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Panthers dominate Southeast showdown

by Brian Hunter
A few thoughts while Bryan Murray wonders where these Ottawa Senators were back in November:

Statement game -- It wasn't just the four-point swing or the division victory on the road, it was the emphatic way the Florida Panthers did it.

Tomas Vokoun was an impenetrable wall, stopping all 42 shots the Carolina Hurricanes put his way, and five different Panthers scored in a 5-0 win at the RBC Center on Thursday night. Florida tied Buffalo for seventh in the Eastern Conference and built a three-point lead over Carolina and Pittsburgh for the final two playoff spots.

The Panthers came to Raleigh on the wings of a 5-4 overtime win against Toronto in which they overcame a 4-1 deficit in the third period. Vokoun said that game may have saved the season.

"We were dead in the water if we (had) lost that game," he said. "There would be a different feeling in the dressing room. But that's all 'ifs.'"

The Panthers came out like a team that badly wanted the two points, getting goals by Nathan Horton and Richard Zednik in the first, then chasing Carolina goalie Cam Ward on tallies by Anthony Stewart and Gregory Campbell 12 seconds apart in the middle period.

"We got some goals early and we basically controlled the game from there on out," Vokoun said after the Panthers won at Carolina for just the second time in their last 19 visits (2-15-2).

Michael Frolik also scored before the second was done, giving Panthers coach Peter DeBoer a rare easy night, despite Carolina's 42 shots.

"I much prefer these than the dramatic ones," he said. "I thought our goaltender was our best player tonight."

It might have been an exercise in futility trying to find the best player on the Hurricanes, who returned home from a West Coast trip winners of six of their last eight. But given the chance to pass the Panthers in the Southeast Division and the playoff race, they put forth a stinker.

"It was 5-0 in your home building," forward Tuomo Ruutu said. "It's not acceptable."

Signs of life -- Suddenly, the Ottawa Senators look like a team capable of contending for a playoff berth. The big question is whether the hole they dug during the first four months of the season is too large to escape.

Dany Heatley had a pair of goals and Brian Elliott stopped 34 shots to lead the Senators to their third win in a row, 5-2 against the Philadelphia Flyers at the Wachovia Center. Prior to that, they swept a home-and-home from Northeast Division rival Buffalo.

"We've beaten two pretty good teams the last couple of days," Heatley said. "We are feeling good about ourselves."

A look at the standings might sober up the Senators. Even with those three victories, they remain dead last in the Northeast Division with 48 points and 13th overall in the conference, 14 points out of a playoff spot. There's still a lot of work to be done and wins to be compiled before Ottawa can be considered a serious threat to crack the top eight.

But captain Daniel Alfredsson, who hasn't missed out on the playoffs since his rookie season with the club, refuses to let the long odds sway his hopes.

"It's definitely not out of the question," said Alfredsson, who picked up an assist and leads the Senators with 49 points. "It's possible. We won the first two games of this road trip. Who knows? We just can't look too far ahead."

On another level -- How good are the Detroit Red Wings capable of being? Just ask the Minnesota Wild, who had the benefit of facing them without top forwards Johan Franzen and Tomas Holmstrom as well as defenseman Brad Stuart.

The defending Stanley Cup champions still made it look fairly easy in a 4-2 win at Joe Louis Arena, peppering Wild goalie Josh Harding with 43 shots on goal and scoring twice in a 50-second span during the middle period to take control of the game.

"It's always a little tough playing against those guys," Harding said. "They have a lot of skill."

Minnesota coach Jacques Lemaire concurred, saying, "They have about nine players who can do things constantly."

The Wild hung tough early, answering Mikael Samuelsson's first-period goal with a power-play tally by Brent Burns. But the Wings made it 3-1 in a blur, as Jiri Hudler and Kris Draper beat Harding in rapid-strike fashion. Ville Leino added a goal before the end of the second period.

"We've got other guys who are pretty good too," Samuelsson said in summing up how Detroit has been able to survive a rash of injuries without missing a beat. The Wings climbed to within a point of idle San Jose for the Western Conference lead, though the Sharks have three games in hand.

The magic touch -- There have certainly been moments during this frustrating season when it felt like nothing would go in for Martin St. Louis and the Tampa Bay Lightning. The first period was quite the opposite.

St. Louis was clicking on all cylinders in those opening 20 minutes, setting up his teammates for three goals and adding one of his own as the Lightning rode that early offense to a 6-4 win against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the St. Pete Times Forum.

