As the streaking Philadelphia Flyers close in on a playoff berth in the Eastern Conference, the ice-cold Florida Panthers appear to be squandering their chances of playing in the postseason.
The Panthers will be in desperate need of a victory in Philadelphia on Thursday night, less than 24 hours after a late meltdown dealt another blow to their hopes of ending a nine-year playoff drought.
Florida's 1-4-3 stretch over the last few weeks took an ugly turn Wednesday night, when the team coughed up a two-goal lead in a 2:07 span in the third period, eventually losing 5-3 to Buffalo.
The Panthers (35-28-11) also showed their frustration in a lengthy melee after the Sabres sealed the game with an empty-netter in the final minute. Florida lost its third straight game overall and remained two points behind eighth-place Montreal with eight games to play, while the Canadiens have nine games left.
"I don't have an answer," Panthers defenseman Bryan McCabe said. "Obviously, we picked a bad time of the year to start blowing leads. We have to find a way to remedy that."
Holding a 1-0 lead against Columbus on Saturday, Florida also yielded three goals in just over two minutes to lose 3-1.
On Wednesday, Panthers coach Peter DeBoer didn't sugarcoat his feelings on his club's latest collapse, pointing the finger directly at goaltender Tomas Vokoun after he gave up three goals on 20 shots in the third period.
"We need a big save at a critical time in the third period to win a game. I don't think we've gotten one lately," DeBoer said. "You can't let (the loss) be devastating. The goalie's got to close the door when you're in that situation. You know what? He didn't."
It's unclear if backup Craig Anderson will be in net Thursday, but either way the Panthers will try to do a better job of preventing shots. They allowed 45 shots on goal Wednesday, raising their league-worst average to 34.6 per game.
While Florida stumbles, the Flyers (40-22-10) could be getting hot at the right time, having won three straight games to solidify their hold on fourth place in the Eastern Conference. They lead fifth-place Carolina by one point, but they have four games in hand on the Hurricanes.
The three consecutive victories have come on the heels of a 4-5-1 stretch that had Philadelphia in danger of losing home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
The most impressive win during their run may have come Monday night, when the Flyers beat New Jersey 4-2, handing Devils goalie Martin Brodeur just his third loss in 12 starts since returning from biceps surgery.
Jeff Carter scored his 40th goal to break a 2-all tie in the third period and Simon Gagne added his 30th as insurance, while Martin Biron made 32 saves. Biron is 7-3-0 with a 1.98 goals-against average in his last 11 appearances.
"We really feel like we're starting to get into that groove," Carter said. "We're playing solid D, Marty's standing on his head making saves when we need them and guys are leaving it all out there."
Center Danny Briere had a goal and an assist against New Jersey and is finally contributing toward the end of an injury-ravaged season.
A 70-point scorer last season, Briere had played in just nine games before the month of March due to groin problems, and he was held without a point in his first seven games back. But the veteran now has three goals and two assists in his last three games.