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Panthers inch closer with shootout win over Thrashers

by John Manasso /
ATLANTA -- It's not an easy time to be a member of the Florida Panthers.

Veteran Cory Stillman got traded on Thursday. Steve Bernier was placed on waivers on Friday morning prior to his team's game with the Atlanta Thrashers. Rumors swirl about David Booth, Stephen Weiss, Tomas Vokoun and Bryan McCabe.

But there they were on Friday hunkering down for a 2-1 shootout win, with Vokoun making 45 saves in regulation and overtime and then stopping five of six attempts in the shootout, to remain within eight points of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

Bernier's goal in the sixth round of the shootout -- he said he noticed that Atlanta goalie Chris Mason was cheating glove side so he wristed a shot short side to win it -- perhaps served as poetic justice as Florida earned just its second win in six games. Mike Santorelli had scored in the first round for Florida and Blake Wheeler tied it in the second round for Atlanta.

"It's been tough the last little while," Vokoun said. "Obviously, it's not easy to deal with what's going on with our team. Just go out there and do your best and control what you can control. Like I said, it hasn't been fun the last few weeks."

It was only Florida's fourth win since the All-Star break. Asked to elaborate about what's been difficult, Vokoun said, "Yeah, everything. Guys getting traded. You look at our lineup. I don't know how many guys from the minor leagues. Tough time of year for us, but I think we played hard today. … We still have a chance, but it's going to be tough. We have two more injuries today to key players. Like I said, I've been here four years (without a postseason appearance), it's been pretty tough."

Those two injured players were forwards Chris Higgins and Rostislav Olesz. Olesz appeared to suffer a serious knee injury after getting tangled up with Atlanta's Mark Stuart on Olesz's only shift of the game in the first period. He did not put any weight on his right leg as he was helped off the ice.

Higgins suffered a hand injury and did not return, while defenseman Dennis Wideman, the team's leader in time on ice this season, missed his first game as a scratch. Panthers coach Pete DeBoer said Wideman is battling an injury but did not want to reveal what it was and agreed with a questioner who stated that Olesz "looked pretty bad."

Like Vokoun, McCabe reiterated the mantra that "you never know what can happen" as far as the team possibly making the playoffs. But he realizes he could be on the move if he agrees to waive his no-trade clause as first-year general manager Dale Tallon attempts to rebuild the team.

"I've said all along my family's really happy in Florida," McCabe said. "I said I want to re-sign there, but you never say never. We'll see what happens over the next few days."

Amidst all of that, DeBoer was happy with his team's work ethic. He said the Panthers need to be the hardest-working team in the League to make the playoffs. He said they had a meeting after a 5-1 loss in Ottawa on Wednesday and discussed just that.

He saw results in the play of Bernier, who said he was unsettled by being waived.

"It tells me that we grabbed his attention and he did what he's supposed to do," DeBoer said of Bernier. "That's how he's supposed to play."

Atlanta, which has won just once in its last 10 games (1-7-2), earned its first point in five.

Before he connected in the shootout, Wheeler got on the board for the first time as a Thrasher to tie the game late in the second period. It was his third game since being acquired from Boston one week earlier. The play was set up when Mason made a big save on Marty Reasoner from close range and Bryan Little started the play the other way.

Skating down the left boards with the puck on his backhand as he was pursued tightly by a defender, Wheeler acted as if he were going behind the net, shoveled the puck on net and somehow it squeaked off Vokoun and barely over the goal line with 2:48 left in the period.

Florida scored the game's first goal early in the first period. Radek Dvorak came down the left wing put a wrister on goalie Ondrej Pavelec, picked up his rebound and continued behind the net. Dvorak made a quick feed to a wide open Reasoner, a Thrasher for the past two seasons, at the right circle and Reasoner beat Pavelec high with a shot at 7:13 of the first period.

Pavelec, who started the game, was replaced after the first intermission by Mason. Pavelec, who stopped six of seven shots, had an undisclosed injury. Coach Craig Ramsay did not elaborate after the game, but said the move was mostly precautionary. He said Pavelec injured himself during the first period.

Mason was terrific in relief, stopping all 25 shots he faced. Mason, who was injured for a few weeks, has not won since Dec. 11, as Pavelec has started every game but three over the last two months.

"It felt good to contribute and help out," said Mason, who nonetheless said he and the team could not be happy just playing well and not winning. "I have not had a chance to do that a lot this year."

Atlanta, first in the Southeast Division in late December, is now 6-15-6 over its last 27 games and fell another point behind eighth-place Carolina on Friday, six now out of a playoff spot. The Thrashers have scored just two goals in their last two games and have lost five straight. Ramsay praised his team's enthusiasm.

"They did everything they could," he said. "They put their hearts into it. I truly believe that if you play like that, you will win."

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