"I just felt good tonight," said St. Louis, who has 20 goals and a team-high 54 points. "Tonight, everything I touched early on, something happened. You build off that and you get confident and you get arrogant in your play."

Ryan Malone was the beneficiary of some of that St. Louis magic, as he converted a pair of assists by No. 26 into his 17th and 18th goals of the season. Mark Recchi also cashed in during the four-goal first.

"Marty definitely had a different gear than everybody out there," Malone said. "He was buzzing."

Six goals was a welcome sight to the eyes of interim head coach Rick Tocchet, who also praised the effort St. Louis provided in lifting the team.

"I can't say enough for Marty St. Louis," Tocchet said. "The first period, he willed our team to win."

Late heroics -- Thanks to Jason Arnott and Steve Sullivan, the Nashville Predators came away with two points from a game in which they were three ticks of the clock away from getting nothing.

Arnott ensured the Predators of at least one point by netting the tying goal with three seconds left in regulation, then Sullivan notched the lone goal of the shootout for a heart-stopping 4-3 win against the St. Louis Blues the at Sommet Center.

"Most of the time when you are out there, you just try to stay as loose as possible and stay away from their defenders," said Arnott, who was able to backhand a David Legwand feed past ex-Predator goalie Chris Mason. "We had enough guys out on the other side, and the puck just popped out, I took a whack at it, and it went in."

Sullivan, who has just five assists in 14 games since returning from a nearly two-year absence due to a back injury, made his biggest contribution yet to Nashville's playoff push by putting a low wrister past Mason's glove.


GOALS: 0 | ASST: 5 | PTS: 5
SOG: 26 | +/-: -10

"I've been talking to my linemates and coaches, and it is not my production on the score sheet, it's my ability to continue to make progress every game," Sullivan said. "I don't have too many shootout moves, so I am glad I was able to sneak one by him."

If the Predators needed two points badly, the Blues needed them worse. They're four points behind Nashville in the Central Division and eight points out of a playoff spot in the Western Conference.

"We have to be able to close games out better," St. Louis coach Andy Murray said. "You have expectations that guys will get the job done."

Doing it the hard way -- It's probably not the modus operandi the Vancouver Canucks want to rely on heading down the stretch, but coming from behind in the third period has resulted in two-straight victories and extended the team's winning streak to four games.

Pavol Demitra, Alexander Edler and Henrik Sedin all tallied in the first 11 minutes of the third period, erasing a two-goal deficit and leading the Canucks to a 4-3 win against the Phoenix Coyotes.

After pulling off a similar comeback Tuesday in St. Louis, Vancouver was able to silence the crowd at Arena and strengthen its position in the Western Conference, grabbing sole possession of sixth.

"It's not easy to come back against any team in this League," Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault said. "Now, we've done that in consecutive games, and our confidence is increasing."

In an ever-changing playoff picture, the Canucks and Coyotes have switched roles in recent weeks. Phoenix had climbed as high as fifth in the standings, but is currently four points out of a postseason berth.

"Every game counts for us," coach Wayne Gretzky said. "We can't afford to have nights where we blow 3-1 leads in the final period."

No prize for nice tries -- Los Angeles Kings coach Terry Murray was happy with almost every aspect of his team's play against Calgary.

Just not the result.

The Kings returned from their best road trip in seven years, a 4-1-0 Eastern swing in which they won the last four games, and soundly outplayed and outshot the Calgary Flames. But they couldn't get anything past Miikka Kiprusoff, who stopped all 36 shots he faced Thursday night in a 2-0 victory.

Kiprusoff frustrated the Kings and the Staples Center crowd all night, stopping 12 shots in the first period, 13 in the second and 11 in the third -- including a rebound save on Kyle Calder before Rene Bourque's empty-net goal sealed the win.

"These are games you have to find a way to win," a frustrated Murray said after his team stayed four points out of the last playoff berth in the West. "You're making a playoff push. You have to find a way to do it."

Murray's one complaint with his team was that Kiprusoff had a good look at too many shots.

"The work side, the structure, the system was great," Murray said of his team's performance. "The part that's missing, when you have a goaltender as good as Kiprusoff is, you have to make life a little more difficult for him. You have to make him work around you. If he doesn't have any obstruction, in most situations, he's going to make the save. We have to get dirtier and uglier and battle harder."

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

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