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Panthers on the prowl for playoff berth

by Brian Hunter
A few thoughts while the Islanders comb through the want ads for goaltending help:

Seeing the results -- When the Florida Panthers brought in Peter DeBoer as coach this season, the organization was looking to take that final step from contending for the Stanley Cup Playoffs to actually getting there for the first time since 2000.

There's still almost half a season left to play, but the Panthers took over the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference on Saturday night, overcoming a pair of two-goal deficits to edge the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-3 at the St. Pete Times Forum.

''It's been an uphill climb,'' DeBoer said. ''It wasn't that long ago we were sitting in 29th, 30th (overall), but there's still a long ways to go.''

Florida trailed 2-0 early and 3-1 at the end of the first period, but controlled play in the second and got goals from Cory Stillman, Richard Zednik and Jay Bouwmeester. Stillman and Bouwmeester scored on the power play, with the defenseman netting what held up as the game-winner just before the buzzer sounded to end the period.
''You just play to the buzzer,'' Bouwmeester said. ''You knew there was not a whole lot of time left, but you're not counting the seconds.''

Prior to Saturday, the Panthers hadn't won a game all season when trailing by multiple goals. It wasn't exactly a formula for success to fall behind early, but the team had what it took to come back and jump a point ahead of Pittsburgh in the standings.

''This one definitely wasn't a keeper,'' DeBoer said. ''We'll probably burn the tape of it rather than watch it, but we got two points.''

Winging it -- It's tough for opposing goaltenders to have a book on Mike Ribeiro when he's bearing down on them in a shootout, because Ribeiro himself admits he really isn't sure what he's doing.

Making it up on the fly suited him and the Dallas Stars just fine as Ribeiro's goal in the penalty-shot tiebreaker proved the difference in a 3-2 win over the Los Angeles Kings at American Airlines Center.

"I wanted to make sure to get a shot on net," said Ribeiro, who elected to go with a simple wrist shot that beat Erik Ersberg. "Goalies don't really know what I'm going to do, and neither do I. I just decided to shoot it."

This came on the heels of a shootout loss to Buffalo on Thursday in which Ribeiro attempted a fancier move — he put the puck between his legs — but then was unable to get off his shot as Dallas lost. Simplicity won out this time, and so did the Stars, who survived Alexander Frolov's tying goal with 16.7 seconds left in regulation.

"Instead of going the wrong way, we regrouped and played a solid 65 minutes," veteran defenseman Darryl Sydor said. "We had a lot of opportunities and we were able to come up with the extra point in the shootout."


Family comes first -- Tim Connolly apparently didn't feel any extra pressure when he received a text message from his father prior to Saturday's game saying his grandparents wanted to see him score a goal.

Connolly honored their request less than eight minutes into the first period, then added another late in the second as the Buffalo Sabres claimed a 3-1 win over the Carolina Hurricanes at HSBC Arena in an important battle for playoff positioning.

"I got one for both of them," said Connolly, who because of injuries was playing in just his 11th game and doubled his goal total for the entire season.

The Sabres, meanwhile, maintained their hold on seventh in the Eastern Conference, two points ahead of eighth-place Florida and three up on Pittsburgh for ninth. Ryan Miller made half of his 36 saves in the third period to hold off the Hurricanes, who dropped own to 10th.

"Miller played great for us," Connolly said. "Whenever he plays like that we're probably going to win the hockey game."

Carolina captain Rod Brind'Amour concurred: "Their goalie made a couple of big saves at the end," he said. "That's the difference in the game."

Two (points) the hard way -- They had to survive a bit of a scare, but in the end the Montreal Canadiens got exactly what they were seeking.

Shootout goals by Alex Kovalev and Maxim Lapierre gave the Habs a 5-4 victory over the Ottawa Senators, silencing a Scotiabank Place crowd that had discovered new life when the home team rallied for a pair of third-period goals to draw even.

"It's something that we've talked about. Going into the third period with the lead, we want to be able to shut the door and take pride in playing defensively," Canadiens defenseman Mike Komisarek said. "More than anything, it was a drop off in our game a little bit and they picked up their game, and it showed."

As it stands, the NHL doesn't award anything extra for style, so the only points that mattered to Lapierre were the two Montreal recorded to move a little closer in the standings to Boston, which lost at Washington.

