ST. PAUL -- If the Florida Panthers don't win the Southeast Division, Thursday's game will be a big reason why.
Erik Christensen tied the game for Minnesota with 30.3 seconds left in regulation and Mikko Koivu won it 15 seconds into overtime as the Wild defeated the Panthers 3-2 at Xcel Energy Center. Combined with Washington's 3-2 shootout win at Boston earlier in the evening, Florida saw its division lead over the Caps reduced to four points.
It was the Panthers' League-high 16th loss in games that have gone past regulation.
"It's a tough one. You're 30 seconds away, the puck hits a skate, hits a post and then he banged it in," Panthers goaltender Jose Theodore said. "We still got a big point, but when you're 30 seconds away, you want to get the win."
With an extra attacker on the ice in place of goaltender Niklas Backstrom, Wild defenseman Tom Gilbert's shot from the point was deflected off the post by Dany Heatley. The puck laid in the crease for Christensen -- the extra attacker -- to chip in for his sixth of the season and fifth since being traded to Minnesota from the New York Rangers on Feb. 3.
"Scoring touch? Hunch? I don't know," Wild coach Mike Yeo said when asked why he chose Christensen as his sixth skater. "He's been one of our most productive goal-scorers in the last stretch here. [Kyle Brodziak's] line was right off the ice, but certainly we could have picked someone off that line as well."
On the first shift of overtime, Gilbert hit Koivu with a brilliant head-man pass through the neutral zone, springing Koivu on a breakaway. He deked and beat Theodore with a wrister for his 12th of the season and second career overtime winner.
"It was a great play by [Gilbert], right on the tape," Koivu said. "It's always nice to win. It's not easy right now for us, but as many wins as we can get and as good as we can play, it's always more fun to come to the rink the next day."
Was there a bit of a letdown in overtime from the late Minnesota goal in regulation?
"It sure seemed like there was," Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said. "But that's the area where you have to be in-game resilient. You have to bounce right back and say 'things happen,' and just stay with the process. It's disappointing, but at the end of the day, there's always lessons to be learned."
The loss was especially difficult for the Panthers considering Washington's win earlier in the night. On the bright side, the Panthers did get another point.
"These games are crucial. With Washington winning tonight, we're not far up on them, they're right there," Panthers forward Scottie Upshall said. "They're pushing hard. We have to match that effort."
The game appeared to be Florida's to lose for much of the night. Minnesota never led until Koivu's winner, and didn't really show up until the third period.
The Panthers were especially sharp on the power play, scoring a pair of goals with the man advantage.
"Certainly, when you get the power play going, that makes a big difference," Dineen said. "Unfortunately, we weren't able to get that thing to hold up."
Florida opened the scoring at 13:27 of the second period, 22 seconds after a high-sticking call on Minnesota's Kyle Brodziak. Upshall took a slick feed from Tomas Fleischmann in the left circle and beat goaltender Niklas Backstrom to the short side with a snap shot. The goal was Upshall's eighth against the Wild in 16 career games.
Each team managed only 17 shots in the first two periods before play picked up in the third -- and Brodziak atoned for his penalty earlier by slipping a backhander between Theodore's legs at 1:03. It was Brodziak's eighth point in his last five home games and his ninth in his last seven games overall. The goal, his 21st, also tied Heatley for the team lead.
But another Brodziak penalty set up the go-ahead goal for the Panthers with 6:44 remaining.
Three penalties in the span of 12 seconds set up Florida with a long-stretch of 4-on-3. With plenty of ice available, defenseman Jason Garrison did his best to draw in the penalty killers in the high slot before passing to Fleischmann at the right circle. Backstrom was too late getting over and Fleischmann scored his 25th of the season.
"I liked the way we responded in the third period, but I didn't like a large part of our game before then," Yeo said. "We were doing things well defensively, but we were playing pretty easy… not a real tough team to play against for the better part of two periods."
Christensen's tying effort and Koivu's winner snapped a three-game losing streak for the Wild.
Backstrom made 25 saves in his return from injury to earn his 18th win of the season. Theodore finished with 23 saves.