SUNRISE, Fla. -- The Florida Panthers haven't made the playoffs since 2000, so what's another few days?
The Panthers came close not only to securing a postseason berth Tuesday night but also clinching the Southeast Division title -- only to watch a promising evening end in major disappointment.
The Panthers let a 3-0 lead against the Winnipeg Jets slip away before losing 5-4 in overtime in front of 17,760 at the BankAtlantic Center, leaving the celebration on hold.
"It's hard to express the disappointment," coach Kevin Dineen said. "There's a little bit of shock by all of us. There's a little bit of just surprise that with the game that we had going that we weren't able to sustain that for 60 minutes. Obviously disappointing."
Andrew Ladd ended the game with his second goal at 1:48 of overtime when his shot from just inside the left circle bounced in off the right post.
While the Panthers were squandering a 3-0 lead, Buffalo was coming back from that same deficit against Toronto before eventually winning 6-5 in overtime to keep the Panthers from clinching their first playoff berth since 2000.
Ladd said he took no special satisfaction in keeping the Panthers from clinching.
"It's not huge," said Ladd, who played in Chicago with current Panthers Kris Versteeg, Brian Campbell, Tomas Kopecky and John Madden. "To be honest with you, it's more about playing for each other and your fan base. That's bigger than being a spoiler, but you try to find ways to get motivated and if that motivates you, then you use it to your advantage."
Tomas Fleischmann had a chance to win it for Florida in the final seconds of regulation when he had a breakaway, but Ondrej Pavelec stopped his backhander.
With the one point, the Panthers did increase their lead in the Southeast Division over Washington to four points with two games left, but the Capitals have the tiebreaker advantage. The teams meet Thursday at Washington.
"We know we're going in a hornet's nest in Washington," defenseman Ed Jovanovski said, "but we've battled adversity all year, through injuries and tough stretches, and we'll come up with a good game plan and not only get one point but get two."
Bryan Little gave Winnipeg a 4-3 lead with a power-play goal at 3:45 of the third period. Evander Kane and Zach Bogosian also scored for the Jets, who were playing their first game since being mathematically eliminated from playoff contention with a 3-2 overtime loss at Tampa Bay on Saturday.
Pavelec finished with 34 saves, none bigger than on Fleischmann's breakaway.
"I just tried to stay focused on the breakaway," he said. "It was bad ice and I thought he was going to shoot there, but he went to the backhand and I just tried to make a save there to keep the team in the game."
The Jets won for only the third time in nine games (3-5-1) since a victory against Washington on March 16 left them only two points out of eighth place in the Eastern Conference.
Fleischmann, Versteeg and Marco Sturm each had a goal and an assist for the Panthers, who lost for the seventh time in eight games (1-3-4). All but one of the seven losses came against teams out of the playoff picture.
"They've got nothing to lose and playing loose," said center Stephen Weiss, who was hoping for the perfect present on his 29th birthday. "They're hard teams to play against because you don't know what to expect. They'll take chances. Saying that, it's an easy plan. You've got to get pucks in deep and play defense. In the second period, we were forcing pucks in the middle and turning them over. We were back on our heels and we let them back into the game."
Tomas Kopecky also scored for the Panthers, who are looking to end the longest playoff drought in NHL history. Florida and Toronto are the only teams not to make the playoffs since the 2004-05 work stoppage.
Florida has held first place in the Southeast for 124 days this season, including the last 39. The Panthers last took possession of first place with a 3-2 shootout victory at Carolina Feb. 25.
The Jets evened the season series at three victories apiece, with each team winning once in a shootout. The other Winnipeg victory was a 7-0 shutout at MTS Centre in the teams' previous meeting March 1.
It was just the second time all season that Florida lost after having a three-goal lead. The Panthers lost 4-3 in a shootout against Tampa Bay Nov. 6 after leading 3-0.
"We stopped skating and they got two goals and came back 3-2," Fleischmann said. "We came back and had a chance at the end to win it and I almost scored on the breakaway. It's tough to lose the game like that."
Florida led 3-2 heading into the third period before Ladd tied the game just 53 seconds in on a seemingly harmless wrist shot from the top of the right circle. With Mike Weaver in the penalty box for delay of game, Little then one-timed a pass from Blake Wheeler inside the right circle and beat Theodore just inside the right post.
Dineen admitted after the game he considered pulling Theodore in favor of Scott Clemmensen at that point.
"I've been very comfortable with our goaltending this year," Dineen said. "I feel that as a goaltender when you have a hiccup, you want to be the guy that stands tall and when you have quality people in those positions, you want to follow that. That was my thinking on that."
Kopecky tied it at 16:07 when he beat Pavelec with a wrist shot from a sharp angle from near the boards.
Sturm and Versteeg's goals 1:57 apart gave Florida a 2-0 lead late in the first period.
Sturm opened the scoring at 12:03 of the first period when he put home a rebound from close range after Pavelec stopped Dmitry Kulikov's wrist shot from the right point. Versteeg then broke a 15-game goal drought with a power-play goal at 14:00. Standing in front of the net, Versteeg tipped Brian Campbell's slap shot from the middle of the blue line.
Fleischmann made it 3-0 just 25 seconds into the second period with his team-leading 27th goal. He scored on a feed from Versteeg, falling to the ice after his one-timer just inside of the right faceoff dot. Pavelec got a piece of Fleischmann's shot, but it managed to find the net anyway.
Jets coach Claude Noel was asked what he told his players after the first period.
"I said a lot of things, but I don't want to repeat them right here," Noel said. "It wasn't too crazy, but we had to be better in a lot of ways and then we went out at the start of the second period and gave up an early goal on the first shift, so what I said couldn't have worked very well."
Florida appeared in total control of the game as the second period continued, at one point outshooting Winnipeg 20-9.
The Jets cut into the lead at 13:15 when Kane scored his 30th of the season after a turnover at the Winnipeg blue line. Kane converted a 2-on-1 after taking a pass from Spencer Machacek.
Bogosian made it 3-2 at 17:21 after Theodore had made three big saves in a row. Bogosian stopped Jovanovski's clearing attempt at the point and fired a slap shot while Theodore was still sitting in his net.
That set the stage for a wild and thrilling third period and overtime that had to leave the home crowd wondering what could have been.
"I think when you've got your foot on their throat you've got to go out and get more," Jovanovski said. "Letting them back in the game kind of changed the momentum a little bit and hurt us. We found a way to get that point but we wanted that next one to wrap things up.
"We've done it the hard way all year, and we'll do it the hard way again."