"The biggest thing is we got the two points, and Boston lost tonight, so that's huge for us," Lapierre said. "We're on a hot streak right now. It doesn't matter how we get the points."

At home on the road -- A season-high six straight games on the road was the latest challenge for a New Jersey Devils team that has faced several this season. With one game left, the results have to be quite satisfactory to Zach Parise and his teammates: a 4-1 record following their 3-1 win over the New York Islanders.

Parise assisted on Travis Zajac's shorthanded goal to open the game, then scored his team-leading 26th of the season on a power play early in the second to help silence a sellout crowd at Nassau Coliseum that saw the Islanders lose their seventh in a row.

"We played a lot of the game in their zone," Parise said. "We hope to finish off (the road trip) on the right note in Nashville."

Whether the goaltender against the Predators is Kevin Weekes or Scott Clemmensen remains to be seen. Weekes has allowed just two goals while winning a pair of games on the road trip, while Clemmensen stopped 32 shots against the Islanders to earn his 17th victory of the season.

"This is the best game I've played in the last two weeks," Clemmensen said. "We jumped on them a little bit, and got a break on that first goal."   

Zajac's tally came after Parise took the puck away from Islanders goalie Yann Danis behind the net.

"I went out to get the puck, but it was spinning and I couldn't stop it," Danis said. "I just ran out of time to make a play."

Best in the East -- It's easy -- not to mention tantalizing -- to imagine them matching up in an Eastern Conference playoff series. All that was at stake Saturday night was a couple points in the standings, but the Washington Capitals played the East-leading Boston Bruins like there was a lot more on the line and came out on top.

Alexander Semin scored the deciding goal with 8:12 left in the third period as the Capitals earned a 2-1 win on Verizon Center ice, closing within nine points of the Bruins. Earlier in the game, Marc Savard and Mike Green traded power-play goals just 1:10 apart, and the two sides settled in after that for a tough battle.

"It was a playoff game, I think -- that mentality. Two really good teams," said goalie Jose Theodore, who made 23 saves. "Obviously, you didn't want to make a mistake."

Neither goalie made many, but Tim Thomas ended up being victimized when Semin picked up the puck at the Washington blue line, streaked down the ice and wound up for a shot that found the net.

"I didn't know Semin was just going to come down and shoot it," Thomas said. "There's not that many times when a guy has that much time to wind up for a slap shot like that."

"I wish he'd shoot more," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said of Semin, who now has 18 goals.

A measure of revenge -- You'd be hard-pressed to find a member of the Thrashers who didn't enjoy a good night in Atlanta's 7-2 demolition of the Nashville Predators. There probably wasn't anyone more satisfied then Rich Peverley, who returned to Sommet Center after being claimed off waivers a week ago and registered three assists against his former team.

"I'm just really happy with the opportunity to not only play with great players, but I get to play penalty kill and power play so it's been good," said Peverley, whose third assist came on a shorthanded goal by Jim Slater.

Atlanta coach John Anderson gave Peverley a great opportunity by fitting him in on a line with Ilya Kovalchuk, and the points have been coming in bunches. Peverley had two assists and the overtime goal Friday night in a come-from-behind win over Toronto.

"He's got tremendous vision, and he can really pass the puck. ... All the things we hoped he'd be, so far he's been," Anderson said.

Next to nothing went right for the Predators, who trailed 4-0 after the first period, and coach Barry Trotz could only be philosophical about his former player's success.

"He looks like he's got more oomph to his game, and I knew that was a dangerous type of thing. Some players, sometimes the change of scenery ... first time he's been really ... put on waivers, he ended up having success with Kovalchuk. They clicked, and he's scoring points. All those things you're seeing in Rich Peverley are starting to come out now," Trotz said.

Second time's the charm -- Martin Havlat made sure the Chicago Blackhawks wouldn't lose their second overtime game in as many nights. Havlat scored 1:23 into the extra period for a 2-1 win over the St. Louis Blues at Scottrade Center. Not only did it help take the sting out of an OT defeat to the Rangers on Friday, it improved Chicago's record to 6-2 this season in the second of back-to-back games.

