Jan. 7.


Is the (water) bottle half full or half empty?

The eternal question of life comes but once a season to hockey, and only rarely to two teams on the same night.

And yet Thursday evening in Ottawa, the hometown Senators and the visiting Florida Panthers both played their 41st game of their 82-game 2015-16 NHL seasons.

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The Panthers, on a 10-game winning streak heading into Thursday's match, stood first in the Atlantic division and second overall in the Eastern Conference with 52 points, behind only the Washington Capitals. For the first time in years, the Florida team is a hot ticket both at home and on the road.

That impressive streak reached 11 this night with a 3-2 victory over the Senators.

The Senators, on a single-game streak following Monday's overtime victory over the Blues in St. Louis, stood ninth in the conference, within a breath of the final wild-card slot for postseason play.

On the positive side, the Senators were four points ahead of last year's pace, when they did squeak into the playoffs. On the negative side, last year took a near miracle as the Senators rode a remarkable 20-1-2 goaltending performance by rookie Andrew (Hamburglar) Hammond into the playoffs.

The chances of that happening again are roughly equal to Florida's 43-year-old Jaromir Jagr playing into the 22nd Century.

The Senators, therefore, need to solidify their playoff prospects when days are short and cold in Ottawa and they know it.

It was hardly a promising beginning. Barely 12 minutes into the first period, Panthers forward Reilly Smith picked up a pass from Jonathan Huberdeau and, from the top of the circle, ripped a wrist shot past Ottawa goaltender Craig Anderson.

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It was not a good goal, but it looked glorious compared to what happened a mere eight seconds later.

Senators rookie defenceman Fredrik Claesson, playing in only his fourth NHL game, suffered a stunning brain cramp when he passed the puck perfectly into the wheelhouse of Florida centre Vincent Trocheck, who promptly slammed a slap shot past Anderson for a 2-0 Panthers' lead.

Anderson, however, has been the team's saving grace most of the season, with a 16-11-4 record. His play, along with that of all-star defenceman Erik Karlsson – fifth in league scoring with 42 points in his first 40 games – has been the bright spot in often troubling times in Ottawa.

Local debate mostly centres on speedy forward Mike Hoffman and head coach Dave Cameron. Hoffman leads the team with 19 goals, six more than the next best total, but gets limited ice and mostly second-unit power play time under the defensively minded Cameron.

Cameron is merely following the current NHL coaching manual, but one can only wonder how long players like Gretzky or Lemieux would have lasted if they had been required first to be "200-feet players" before coaches would trust them.

As has often been the case this year, the Senators seemed unfocused to start the game. Perhaps they were mesmerized by the presence of Jagr, soon to catch and pass Brett Hull to become the third-leading goal scorer in league history.

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"It's neat to be able to tell your kids one day you played against Jagr," Ottawa centre Kyle Turris had said after the morning skate.

It took until the 5:38 mark of the second period before an Ottawa Senator landed on the score sheet. It came on a broken play in the Florida end when the puck ended up on the stick of another Ottawa rookie, Max McCormick, and McCormick fired a quick wrist shot in off the post.

For a first NHL goal, it surpassed even his dreams: unassisted, a perfect shot, and against the great Roberto Luongo.

Twice Luongo stymied Turris, who has struggled. Turris seemed to have a certain goal on a rare five-on-three power play, only to have Luongo somehow block the puck that was headed for the open side.

Asked in the morning if he was satisfied with Turris's game, Cameron responded, "I'm not happy with our whole team's game, not one guy."

Panthers head coach Gerard Gallant, who is understandably happy with his whole team, credits the Panthers' goaltending for his team's impressive streak and standing. Luongo played in his 33rd game – stopped 30 shots compared to 13 by Anderson – and now has an 19-11-3 record. Florida backup Al Montoya is 6-1-1 with an eye-popping .938 save percentage.

"I think it's collective," Gallant says of his team's success. "[But] it starts with goaltending."

Indeed it does. With Luongo playing brilliantly during a third-period Ottawa power play, moments after the Panthers had killed off the penalty Jagr poked a puck free that he was able to chase down the ice. Passing with his young teammates, Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau, Barkov was able to scoop a backhand into the Ottawa net.

Ottawa managed to get back to within a goal when Milan Michalek, back from injury, tipped a Karlsson point shot past Luongo.

But it would not be enough.

And a repeat of the first half in the second half will not be enough, either.

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