The Florida Panthers will always have a soft spot in their hearts for plastic rats, but they certainly hope they don't see them again anytime soon after a promotional giveaway nearly hampered the team's pursuit of the Atlantic Division title.
The Panthers jumped back into first place after winning their last game and getting some help from the Montreal Canadiens, who can further aid Florida's push when they visit Sunrise on Saturday night.
Jonathan Huberdeau scored twice and the Panthers killed off two third-period penalties after fans threw the toy rats onto the ice in a 3-2 win over New Jersey on Thursday. The rats, which paid homage to the 1995-96 team's stunning run to the Stanley Cup Final, could have ended up providing an entirely different memory for Florida.
"We love our fans and we love the rats, but I hope this doesn't happen again," coach Gerard Gallant said.
Jaromir Jagr had a pair of assists and Al Montoya made 23 saves for the Panthers, who broke a tie with Tampa Bay for the division lead when the Lightning lost 3-0 to Montreal on Thursday. Both teams have five games remaining.
Florida's magic number to earn a playoff spot dropped to three points.
"We needed that, especially at home in front of our fans," Huberdeau told the team's official website. "It's a big game. We're right back at the top, even though we've got to stay there and play better consistently."
Huberdeau has certainly been doing that, scoring for the fourth straight game and tying his career high with 54 points, set last season.
Jagr has a goal and five assists in a four-game point streak, while Aleksander Barkov also scored Thursday and has five points in a four-game run.
"They're our leaders and they took control tonight," Gallant said.
Florida's 3.58 goals per game since March 7 is tied for the second-best mark in the league in that span.
The Panthers, who avoided a third straight loss at home, will try to pick up another victory there before opening a three-game trip. Four of Florida's remaining games are against teams eliminated from playoff contention.
Two of those are against Montreal (36-36-6), which nonetheless has won two straight as it seemingly embraces the spoiler role. The Canadiens defeated desperate Detroit 4-3 on Tuesday before knocking off the Lightning.
"The last game against Detroit gave us some confidence as a team, and I think we played a great 60 minutes, we put together 60 minutes (Thursday). Lately, before the Detroit game, we were maybe putting together two good periods," center Lars Eller said.
Rookie Mike Condon made 26 saves, including a stop of Ondrej Palat's penalty shot in the second period, for his first NHL shutout, while David Desharnais, Torrey Mitchell and Phillip Danault scored.
The Canadiens' effort was all the more impressive considering they played with five defenseman after Nathan Beaulieu left after one period with a broken thumb. He'll miss the rest of the season.
Montreal also played without defenseman P.K. Subban for a 10th straight game due to a neck injury. His status remains uncertain.
Florida, which has taken the first two meetings in the season series, visits the Canadiens on Tuesday.