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Goaltending vaults Panthers back into the hunt

by Adam Kimelman

Last week, Florida Panthers goaltender Tomas Vokoun was named the NHL's Third Star of the Week. Watch Tomas Vokoun highlights
Tomas Vokoun relishes his role as the starting goaltender for the Florida Panthers, but even he is willing to admit when he needs some time off. And it was that willingness to sit and watch that has allowed the Panthers to jump back into the Stanley Cup Playoff race.

Vokoun watched his backup, Craig Anderson, turn aside 118 of 120 shots -- including 93 in a row in a pair of 1-0 victories -- to start March, and then returned to do the rest, winning the next four games as the Panthers have extended their winning streak to seven in a row, and in the process moved within two points of a postseason spot.

Vokoun won three games last week, posting a 1.67 goals-against average and .946 save percentage in wins against the New York Islanders, New York Rangers and Atlanta Thrashers, earning him the NHL's Third Star of the Week honors.

While the Panthers are unbeaten in March, things didn't look so rosy at the end of February. Vokoun had lost six of seven games; five of the six losses were one-goal games, as was the only win. The stress of playing so many close games was wearing on Vokoun. That's when coach Jacques Martin decided to give Vokoun a break.

Anderson played the first three games in March, beating the Islanders, 1-0, on March 2, and repeating the feat two nights later with a 1-0 overtime win against the Bruins. On March 6, Anderson backstopped a 5-2 win against the Penguins.

Meanwhile, Vokoun was watching and working extra with goalie coach Pierre Groulx.

"When we lose those few close games, obviously it's tough and I was getting really mentally tired and my game wasn't where I wanted it to be," Vokoun said. "Craig went in and played great, and he started three games and gave me more than a week, not just to relax from the standpoint of not playing any games, but with the goalie coach, work on my game. It was a good break."

Since getting back on the ice, Vokoun has won four in a row, and hasn't allowed more than two goals in a game.

"It's obvious (the break) helped me play," he said. "I don't know if it's just mental or it was technical, too, just working with Pierre on technical stuff with my game. You go through the year, if you play that many games, you go through stretches when you're doing well and you go through stretches where you're not doing so good. This was exactly what we needed, and Craig came in and basically won those games by himself, and it helped me in the process, too."

Vokoun believes other things helped the Panthers, most notably the passing of the trade deadline, which brought an end to the trade rumors surrounding team captain Olli Jokinen.

The Panthers' leader in goals (32), assists (37) and points (69), Jokinen has nine points (two goals, seven assists) in nine games since the trade deadline passed.

"I think Olli is playing so much better," Vokoun said. "It doesn't help anybody's performance when you're hearing all those things all the time. If you want to think about (trade talks), it gets to you. The last few games he's been playing unbelievable.

"It's not just scoring points and scoring goals. He's playing good (on) both sides of the puck, and he's producing points. I would imagine for any player, it's got to be now he knows he's going to be here and he can relax. It doesn't help anybody to play with uncertainty."

There remains uncertainty on whether the Panthers' run is coming too late. With eight games left, they have to leapfrog three teams to get into the playoffs for the first time since the 1999-2000 season.
"We're playing catch-up and we obviously need help from somebody not to do well." - Tomas Vokoun
"Obviously we are in the bad position," Vokoun said. "We're playing catch-up and we obviously need help from somebody not to do well. You look at where we were a little while ago, and we definitely need help from somebody. If everybody keeps wining there's no way you can catch them."

But with seventh-place Boston and eighth-place Philadelphia sliding, there is a bit of daylight.

Vokoun is one of the few Panthers with playoff experience. He backstopped the Nashville Predators into the postseason in 2003-04 and 2006-07, and played the majority of the games in 2005-06 before a late-season injury shelved him for the playoffs.

"Sometimes it comes down to just wanting it a little bit more than the other player or the other team and doing that little extra because there's not really a big difference in between how we played three weeks ago and how we play now," he said. "The difference is so small, but even though it's small, it means the difference between winning and losing.

"Every game is lost or won by one goal, so the League is really, really tight, and you have to do that little extra to win on a consistent basis."

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