SUNRISE, Fla. — Thanks in large part to the work of Jose Theodore, the Florida Panthers find themselves in unchartered territory.
The first-year Panthers goalie made 34 saves Sunday for his third shutout of the season as Florida beat the Carolina Hurricanes 2-0 at the BankAtlantic Center.
The victory enabled the Panthers to stay atop the Southeast Division, one point ahead of Washington, which beat Toronto 2-0 on Sunday. The Panthers also have a game in hand.
It's the latest date in franchise history the Panthers have led their division. The Panthers were in first place after the games on March 10 back in 2000.
"The last 25 games, that's what you play for," Theodore said. "It's the most fun of the year and you want to make the best of it. Right now as a team, we're responding well."
Theodore's shutout was his first at the BankAtlantic Center as a member of the Panthers. His two shutouts this season came against the Islanders in the season opener Oct. 8 and at Boston on Dec. 8.
"Theo has been extremely great for us," defenseman Jason Garrison said. "He made some huge saves and kept us in it."
Theodore got the only goal he would need from Tomas Fleischmann in the second period, and Marcel Goc added an empty-net goal with 1:32 left. Goc's goal came only 8 seconds after Carolina goalie Cam Ward went off the ice for an extra attacker.
Fleischmann's goal was his second in two games and his 22nd of the season, as he tied Kris Versteeg for the team lead in both goals and points (49).
The game opened a crucial four-game homestand for the Panthers, who are looking to make the playoffs for the first time since that 2000 season.
It was a much better start than they had in their last four-game homestand when they went 0-3-1 against Ottawa, Washington, Anaheim and Minnesota in mid-February.
"We learned our lesson from last time," Garrison said. "These are big points for us coming here at the end of the season. We've really got to come to play every game."
Ward stopped 31 shots for the Hurricanes, but was thwarted in his bid for his 200th career victory.
The Hurricanes were shut out for the third time this season. They were blanked in back-to-back games against Montreal and Buffalo on Nov. 16 and Nov. 18, respectively.
"Our goalie performance gave us a chance to win," Carolina coach Kirk Muller said. "You're not going to win if you don't score goals. Two goalies did their jobs, gave both teams a chance and we just didn't capitalize."
Carolina, which lost in regulation for only the second time in 10 games (4-2-4), fell 10 points behind Florida in the Southeast Division standings. The Hurricanes trail eighth-place Washington by nine points in the Eastern Conference.
"We're running out of games," center Brandon Sutter said. "We've just got to start winning. We've been getting a lot of points the last month. We're climbing back. We have to start putting a few together to give ourselves a chance."
Florida is now 4-0 against Carolina this season, with two victories by one goal and the other two by two goals with an empty-netter. The teams have two meetings left, March 21 at Carolina and the season finale April 7 at the BankAtlantic Center.
The Panthers again played without Versteeg, who missed his seventh consecutive game because of a lower-body injury. Also missing was forward Jack Skille, who sustained an upper-body injury in Friday night's 2-1 shootout loss at Pittsburgh when he collided with teammate Sean Bergenheim.
Carolina, meanwhile, was without forward Jiri Tluty, who left Saturday's 4-2 victory at Tampa Bay with an undisclosed injury.
Fleischmann scored at 3:22 of the second period with a wrist shot from the top of the left circle through the five-hole.
"I was hoping his defenseman would screen him," Fleischmann said. "I just shot it besides the D-man and it went in."
The Panthers almost added to lead in the third period when Bergenheim and defenseman Mike Weaver both hit the goal post with a span of about 30 seconds.
The Panthers also had an apparent goal disallowed with exactly 3 minutes left after it was overturned after review. After Stephen Weiss hit the post with a wrist shot, replays showed Jerred Smithson kicking the puck in with his left skate.
Theodore's best work came in the second period when he made 19 saves. It was the most shots allowed by the Panthers in any period this season — they had allowed 18 shots four different times.
"When you look at the scoreboard and you're up by one goal, you know every save is big," Theodore said. "I was just seeing the puck well. The guys were playing well in front of me. At this time of year, it's all about competing and playing playoff hockey, and that's what we did tonight."
Theodore preserved the 1-0 lead in the final seconds of the second period with two big saves against Patrick Dwyer off a 2-on-1 rush with Carolina shorthanded.
Theodore first stopped Dwyer's wrist shot, then was able to get back into the net quickly enough to stop Dwyer's attempt to quickly stuff home the rebound after grabbing the puck behind the red line.
Theodore also made a big save about 8 minutes into the third period, when he stuck out his left pad to stop Jeff Skinner's slap shot from the left faceoff dot.
"It's always fun to have a shutout, but it's really a team effort," Theodore said. "If we keep playing and working hard, do the little details like we did tonight, we're going to have success."