The Philadelphia Flyers
assured themselves of a playoff berth Tuesday night with a 2-1 victory over Florida -- handing the Panthers a loss that may devastate their playoff hopes.
The Flyers, who made the conference finals last spring, improved to 97 points with three games remaining. They're tied with the Carolina Hurricanes, who trounced the New York Islanders 9-0 but have only two games remaining. The Flyers passed last season's totals with their 43rd win and 97th point.
The loss dropped the Panthers (89 points) two points behind the New York Rangers, who beat the seventh-place Montreal Canadiens 3-1, in the race for the eighth and final Eastern Conference playoff berth. The Rangers and Panthers both have two games remaining and the Rangers have two more victories than the Panthers. Montreal, three points ahead of the Panthers, also has two games to play.
Jeff Carter scored the game-winner and moved into second among NHL goal scorers with his 45th goal at 7:32 of the third period. Scott Hartnell took an elbow to the face while making an outlet pass to Joffrey Lupul from the left boards in his own end. Lupul crossed into the Panthers zone and backhanded pass out of Carter's reach. Hartnell, racing down the left side, cleared out a Panthers' defender with a check and Carter swept in to pick up the puck. He cut toward the net and beat Tomas Vokoun low on the short side for the unassisted goal.
"If I can score a goal and put us ahead, that's what I'm here for," Carter said. "This is a good feeling. You play all year for a chance to play in the Stanley Cup. The guys in this room want to get home-ice advantage so we still have a lot of work to do in these last three games."
Vokoun said Carter's shot bounced off the outside of his leg.
"I was by the post," he goalie said. "I saw the shot, but as soon as it hit me, I knew it was going in."
The Panthers had several good chances to tie. Richard Zednik missed on a wraparound attempt at 8:25 and his conversion attempt of a Ville Peltonen pass from the left side was stopped by Martin Biron at 9:50.
Stephen Weiss flubbed a centering pass in front of Biron at 15:25 and later had his tip-in try gloved by Biron. Weiss missed a wraparound with 1:19 remaining, and Biron made the last of his 29 saves when stopped David Booth's dangerous backhander from the lower right circle in the final seconds to preserve the win.
The Panthers exposed a Flyers' weakness to score the game's first goal 4:30 into the second period. Defenseman Randy Jones, who had hip surgery last summer and has played with an ailing hip this season, couldn't turn and reach a pass in the neutral zone. Rookie Michael Frolik collected the puck, beat Jones on the rush and centered to Brett McLean, who beat Biron for his seventh goal of the season and second in the past two games against the Flyers.
The Flyers' defense problems were exacerbated when Ryan Parent left midway through the second period with an upper-body injury and didn't return.
"It was a little bit of a groin tweak," GM Paul Holmgren said. "We'll evaluate him tomorrow. Nobody thinks it's serious."
The Flyers began to control play later in the period and tied the game at 15:45. Defenseman Matt Carle skated the puck down the right side and below the goal line, then centered a pass that went off Lupul's skate as he was being muscled by Karlis Skrastins in the slot. The puck ricocheted off the far post, off Vokoun into the net. After a video review, the goal stood.
The disappointed Panthers still have a chance to make the playoffs, but they'll have to beat Atlanta and Washington and hope for help.
"I don't know, I'm not a statistician," Florida coach Peter DeBoer said about the Panthers' playoff chances. "We have to win our next two games. I think we have a chance to get in."