The Panthers leading scorer and most popular player had scored one goal in the previous 15 games he had played. He had missed a few games with the flu, another with a bruise.
“He’d been in a little bit of a mini-slump,” said Panther coach Peter DeBoer.
Even Booth admitted there were times he had “gripped the stick tighter.” But on a night the Panthers found themselves in a fight against a stubborn St. Louis Blues team, Booth got out of his scoring slump in a big way.
Booth scored his second hat trick this season and recorded the first four-point game of his career when he helped lead the Panthers past the Blues 5-3 at BankAtlantic Center to jump into fifth-place in the Eastern Conference.
Booth’s three goals, Tomas Vokoun’s 26 saves in his 500th NHL game, and Radek Dvorak’s 12th goal of the season improved the Panthers record to 34-24-8 (18-8-3 since Jan. 1) and put them in a good spot before hitting the road next week for crucial games at Pittsburgh and Buffalo.
“It’s more important we got a win because it’s so close in the Eastern conference,” said Booth, who leads the team with 24 goals. “Right now, between fifth and 10th, is a difference of two points or something, so that was a big win for us.”
Five teams are currently separated by three points in the east: the Panthers, Canadiens, Rangers, Hurricanes and Penguins.
“I’ll enjoy it for the night,” said DeBoer of the Panthers fifth-place position. “The way the conference is, this is going to flip-flop, back-and-forth for the next three, four weeks. We’re not going to throw any parties when we’re in fifth, and we’re not going to have any funerals if we fall to eighth or ninth.”
Despite holding a 4-1 lead late into the second period, the game changed dramatically with :14 remaining in the second period when David Backes scored his second goal of the game to make it 4-2.
Then, just 1:45 into the third period, Brad Boyes scored to make it 4-3. The Blues came at the Panthers in waves for the next 10 minutes. But with 2:26 left in regulation, defenseman Barret Jackman fanned on a shot at the Panther blue line and Richard Zednik and Booth broke out on a 2-on-1. Zednik passed the puck to Booth, who scored his third goal to ice the game.
And down came the hats and, yes, rubber rats on the ice.
Booth became only the fourth Panther to score two hat tricks in a season. He joins the company of Pavel Bure, Ray Sheppard and Olli Jokinen.
Booth’s first hat trick of the season was Nov. 9 when the Panthers beat Anaheim 3-1. Ironically, Booth was in a bit of a slump at that point in the season as well, having scored only one goal in his previous 11 games.
Mayors is the Official Jeweler of the Florida Panthers, please visit www.mayors.com or your local South Florida Mayors location.
“That’s the way the season goes,” he said. “But you have to keep working hard, working on things in practice and, eventually, they’ll go in. You play with great players they’ll find you.”
The Panthers, coming off a 4-1 loss Thursday to Pittsburgh, played their strongest opening period in quite some time. They forechecked strong and, three-quarters of the way through the period, had outshot the Blues 14-3.
A quick start was something the Panthers had talked about before the game, knowing the Blues had won in overtime Friday night in Tampa.
“We wanted to jump on St. Louis in the first,” DeBoer said. We knew they played (Friday) night, they went to overtime and traveled. We anticipated we might have a little bit of an advantage right off the bat. That’s the type of first period we needed because I thought once they started to get their legs and started to play...you saw that they almost crawled back in it.”
“They played hard and took it to us,” said Blues center Keith Tkachuk, referring to the Panthers opening period.
And it was a couple players struggling a bit who helped the Panthers in those first 20 minutes: Booth and Nathan Horton.
Booth, without a point in his last three games, and Horton, without a point in his last four games, combined at 5:32 of the first period to give the Panthers a 1-0 lead. Horton took a backhand pass from Booth all alone in front of the Blues net and fired it top shelf for his 19th goal of the season.
The Panthers made it 2-0 on the power play at 13:46 when Keith Ballard took a shot on goalie Chris Mason from the point. Mason made the initial save, but Ville Peltonen and Booth jumped on the rebound with Booth shooting the puck over Mason for a 2-0 advantage
The second period didn’t start as well for the Panthers. Just 48 seconds in, David Backes scored after a Bryan McCabe giveaway to make it 2-1.
But Booth picked up his third point of the night, and his second goal, when he took a pass from Michael Frolik in the high slot on the power play, froze defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo, and snapped a wrist shot past Mason at 5:58 for his 23rd goal of the season.
With just 1:45 remaining in the second period, the Panthers made it 4-1 when Gregory Campbell stole the puck at the St. Louis blue line and slid the puck to Dvorak, who slapped a 35-footer past Mason.
For Dvorak, it was his 12th of the season. He now has the most goals since 2003-04, when he scored 15 for Edmonton.
The Blues wouldn’t go quietly, however. “We knew they were going to come hard,” said defenseman Keith Ballard.
With only :13.2 left in the second period, Backes scored his second of the game when he tipped home a loose puck in the crease that squirted out from Vokoun’s pads to make it 4-2 with 20 minutes remaining in regulation.
And just 1:52 into the third period, the Blues made it 4-3 on a power play by Colaiacovo. Despite their late rush, they couldn’t beat Vokoun again and couldn’t stop Booth.
The Panthers have not lost consecutive games in regulation since Dec. 29-31. “It’s nice to know we can bounce back,” Booth said. “But we have to put a streak together.”
The Panthers will take Sunday off before practicing Monday at IncredibleIce before taking off for games Tuesday at Pittsburgh and Thursday at Buffalo.
“We’ve got to be ready for those games,” Booth said.
“Anyone who can count can see how tough (the conference) is,” Vokoun said.
And in the words of Ballard, “The next game is the biggest game of the year,” through the remainder of the season.
Booth and defenseman Bryan McCabe each had four shots…McCabe got hit with a puck at 4:10 of the opening period was back on the ice within a few minutes. He played 23:41…Karlis Skrastins had four blocked shots…Steve Eminger played 13:27 in his second game with the Panthers…Blues goalie Chris Mason was making his 16th consecutive start…Anthony Stewart and Nick Boynton were the Panthers scratches. The Blues scratched Cam Janssen and Tyson Strachan…
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