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Panthers continue to get full team effort

by Brian Hunter
A few thoughts while we congratulate Alex Ovechkin on reaching 200 goals, and look forward to watching net his next 200:

Making their surge
-- Two more goals from their offensive-minded defensemen and a highlight-reel tally by Richard Zednik led the Florida Panthers to another win Thursday and kept them on top in the race for the final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference.

Jay Bouwmeester and Karlis Skrastins staked the Panthers to a 2-0 lead in the first period, but it was Zednik who came up with the game-winner in spectacular fashion as the Panthers edged the New York Islanders 3-2 at BankAtlantic Center.

Zednik made a nice move at the blue line to break into the offensive zone, then hopped over a sliding Brendan Witt before regaining control of the puck and tapping it between the legs of goalie Joey MacDonald as he came down for a landing.

''It's not too tough,'' Panthers center Stephen Weiss said. ''Nah, I'm kidding. It's a world-class goal. Can't teach that. Not too many other guys could pull that off.''

''He's a guy that has that world-class speed and can score a goal like that for us,'' Panthers coach Peter DeBoer added. ''And we need him to do that down the stretch.''

Even MacDonald, who returned from a six-game absence due to a groin injury, was impressed by Zednik's feat.

''That was a great move by him,'' he said. ''Not too many players can do that in this League. He did, and he executed pretty well.''

Florida improved to 9-2-3 since losing to the Islanders on New Year's Eve. If the Panthers can continue to get production from their blue line -- which has scored an NHL-best 36 goals -- and role players like Zednik, a playoff drought that stretches back nine years soon could be history.

''All year everyone's been chipping in,'' Bouwmeester said. ''That's kind of just the way it has to be here. Everyone has to contribute a little bit.''

Running on empty
-- Owning the League's best record brings with it plenty of challenges, and the Boston Bruins have survived several of late. They nearly let a two-goal lead slip away but recovered in time to beat the Ottawa Senators 4-3 in a shootout at Scotiabank Place.

P.J. Axelsson scored in the fifth round of the penalty-shot tiebreaker as the Bruins responded to a Senators' comeback with one of their own. Ottawa had gone ahead 3-2 in the third period, but then Chuck Kobasew scored on the power play with 4:02 remaining to force overtime.

"It was a relief, to be honest with you, because we came into the third with good intentions but our energy level wasn't there tonight," said Bruins coach Claude Julien, whose team won 3-1 at Philadelphia on Wednesday. "We looked tired, and rightfully so. We've played a lot of big games lately. ... The bottom line is we found a way to win."

Nick Foligno energized the Senators with a goal late in the second, Daniel Alfredsson tied the score in the opening minute of the third and Jason Spezza provided Ottawa with its first lead of the game on a power play, but the team fell to 0-1-1 under new coach Cory Clouston.

"It's obviously disappointing to lose, but we did some great things tonight and I think that's the most important thing," Foligno said. "We've just got to continue to do those things and I thought we took it to them for the majority of the night."

Rain on his parade -- It should have been a night to celebrate, as Alex Ovechkin scored his 200th NHL goal and became only the fourth player to accomplish the feat during his first four seasons in the League.

Instead, a downbeat Ovechkin had little to say about his personal heroics after the Washington Capitals lost in regulation at Verizon Center for only the fourth time this season, 5-4 at the hands of the Los Angeles Kings.

"We didn't play well for two periods and they just used our mistakes," Ovechkin said, his voice a low monotone. "I don't want to talk about my personal stats today."

Which is too bad, because once again Ovechkin's stats rival those of anyone in hockey. His 37 goals place him first in the race for the Rocket Richard Trophy, while his 68 points are second only to Pittsburgh teammates Evgeni Malkin (79) and Sidney Crosby (69).

The Capitals jumped ahead 15 seconds into the game on an Alexander Semin goal, but a three-goal second period helped the Kings take control. Despite a spirited attempt at rallying in the third -- including Ovechkin's unassisted goal with 9:28 remaining -- Washington's three-game win streak came to an end thanks to a 41-save performance by Los Angeles goalie Jonathan Quick.

"I don't know what's happening with us, but after (Semin's) goal, we just stopped playing," Ovechkin said. "Didn't play our system. We didn't finish checks. We didn't shoot the puck. We didn't play our game."

The latest leading man -- Since trading longtime starter Tomas Vokoun, the Nashville Predators have turned to Chris Mason and then Dan Ellis as the main man in net. Now they appear to have found a new No. 1 they hope can lead them back to the playoffs in Pekka Rinne.

