OTTAWA, Ontario (AP)Carter Verhaeghe scored twice and Spencer Knight stopped 27 shots for his second career shutout as the Florida Panthers beat the Ottawa Senators 4-0 on Thursday night.
With the victory and Nashville’s 5-4 shootout win over Western Conference-leading Colorado (56-18-7), the Panthers (58-17-6) clinched their first Presidents’ Trophy for the best record in the regular season and home ice advantage throughout the Stanley Cup playoffs.
”I think it was big,” Panthers head coach Andrew Brunette said of Knight’s performance. ”It was big for the group and I think it was big for him. He was solid the whole game. I’m proud of our group that we kind of buckled down and kind of had a bit of a checking mentality where we didn’t give up a whole lot in the third period, to make sure we got him the shutout.”
Sam Reinhart and Sam Bennett also scored for Florida, which halted Ottawa’s four-game winning streak.
Filip Gustavsson made 26 saves for Ottawa.
With the top seed in the Eastern Conference locked up, the Panthers rested a few of their starters, including Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, Claude Giroux, MacKenzie Weegar and Gustav Forsling.
Florida held a 1-0 lead to open the third and scored two goals in a 21-second span in the opening minutes of the third period.
Bennett controlled an Anthony Duclair rebound out front to make it 2-0, and moments later Eetu Luostarinen found Verhaeghe, who scored over a sprawled Gustavsson.
”I think it kind of deflated them a little bit,” Verhaeghe said. ”They thought they were still in the game, but getting two quick ones like that and making it 3-0 kind of puts it out of reach. I mean, they do play a hard game. Give them credit – it was good.”
Verhaeghe scored his second of the game midway through the period for his 24th of the season.
”I just thought we played really slow,” Senators coach D.J. Smith said. ”We held on to (the puck) and brought it back and really didn’t put their ”D” under any kind of pressure and then we got beat. Bunch of turnovers, two-on-ones and we didn’t play them very well and they end up in the net and then you start trailing.”
The Panthers had a great opportunity to extend their lead early in the second with a two-man advantage for 51 seconds, but were unable to capitalize.
Florida kept coming, but Gustavsson was solid, making a big save on Verhaeghe. At the other end of the ice, Knight was holding his own, stopping Auston Watson on a great chance.
Bennett grabbed the puck from Drake Batherson at the goal line and passed it to Reinhart, who scored his 33rd of the season from the hashmarks to give the Panthers a 1-0 lead in the first.
”Certainly, you want to finish better than that,” Smith said. ”Tomorrow we’ve got to play a lot harder than that. We didn’t play by any of the structure that we play with that’s allowed us a chance to win every night.
”No matter how many guys are out, you play with a structure and you stay in it. We had a lot of people on their own page and, you know, long shifts. We’ve played a lot better hockey.”
NOTES: Eugene Melnyk’s daughters Anna and Olivia were on hand to drop the puck for the home finale. Florida’s Aleksi Heponiemi, Matt Kiersted, and Cole Schwindt were all in the lineup. Anton Lundell (upper body) and Radko Gudas (lower body) missed the game while nursing minor ailments.
Florida: At Montreal Canadiens on Friday.
Ottawa: At Philadelphia Flyers on Friday.
More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/hub/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports