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Panthers help their playoff prospects

by Brian Hunter
A few thoughts as the Sabres thank their lucky stars for a healthy Ryan Miller back between the pipes:

Bubble teams battle -- The only interconference game on Saturday's schedule featured a pair of teams on the outside of the playoff picture and desperately trying to fight their way back in.

By the end of the night, the Florida Panthers were a little closer to their goal while the Dallas Stars appeared to be down to their final breaths. Stephen Weiss and Nathan Horton scored 53 seconds apart in the final minute of the second period to turn a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 lead, and the Panthers went on to a 6-3 win at American Airlines Center to claim the critical two-point prize.

"We'd gone through a bit of a down stretch, so this was big," said defenseman Jay Bouwmeester, who added a key power-play goal in the third. "With six games left, we have to basically win all of them to control our own destiny."

Florida hit an 0-2-1 skid that culminated with a blown third-period lead in a loss to Buffalo on Wednesday, but the Panthers have turned things around with back-to-back road wins to move within a point of Montreal for eighth in the Eastern Conference. Craig Anderson, who stymied Philadelphia on Thursday, responded with another strong effort, making 32 saves.

"Dallas had the momentum basically for the first half of the game," Anderson said. "But we slowly took it over. When you string a couple together, it takes the wind out of the other team's sails."

If the Stars' sails haven't been permanently deflated, they're getting close. They dropped to 0-5-1 in their last six and are left trying to make up six points in the standings with only seven games left in the regular season.

"There's no time to wait around and see what other teams are going to do," defenseman Matt Niskanen said. "All we can control is how we play and start winning games."

Persistence pays off -- Plenty of other teams over the past 15 seasons knew the same type of frustration the Carolina Hurricanes were feeling through the first 53 minutes at the Prudential Center. They were generating shots and scoring chances right and left, it seemed, but nothing was going past goaltender Martin Brodeur.

Sergei Samsonov didn't get discouraged, however. He finally got a puck past Brodeur on the Hurricanes' 43rd shot on goal and Tuomo Ruutu struck on the power play late in the third for a stunning 2-1 win over the New Jersey Devils at Prudential Center.

Carolina has won six in a row for the first time since the 2005-06 season, which ended with the franchise's first Stanley Cup. It was important to get two points because the teams directly above and below the Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference standings -- Philadelphia and Pittsburgh -- also won on Saturday, keeping them in fifth with 91 points. They also have just five regular-season games remaining, the fewest of any NHL team.

"It's been huge, but it's important that we bear down for the last five games," said goalie Cam Ward, who was also busy, making 31 stops. "We haven't done anything yet, but we've certainly set ourselves up for some success. We haven't clinched yet, so we have to continue to fight."

Brodeur ended up facing a total of 48 shots. He stopped 46 of them, but that wasn't enough to prevent the Devils from losing their fourth in a row.

"It's got to be a learning experience," Devils coach Brent Sutter said. "It's playoff hockey now. You're going to get into these one-goal games and you've got to do the detail work and the little things well."

Sid strikes again -- It's been an unbelievable month for the Pittsburgh Penguins. That's in large part thanks to the play of captain Sidney Crosby.

Ruslan Fedotenko sprung Crosby with a pass in the third period, and he split a pair of defenders en route to scoring the winning goal with 10:04 remaining in a 4-3 win over the New York Rangers at Mellon Arena.

Crosby extended the League's longest active point streak to 15 games by beating Henrik Lundqvist. Fedotenko had a big day, contributing a goal and two assists as Pittsburgh finished March at 10-1-2 and stayed one point behind Carolina for fifth and two in back of Philadelphia for fourth in the Eastern Conference playoff race.

"He's a go-to guy," said Pittsburgh's Max Talbot, who had a goal and an assist, of Crosby. "He always wants those big goals, and he got it again. It's definitely two huge points for us."

The Rangers rallied from 2-0 and 3-2 deficits, but missed an opportunity to leap over the Penguins in the standings. They remained in seventh place, one point ahead of Montreal and two up on Florida.

"Certainly today we showed off our character battling from two-goal and one-goal deficits," Nik Antropov said. "It was so close to tying this game up at the end of the game. We did a lot of good things, and we're going to build on it."

The cardiac kids -- A pair of one-goal comebacks and a power-play goal in overtime kept the Nashville Predators in control of their own destiny as they chase a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the fifth straight season.

Steve Sullivan assisted on a pair of goals in regulation and scored the winner with 1:19 left in the extra period as the Predators edged the Los Angeles Kings 4-3 at Sommet Center.

Nashville holds down seventh in the Western Conference with 82 points, one more than Edmonton and St. Louis. All three teams have seven games left. It's been a wild race, but the Predators are helping their own cause with points in their last seven (4-0-3), even if they've been doing it the hard way with six consecutive one-goal games.

"It's taxing our nerves, it's taxing our resiliency, and it's taxing our character a little bit lately," Nashville coach Barry Trotz said. "It has been a rough week. We have played three games in five nights, and they have all been emotionally draining in one way or another."

Cal O'Reilly erased a 1-0 deficit with his first NHL goal and after the Predators entered the third trailing 2-1, Joel Ward got them even with a shorthanded tally by finishing off a 2-on-1 break with Martin Erat, who set a career high with four assists.

"If you have the chance to create something, you have to take the chance -- especially when you are down by one and your playoff lives are at stake," Ward said.

Filling the nets
-- It's not the type of game that will get them far once the postseason begins, but the Boston Bruins managed to earn a win by outgunning the opposition.

Mark Recchi led the way with a pair of goals as the Bruins put three on the board in the first period and four more in the second, skating to a 7-5 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs at Air Canada Centre. It extended their lead for the Eastern Conference's top seed to five points over idle Washington, but the team recognizes there's work to be done.

"We've got our own issues," Boston coach Claude Julien said. "Just because we're in a playoff spot doesn't mean that everything's OK. Our play in the last month and a half hasn't been up to par. We need to get better in our game.

"So those games do mean something for us. It's about fine-tuning ourselves and getting some momentum heading into the playoffs."

"With six games left, we have to basically win all of them to control our own destiny." -- Florida defenseman Jay Bouwmeester
The Leafs hung tough early, escaping the first 20 minutes in a 3-3 tie and briefly going ahead in the middle period before the Bruins blew them out of the water. Manny Fernandez made his first start since March 8 and struggled at times, but refused to blame his long layoff or the five days off the team had prior to Saturday's game.

"You want to take that positively," Fernandez said. "Playoffs are around the corner. I think at that point it would be a good time to have maybe five days off and maybe rest a little bit. We've been hoping to turn things around and that's the direction we're trying to take."

Shootout success -- Buffalo defenseman Toni Lydman has a career-high of six goals in a single season and has three in 2008-09. He probably didn't enter Saturday's shootout as the likeliest candidate to breathe new life in the Sabres' playoff hopes, but he came through when it counted.

Lydman beat Carey Price in the sixth round of the penalty-shot tiebreaker and Ryan Miller was flawless at the opposite end as the Sabres prevailed in a critical battle with the Montreal Canadiens, 4-3, at HSBC Arena. They stayed 10th in the Eastern Conference but pulled within four points of the Habs for the eighth and final playoff spot.

"I knew what I was going to do, try to throw it five-hole," said Lydman, who was taking his first career shootout attempt. "I had to skate around (Price) to see that the puck actually went in."

Miller, starting for the second time in as many nights after returning from a high ankle sprain that cost him 13 games, stopped all six Montreal attempts in the shootout and is 31-for-40 in the breakaway competition this season. He made 32 saves through regulation and overtime after a 33-save performance in a win over Toronto on Friday.

"He had to be the difference by the time the end of the night came around," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "To do what he did in the shootout, that's a big point for us."

The saga continues -- From the basement in the Western Conference to the brink of a playoff berth, it's been a wild ride these past few months for the St. Louis Blues.

They began an important home-and-home series with the Central Division rival Columbus Blue Jackets by winning in heart-stopping fashion, blowing a two-goal lead in the third period before coming out on top 3-2 at Scottrade Center on shootout goals by David Perron and Brad Boyes.

"I guess you could say that they came back, but we knew it was going to be a tough third period," said Blues goalie Chris Mason, who ended up outdueling counterpart Steve Mason of the Jackets. "I guess you could say it's a relief, but it's the same story with our team. We just keep plugging and find ways to win."

As a result, St. Louis now has the identical record of Edmonton (36-30-9). But the Blues are coming on, and they'll try to complete the sweep at Columbus on Sunday night, when they begin a five-game road trip.

"I like the way we played," Andy McDonald said. "We did a lot of good things. We probably let down a little bit in the third, but if we certainly put a game like that together (Sunday), we should be all right."

Never out of it -- Thanks to their wealth of firepower, opponents have to play a full 60 minutes against the Philadelphia Flyers, even if the Flyers fail to do so themselves.

Joffrey Lupul scored a pair of third-period goals and Mike Richards had the deciding shootout tally in a 4-3 win over the New York Islanders at Nassau Coliseum. The Flyers trailed 2-0 entering the third period, rallied for a 3-2 lead and then gave up the tying goal before eventually securing two points.

"We had to battle back and find ways to play better," Richards said. "It's nice that we can come back and win in that situation."

Had they lost in regulation, the Flyers would have relinquished fourth place in the Eastern Conference to Carolina, which won at New Jersey. It took some time to break through against a New York squad coming off a shutout win in Detroit over the defending Stanley Cup champions on Friday, but John Stevens' team kept plugging and wound up being rewarded.

"Points this time of year are tough," Stevens said. "I thought our team showed a lot of determination to hang in there and come back like that."

