For about 20 minutes on Tuesday night, it seemed the Florida Panthers regular season was going to get the ending the fans had been waiting for. Just 25 seconds in the second period, the Panthers held a 3-0 lead on a night where a win would erase 12 years of incredible frustration and send them back into the playoffs, this time as Southeast Division champs.
But over the next 43 minutes, things would slowly unravel before the Cats dropped a crushing 5-4 OT decision to the Winnipeg Jets in front of a Bank Atlantic Center crowd that was more than ready to celebrate. Marco Sturm got them rolling 12:03 into the first when he put back a rebound of a Dmitry Kulikov shot from the point. When Kris Versteeg got a piece of a Brian Campbell shot that found it’s way past Ondrej Pavelec just 1:57 later, you couldn’t help but be a little giddy if you were a Panther fan. And when Tomas Fleischmann one-time a Versteeg pass off of Pavelec’s glove just 25 seconds into the second period, it appeared a dream game was in the cards.
But that’s where the dream started to end and the nightmare began. The Jets, recently formally eliminated from playoff contention, ran off four straight goals in a 10:30 stretch of the second and third period and suddenly a 3-0 lead had turned into 4-3 deficit and any thoughts of a celebrating team history was put on hold. According to Ed Jovanovsi’s estimation, the team “stopped skating” after building the early lead and had trouble getting going again.
With the loss staring them in the face, the Panthers finally got their offense going once again in the last half of the third period. After several minutes of sustained pressure, the Cats tied up the game thanks to a sharp angle shot from Tomas Kopecky from the left side that bounced off of Pavelec and into his cage to tie the game with 3:53 left in regulation. With just 15 seconds left, the Panthers had a chance to seal the deal as Fleischmann raced in on a breakaway, only to have his backhand effort denied by the Pavelec.
The Panthers continued to keep pressure on the Winnipeg net in the extra session but couldn’t get that division clinching goal past the Jets‘ netminder. And at 3:12 in the extra session, Andrew Ladd buried a drop pass from Blake Wheeler past Jose Theodore for the heartbreaking game winner.
Despite the fact that Tuesday’s result means the Panthers only need a point in two games to clinch the division, this one is still a gut punch. If there’s a fanbase that deserves to see their team clinch a playoff birth/division title, it’s the long suffering fans for the Florida Panthers. Things were compounded by news that the Buffalo Sabres came back and won their game against the Toronto Maple Leafs which meant there would no clinching of any kind. This team hasn’t done things the easy way all season long so it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that clinching the playoff spot has been met with some difficulty. But now it all boils down to one more point in the next two games and no one is going to even think about this game. The Panthers will get their next crack at things Thursday against the Washington Capitals in DC.
You check out some post game interviews with Weiss, Fleischmann, Jovanovski and Kevin Dineen at The Rat Trick You Tube page.
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