SUNRISE, Fla. — By the time the puck was dropped, the game felt inconsequential. Players from both teams had sat on the bench, some wiping away tears, as the names of all 17 victims from last week’s school shooting in nearby Parkland appeared on the ice in spotlights. And then one by one, each name went dark during a minute-long moment of silence. A video tribute earlier had featured a photo of every Marjory Stoneman Douglas High student and faculty member killed.
BB&T Center is just 20 minutes from the high school, and Thursday’s game between the Florida Panthers and Washington Capitals marked the first time the Panthers played at their home rink since the tragedy. The pregame ceremony was stirring, complete with emotional speeches and a powerful rendition of “God Bless America.”
They eventually played a hockey game. The transition felt jarring, but the contest settled into a normal rhythm. The Panthers beat the Capitals, 3-2, thanks to a power-play goal from Vincent Trocheck with 19.1 seconds left in regulation.
“What’s going on tonight before the game is just as important as the game itself,” Florida goaltender Roberto Luongo said earlier in the day.
Advertising along the boards was removed in favor of “MSDSTRONG,” and Stoneman Douglas’s logo adorned the videoboard all night. Players wore hats with the Stoneman Douglas logo during warmups. The Panthers had “MSD” patches added to the sleeves of their jerseys, and their helmets featured stickers with the Stoneman Douglas logo. Sports are often a welcome distraction in society, and this game was somehow both that and cathartic.
“Usually sporting events start with a lot of fanfare and a lot of noise,” Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said. “It wasn’t that. It had some meaning to the people in this region. It had some meaning to the players on the other side, and it had some meaning to us.”
The most emotional part was perhaps when Luongo, 38, took the microphone and addressed the crowd before the game. He’s a Parkland resident, and his wife was born and raised there. He said he intends to live there even after he retires. He tearfully offered the victims’ families the support of the team while praising the Stoneman Douglas students who have called for gun reform over the past week.
“I’m very, very proud of you guys,” Luongo said. “You guys are brave. You guys are an inspiration to all of us. At the end of the day, you guys are what’s giving us hope for the future.”
After the game, goaltender Braden Holtby said the Capitals support Luongo “100 percent behind that message.” Luongo admirably took his post in net after his speech and went on to make 33 saves.
“It’s very impressive, especially as a goaltender, to go in there and play,” Holtby said.
Luongo saved 13 Capitals shots before Andre Burakovsky’s from the point was tipped by Lars Eller in front with 1:05 left in the first period. That marked Eller’s 13th goal of the season and his second in as many games, tying the contest after Florida’s Maxim Mamim scored the opening goal. Burakovsky recorded his second point of the night by scoring on a power play in the second period.
Defenseman Michal Kempny, making his Capitals debut after the team acquired him in a trade with Chicago earlier this week, was on the ice for both of those goals. The coaching staff seemed to use this game to ease him in, playing him on a third pairing beside defenseman Brooks Orpik. Through two periods, he had played the fewest minutes of any blue-liner (8:07), in part because he didn’t get any special teams time. Just as Trotz started to play Kempny with defenseman John Carlson, that pair was on the ice as Florida’s Nick Bjugstad tied the game.
“I felt pretty good, but two bad things and two goals” against, Kempny said.
Eller then took an interference penalty with 41.5 seconds left in regulation, and Trocheck made sure the Panthers capitalized, leaving Washington without a point. Eller thought the call was “weak,” especially since he thought the referees had been letting other infractions go. Trotz called it “unnecessary” by Eller. Holtby’s personal losing streak was extended to a career-worst five games.
On the other end of the ice, Luongo’s teammates swarmed him, lining up to hug and congratulate him for the gutsy performance. An arena that had been somber at the start of the night shot gold confetti in celebration as the goal horn blasted once more.