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Panther D Welch traded to Tampa Bay for D Eminger

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SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) -The Florida Panthers held on to Jay Bouwmeester but sent fellow defenseman, Noah Welch, to in-state rival Tampa Bay before the NHL trade deadline on Wednesday.

The Panthers, in the midst of a playoff push, acquired defenseman Steve Eminger in the deal, and the Lightning also picked up a third-round pick in this year's draft.

Welch, 26, played in 23 games for the Panthers this season, including the last three.

Eminger, 25, has four goals and 21 assists in 62 games this season. He spent five NHL seasons with Washington and has recorded 10 goals and 58 assists in 274 NHL games.

The big news, however, was the trade that didn't happen. Florida's decision to keep Bouwmeester, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer, overshadowed Wednesday's move and signaled that the once-hapless franchise was serious about a playoff berth.

Bouwmeester, 25, was Florida's first choice in the 2002 draft and is in his sixth season in the league. He has spent his entire NHL career with the Panthers, who haven't won a playoff series since 1996 or a playoff game since 1997.

The current NHL ironman, Bouwmeester holds the league's longest consecutive games streak; Florida's 4-3 win over the Atlanta Thrashers on Tuesday night was his 324th game in a row. He logs about 27 minutes of ice time per game and has 13 goals in 64 games this season.

Florida has hardly made itself an attractive club for a young talent like Bouwmeester in recent years. But this offseason, Florida hired Pete DeBoer, a highly touted junior coach from the Ontario Hockey League's Kitchener Rangers, and shipped center Olli Jokinen to Phoenix.

The Panthers are 17-7-3 since Jan. 1. They have won three of their last five games, all on the road, and were in sixth place in the Eastern Conference with 74 points Wednesday. Florida faces Pittsburgh on Thursday night.

Eminger, who previously played two seasons of junior hockey under DeBoer in Kitchener, was traded from Philadelphia to Tampa Bay in November. The Lightning have lost three of four and are in 13th place in the East.

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