Rinne made 28 saves to win his third straight start and fourth in five as the Predators skated to a 4-2 win against the Anaheim Ducks at Sommet Center.

"I haven't really changed anything," said Rinne, who began the season backing up Ellis. "The more games you play, the more you get used to the speed of the NHL and the shooters."

Anaheim currently holds the fifth spot in the Western Conference while Nashville is in a three-way tie for 12th. However, the gap between the teams isn't nearly as wide as it might sound -- the Predators are just six points behind the Ducks, although there are plenty of other teams fighting with them to retain or ascend to one of the final four playoff spots.

"Losing is contagious, but so is winning," Predators forward Ryan Jones said. "You win a couple of games and all of a sudden everything changes. You can really tell that the guys are starting to believe in each other. It’s a tough turn that we had before the All-Star break, but it's a whole different atmosphere in here right now, and you can tell."

Stinging the Blues -- With the playoff picture in the West changing almost daily, any sort of prolonged losing streak ultimately could sink a team's chances -- so when the Edmonton Oilers went to a shootout, picking up that second point to end a run of two straight losses was vital.

Dwayne Roloson stopped both penalty-shot attempts by the St. Louis Blues and the Oilers got goals from Robert Nilsson and Sam Gagner on their first two tries and left Scottrade Center with a 2-1 victory, keeping them in a three-way tie for sixth.

"I thought we played a gritty game," Edmonton coach Craig MacTavish said. "It was an important win. We were starting to slide the other way."

Roloson played a strong game, finishing overtime with 33 saves. He yielded Jay McClement's shorthanded goal that tied the score 5:29 into the third, but bounced back to stop T.J. Oshie and Brad Boyes in the shootout.

"I was just trying to be patient," Roloson said. "I stayed with them and made the plays."


GOALS: 12 | ASST: 4 | PTS: 16
SOG: 78 | +/-: +5

Different styles, same result -- It's not all the time Cody McLeod will get mentioned in the same breath as Milan Hejduk, but they each contributed key goals as the Colorado Avalanche beat the Dallas Stars.

Hejduk, who last month scored his 300th career goal, tied the game in the second period, but it was McLeod who netted the winner with 7:11 remaining in the third of a 3-2 victory against the Stars at Pepsi Center.

"I think anybody's going to score if they go to the net hard -- get dirty around the net, get rebounds," said McLeod, known more for his physical play than his scoring touch. "Definitely a little bit of luck around there, too, maybe. You're not going to get bounces if you don't work hard."

Stars goalie Marty Turco blamed himself for not staying low on the play and letting McLeod put the puck under his stick and off his skate. But he quickly put the goal and the loss behind him and turned his attention toward Friday's home game against the New York Rangers.

"Feeling sorry for ourselves is not what we're all about. It's putting our best foot forward the next night. It's going to be a tough one," Turco said.

Homecoming -- If it wasn't nice enough contributing a goal and 2 assists in a Chicago Blackhawks win, Andrew Ladd had additional reason to feel good -- because his big effort came at Pengrowth Saddledome, which not only is the Calgary Flames' home, but also the Calgary Hitmen of the Western Hockey League, where Ladd played from 2003-05.

"It was awesome," said Ladd, who has a career-high 32 points after posting 30 while splitting last season between Carolina and Chicago. "I've got a lot of great memories, lots of family and friends here. It was great to come back."

With the victory, the Blackhawks jumped two points ahead of the Flames, though Calgary still owns third place in the West by virtue of leading the Northwest Division. Ladd scored for the first time in 14 games, but said he was contributing in other ways during the drought.

"My game's all sorts of different things, it's not just scoring," Ladd said. "I thought I've been playing well in all areas and tonight I was happy to be able to chip in with some offense."

Award-winning visitor -- No, that wasn't a stick boy in a San Jose jersey dropping the puck for the ceremonial faceoff at the Shark Tank. The skinny kid with the No. 55 jersey was none other than National League Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum of the San Francisco Giants, who drew a huge cheer from the sellout crowd at HP Pavilion when he stepped onto the ice before the Sharks' 4-3 shootout loss to Carolina.

"It was a new experience for me," the 24-year-old right-hander said of being on the ice. "It was nice to be out there. It's crazy -- the energy that was built up in this place, even before the game starts."

Lincecum, part of a group of Giants appearing at a Fan Fest in San Jose, admitted he's not a huge hockey fan, but said Sharks captain Patrick Marleau was the player he was most familiar with. 

"I've heard a lot about this guy," he said. "Patrick Marleau is a big scorer and the team captain. Who doesn't know him?"

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