"I thought it was a great play from (Dave Bolland) and especially from (Brent Seabrook) getting it to the net," said Havlat, who beat Manny Legace on a wraparound. "I think the goalie had to make a save there before I got the puck so that gave me the chance to go around the net and have a little extra time."

Blues goalie Manny Legace took the blame for the loss.

"It went off my skate and in," Legace said. "I'm on my knees and I've got to get across. Just didn't get there in time. It was my fault."

Troy Brouwer put the Blackhawks ahead in the first period with a power-play goal, but the Blues avoided being shut out when David Backes scored on a man advantage early in the third. Otherwise, Cristobal Huet was exceptional in net for the Hawks, making 27 saves.

"It was a very intense game, it was a goalie win," Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said. "Huey was spectacular, he made some miraculous saves."

Lucky and good -- In bouncing back from a loss at Pittsburgh on Friday and winning on the road for just the third time in 11 tries, the Anaheim Ducks made their own breaks and received one from the officials as well.

Corey Perry opened the scoring with a power-play goal for all the offense Jonas Hiller would need, then sealed things with an empty-netter in a 3-0 win over the Minnesota Wild at Xcel Energy Center. The Ducks also benefitted from a whistle that was blown just before Owen Nolan put in the rebound of a Marek Zidlicky shot that Hiller was never able to control.

"I tried to slide over somehow, and it was somewhere close to my pad," Hiller said. "I tried to keep in front of me, and I lost it. I think the ref lost it too, so he blew the whistle. But, yeah, it's a little lucky for us."

Hiller was also very good in making 30 saves for his fourth shutout of the season. Perry scored 8:13 into the second to break a scoreless tie, then Bobby Ryan provided some insurance with a goal at 6:04 of the third. The Ducks have three more games left on their current road trip.

"We let one go last night in Pittsburgh," Ryan said. "We felt we needed to come out and get one tonight."

Playing from ahead -- Few road teams have escaped Pengrowth Saddledome with regulation victories this season, but the Phoenix Coyotes made it 2-for-2 this season by getting the early jump and forcing the Calgary Flames to try to catch them the remainder of the way.

Mikkel Boedker's third-period goal held up as the game-winner as the Coyotes held on for a 4-3 win that kept them tied with Anaheim for fifth in the Western Conference. They got off to an early 2-0 lead and twice restored the two-goal cushion after the Flames scored to cut the deficit in half.

''It's a huge win, especially in this building where it's a tough one to come into,'' Boedker said. ''It's good to be back in Canada and see the crowds in all the cities, it gets you a little extra fired up when there's so many people in the stands.''

The Flames have made it that way in building a nine-point lead in the Northwest Division over Vancouver, but they couldn't get over the hump against Phoenix despite a pair of goals from Mike Cammalleri.

''Everyone's a little upset right now,'' Cammalleri said. ''It was a game where we obviously got behind but we all felt throughout the game that we could come back and get the win or at least a tie and make something happen in overtime.''

Best of the West -- Just like the Boston-Washington game pitted the East's top teams, No. 1 and No. 2 in the West met Saturday night at HP Pavilion. In this instance, the current top dog came away with the victory, although the San Jose Sharks didn't have it easy by any means in surviving a 6-5 barnburner against the Detroit Red Wings.

Ryan Clowe set up goals by four different Sharks, and Milan Michalek's scored the go-ahead goal midway through the third period. San Jose not only beat Detroit for the second time in three meetings, it regained the lead in the Presidents' Trophy race by one point over Boston, which lost in Washington.

''I think it says a lot about us, because it was one of those games where we had a character test,'' Clowe said. ''They're the Stanley Cup champs, and they found a way to get a lead several times, but we kept saying on the bench that we had to keep going. ... We (wanted to) go get this one, and we did a great job.''

Offensively, the Sharks responded well after getting blanked 6-0 by the Wings when the teams last met in Detroit. They once again had trouble keeping the puck out of their own net, but defenseman Dan Boyle seemed to feel that was as much a credit to the other team as what San Jose did wrong.

''That's just a very good hockey game,'' Boyle said. ''High scoring, hits -- it had a lot of everything. Nobody wants to let five goals in our net, but with two good hockey teams out there, the puck is going to get in one way or the other."

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

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