The bigger picture -- Joe Pavelski's goal 1:34 into the third period not only led the San Jose Sharks to a 3-2 win over the Phoenix Coyotes at HP Pavilion, it gave them back the lead in the race for the Presidents' Trophy and the top seed in the Western Conference with 109 points, two more than idle Detroit.

Knowing that any edge over the Red Wings won't come into play until and unless the Sharks face them in the conference finals, coach Todd McLellan said his team needs to worry about the task in front of them.

''I really don't think right now this group is focused on staying in front of Detroit,'' McLellan said. ''We can't play these last seven games with Detroit in the back of our mind. We are a better team when we are focused on what we're doing.''

San Jose is also difficult to stop when all four lines are contributing -- their first two goals against the Coyotes came courtesy of enforcer Jody Shelley, who scored his second of the season, and rookie Tom Cavanagh, who registered his first NHL goal.

''It's nice when you chip in. It's a good sign we're getting chances,'' Shelley said. ''I think it settled us down. With a team that's going to the playoffs you need other guys chipping in when some guys aren't going.''

Third time's the charm
-- First it was Olli Jokinen. Then it was Curtis Glencross. Twice, the Calgary Flames thought perhaps they had come up with the goal to put them ahead of the Minnesota Wild, but both were waived off by referee Eric Furlatt.

Finally, Eric Nystrom got one that counted. Nystrom's goal with 3:21 left in the second period held up as the game-winner in a 3-2 triumph at the Pengrowth Saddledome as Calgary increased its lead over Vancouver in the Northwest Division to three points.

"It's a ref's discretion obviously and sometimes that happens," said Glencross, who was ruled to have impeded Minnesota goalie Niklas Backstrom when Jokinen put the puck in the net and lost a potential goal of his own due to a high-stick ruling. "We all just kind of shook our heads and put it behind us. You know it was still a tight game there and we just had to go forward with it."

Nystrom agreed, even showing a bit of sympathy for Furlatt when it came to the disallowed goals.

"The first one looked like it was pretty legit, but at the same time the referee doesn't get to look at the scoreboard and see the instant replay so he is just going with what he sees on the ice," Nystrom said.

"Things happen so fast out there that they just make the call and they can't reverse their own call. That's what's tough about being a referee."

Another 40 for Kovalchuk -- Playing for pride seems to be working just fine for the Atlanta Thrashers, who have won eight of their past 11 games. Individual milestones are still up for grabs as well, and captain Ilya Kovalchuk reached one with his 40th goal of the season.

Kovalchuk reached the plateau for the fifth consecutive season by scoring with 10 seconds left in the first period, and the Thrashers went on to double up the Ottawa Senators 6-3 at Philips Arena.

"It's easy to score when everybody plays well. We're building some momentum for next year," said Kovalchuk, who has 294 goals in his career. "I'll try for (300 goals). A couple of hat tricks and you're there."

Kovalchuk has scored as many as 52 goals in a season, accomplishing the feat in 2005-06 and again in 2007-08 -- but it's the campaign in between that probably means the most to him. That's when Atlanta won the Southwest Division and made the postseason for the only time in the franchise's history.

"I'd trade all my goals for a playoff spot," Kovalchuk said.

Buzzer-beaters and bizarre finishes -- March Madness continues to play out on the ice.

One night after Minnesota-Duluth tied its NCAA tournament game against Princeton with 0.8 seconds remaining before going on to win in overtime, Thomas Fortney saved New Hampshire's season with even less time remaining on the clock. Fortney scored with 0.1 seconds left in regulation and the third-seeded Wildcats ousted North Dakota 6-5 on Peter LeBlanc's goal 45 seconds into the extra period.

They advance in the Northeast regional final to face Boston University, the only top seed to survive the opening round. The Terriers cruised to an 8-3 win over Ohio State.

Meanwhile, the Midwest regional opened with the latest upset by a fourth seed, as unheralded Bemidji State knocked off Notre Dame 5-1, and third-seeded Cornell got a goal from Evan Barlow with 17.2 seconds remaining for a thrilling 3-2 win over Northeastern.

A pair of Frozen Four trips were wrapped up, as Vermont advanced out of the East and Miami of Ohio moved on from the West.

It took the Catamounts two overtime periods and a lengthy video review to outlast upstart Air Force 3-2. They finally got to celebrate when it was determined that Dan Lawson's shot 12:10 into the second OT went into the net, through the twine and out the other side. The teams continued on for a couple of minutes until the next stoppage, when the play could finally be reviewed.

The fourth-seeded Red Hawks scored a pair of second-period goals and held on for a 2-1 win over Minnesota-Duluth, which couldn't muster another miracle finish.

On Sunday, the Northeast final in Manchester, N.H., gets under way at 5:30 p.m. ET with the Midwest final in Grand Rapids, Mich., beginning at 8 p.m.

Material from wire services was used in this report.

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