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Panthers come up big against Pens

by Brian Compton
A hit on Evgeni Malkin by Keith Ballard may very well be a turning point in the Florida Panthers' season.

Bryan McCabe and Rostislav Olesz each had a goal and an assist and Tomas Vokoun made 41 saves to lead the Panthers to a 4-2 win against the Pittsburgh Penguins at the BankAtlantic Center. It was just the Penguins' second regulation loss in 18 games.

''That Ballard hit really changed the momentum,'' said Florida forward David Booth, who scored in the second period. ''We were getting outshot pretty bad there. To get the crowd into it, especially on a big star player in the NHL against Malkin, really got the team into it.''

Ville Peltonen also had a goal, and Jay Bouwmeester had two assists as the Panthers pulled even with the idle New York Rangers for eighth place in the Eastern Conference. Both teams have 89 points with three games remaining, but the Blueshirts have one more victory.

Florida visits Philadelphia on Tuesday, while the Rangers will host Montreal.

''We needed to win tonight. It was do-or-die,'' McCabe said. ''That's one down. We're tied, same amount of games left. We've just got to keep winning.''

The hit on Malkin prompted Penguins captain Sidney Crosby to drop the gloves with Ballard. Crosby received a minor penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct and a major for fighting. It was his second brawl with a Florida player this season; he got into a fight with Brett McLean during a Jan. 3 game.

''I went over not sure if he was going to fight,'' Crosby said. ''I don't go into games looking to fight, that's for sure. It just kind of happens. It's just a coincidence. I don't fight that much. To get two against one team is kind of weird, but it's part of the game.''

Olesz needed just 1:55 to get the Panthers on the scoreboard, when he notched his fourth goal of the season. After gaining control of the puck from Pens defenseman Hal Gill, Olesz skated in on a breakaway against Marc-Andre Fleury and beat the goaltender via the backhand to make it 1-0.

But the Penguins tied it at 6:08 on a goal by Pascal Dupuis. The pesky forward capitalized after Florida defenseman Karlis Skrastins couldn't clear the puck, as Dupuis ripped a shot past Vokoun for his 11th goal of the season.

The Panthers then seized the momentum following the Ballard-Crosby showdown, as McCabe put Florida back in front with just 20 seconds left in the first. With the teams at even strength, McCabe fired a slap shot that deflected off Pens defenseman Kris Letang and past Fleury to make it 2-1.

"That obviously came at a key time," Panthers coach Peter DeBoer said of Ballard's hit. "We were a little tentative to start. It got the crowd into it, got emotions going, it loosened us up a little bit. We're in a hole tonight if we don't win."

Booth increased Florida's lead to 3-1 with a power-play goal at 19:48 of the second period. After Jordan Staal was whistled for holding, Booth took a pass from Bouwmeester and ripped it past Fleury for his 28th goal of the season.

Mark Eaton got Pittsburgh back to within a goal with a power-play tally of his own at 14:06 of the third, but Peltonen sealed the deal just 1:50 later.

"It was a huge goal," DeBoer said of Peltonen's 12th of the season. "He did exactly what we talked about the last 24 hours. He took the puck to the net. He's not the biggest guy, but he's got a big heart and he's fearless and just bulled his way to the net."

For Vokoun, it was his 24th victory of the season and his first since March 19. He had temporarily lost his grip on the No. 1 job to Craig Anderson, who lost at Atlanta on Friday.

"I think we played hard," Vokoun said. "You see guys blocking shots … guys played great. We got some big performances. That's what we need this time of year."

Capitals 6, Thrashers 4 | Video

Six different players scored for Washington -- none of whom were named Alex Ovechkin -- as the Caps skated past Atlanta at the Verizon Center on Sunday afternoon.

Washington finished with 29 wins on home ice, the second-most in franchise history. The Caps won 18 of their first 20, but took only 11 of the last 21. They trailed 3-2 after 40 minutes on Sunday, but were sparked by a Bruce Boudreau speech during the second intermission.

"We were sleepwalking, it seemed like, for two periods," said Boudreau, who switched up his lines in the third. "I hope it doesn't take me coming in and screaming and yelling to get them going. They've got to learn to do it on their own. You yell at your kids too much, they'll tune you out."

Tomas Fleischmann broke a scoreless tie just 2:13 into the game on an unassisted tally. He broke a 14-game drought when he gloved Nathan Oystrick's clearing attempt and dropped the puck directly in front of goal for the easy shot past Johan Hedberg. It was only his third goal since mid-January.

"It was a break for me," Fleischmann said. "I haven't had a lot of bounces for me lately."

After Colby Armstrong tied the game for Atlanta at 7:48 of the first, Jim Slater gave the Thrashers their first lead when he beat Jose Theodore just 83 seconds into the second. Keith Aucoin erased the 2-1 deficit with a power-play goal at 9:43, but Atlanta regained the lead on Ilya Kovalchuk's 42nd tally with 4:21 left in the period.

"We kept up for two periods," Thrashers defenseman Tobias Enstrom said, "and it seemed like we got a little tired in the third and they ran us down a little bit."

Washington recorded 18 shots through the first two periods before peppering Hedberg with 15 in the third. Michael Nylander netted the first of three unanswered goals by the Caps at the 2:43 mark -- his second since Feb. 3. Eric Fehr gave Washington the lead at 5:04 for his second goal since Feb. 26, and Alexander Semin put the Caps up by a pair with his 31st tally at 8:20.

Slava Kozlov briefly gave the Thrashers some life when he beat Theodore at 19:16, but Brooks Laich eliminated any doubt 31 seconds later with an empty-net goal.

Ovechkin took 11 shots and contributed two assists. He has 55 goals this season.

"It's great to finally have some scoring from all over the place," Fehr said. "Ovie's been carrying the workload pretty much all year."

Material from wire services and team media was used in this report.

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