Pick your cliche’: Gut-check time, Back against the wall, do or die. Whichever one you prefer, the Florida Panthers faced their cliche moment in the third period Saturday night against Southeast Division rival Carolina Hurricanes. After two periods of play that saw them outshoot the Canes 30-19 at that point, the Panthers were down 2-0 and in desperate need of a comeback if they wanted to keep pace in the playoff race. After a rough four game stretch that saw them drop four in a row at home (three of them close, winnable games in the third period), the Panthers finally found the clutch goals that proved so elusive over the past two weeks, coming back to win 3-2 in a shootout.
Down to their last six minutes, Tomas Fleischmann got the comeback effort going for the Panthers when he one timed a cross-ice Kris Versteeg pass at the right face-off dot past Justin Peters to pull the Cats within one. The timely goal gave the man they call Flash his 20th goal of the season, joining him with linemate Versteeg as the only two Panthers to reach that plateau so far.
With 1:47, it would be the newest Panther who would make the biggest impact of the night. Wojtek Wolski, traded to the Cats on Saturday from the New York Rangers, took a Shawn Matthias pass at the blueline, skated to the fight face-off circle before unleashing a wrister that took a fortunate bounce off a defenseman’s skate and through Peters five-hole to tie the game at 2. It’s the kind of clutch goal this team that has been missing since November/early-December when the clutch goal was an almost nightly occurance. Just seconds later, Brian Campbell had a chance to give the Cats the win in regulation but his slapshot just trickled wide after deflecting off Peters.
Despite just under two minutes of exciting 3-on-3 play to end the overtime sessions that saw both sides have excellent chances to end it, the game went to the shootout. Luckily for the Panthers, the one team that hates shootouts even more than them is the Carolina Hurricanes, who have yet to win one. Jose Theodore stopped two of three attempts while goals from Mikael Samuelsson and Stephen Weiss gave the Panthers the MUCH-needed win which puts an end to a four game losing streak.
It was a just reward for a Florida team that came out of the dressing room looking very much like a team that knew they needed a win. But despite all the chances, it would be Carolina who would have the lead heading into the intermission. A power play goal for Justin Faulk with under two minutes left in the first was a blow to a team that did everything but light the lamp in the period. The scenario would repeat itself in the second period when Jussi Jokinen would make the Cats pay for a late-period mistake, scoring from the slot with under three minutes left.
Maybe the biggest play of the game was turned in, not surprisingly, by Theodore who stoned Canes captain Eric Staal’s two shots on a breakaway early in the third to keep it a two goal game. Theodore, who has been sharp all season, has been terrific since his return from injury, allowing 2 goals or less in his last six games out.
The huge two points vaults the Panthers back into first place in the Southeast by virtue of a tiebreak with the Winnipeg Jets, whose comeback of their own earlier on Saturday gave them a point. Hot on their heels are the Washington Capitals who have rebounded over the weekend with two wins after a terrible week and a half. The Panthers have games in hand against both challengers having played four less games than the Jets and two less than the Caps. The Panthers have a chance to grab another two points (and sole possession of first place in the division) on Sunday back at home in the Bank Atlantic Center against the Montreal Canadiens, the 15th place team in the Eastern Conference.
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Topics: Brian Campbell, Carolina Hurricanes, Eric Staal, Flashmob, Florida Panthers, Jose Theodore, Jussi Jokinen, Justin Faulk, Justin Peters, Kris Versteeg, Shawn Matthias, Stephen Weiss, Tomas Fleischmann, Washington Capitals, Winnipeg Jets, Wojtek Wolski