Defense leads the way again before Florida Panthers beat Washington Capitals in overtime

The Florida Panthers’ offense is in a little bit of a slump and it still doesn’t matter. No one is playing better defense right now than the Panthers.

Despite scoring only three 5-on-5 goals in its last three games, Florida got another win on Saturday, edging out the Washington Capitals, 3-2, for its second overtime win in Sunrise this week.

On one end of the ice, Gustav Forsling broke up a prime chance at a game-winning goal for the Capitals. On the other, the defenseman scored with 1:19 left in the five-minute, 3-on-3 extra session to temporarily move the Panthers back into a tie with the Bruins for the top spot in the Atlantic Division and one point behind the New York Rangers for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.

“There wasn’t anybody that could move that fast at that time,” coach Paul Maurice said.

Florida (38-16-4) was out of sorts on offense for most of the 60-plus minutes and this year, unlike in some seasons past, a less-than-stellar stretch of offense doesn’t necessarily spell doom for the Panthers. Florida has gone 13 straight games without letting an opponent score more than two goals — shattering the previous franchise record of nine straight games — and the air-tight defensive effort kept the Panthers within a goal when they went on the power play for the third and final time in the last five minutes of regulation.

In the first period, Florida had just four shots. In the second, the Panthers traded goals with Washington (26-21-9) and then found themselves down 2-1 in the waning minutes when forward Evan Rodrigues drew a penalty with 4:18 left.

On its first two power plays, Florida only took two shots. On their third, the Panthers tied the game, getting a deflection by star center Aleksander Barkov on a shot by forward Carter Verhaeghe to knot the score at 2-2 with 3:30 left.

Although Florida didn’t attempt more than 11 shots in any period, the Panthers eked out yet another win by holding the Capitals to just 24 shots and shutting out Washington at even strength.

“That’s what makes a playoff team there,” said goaltender Anthony Stolarz, who made 22 saves on 24 shots, including 18 of 18 at even strength. “Guys are willing to sell out and commit to both ends of the ice. You could see it tonight.”

The attitude was especially obvious on the final sequence of the game. The Capitals were cruising down the ice for an odd-man rush — and maybe even an uncontested breakaway chance — and Forsling hustled all the way back to steal the puck away from Washington forward Sonny Milano before he could make a centering pass.

Forsling then shoved the puck out of the defensive zone, planted his skates and charged back in the other direction. Forsling, one of the fastest skaters on the team, dashed for the net, glided to through the slot to rip home a one-timer from center Sam Bennett to kick off the celebration from the 19,887 at Amerant Bank Arena.

“It was a little chaos there, as usual, in overtime,” Forsling said. “I had the legs.”

As much as Maurice groused about another imperfect performance, Florida has won 11 of 13, largely because it has only given up 20 goals during this 13-game stretch.

The Panthers certainly could be playing better on offense, but they’d be hard-pressed to do much more on defense. If it can hold the Sabres to two goals or fewer on Tuesday, Florida will tie the longest streak this season of holding opponents to two or fewer.

With 24 games left, the Panthers are starting to think about how they can be ready for the 2024 Stanley Cup playoffs, how they can lock into their identity and how they can be best prepared to try to make another run to the Stanley Cup Final. The defense is their identity and, right now, it’s solving pretty much any other problems.

“Every game, we kind of know what we’re going to get,” Verhaeghe said. “It works so well because we’re on the same page. If one guy is kind of off that kind of page, it messes everything up. That’s what makes us so good.”