-- Had the Florida Panthers
walked into the Prudential Center with the same winning vibe as the New Jersey Devils
, they'd be sitting comfortably within the Eastern Conference's top eight right now.
They didn't, which is why their 4-3 overtime win Friday night was so big.
The Panthers want to be a playoff team this season, but playoff teams rarely lose twice to the 14th-place team in their conference on the same road swing. The Devils tripped them up on Jan. 23, but Florida used a late shorthanded goal from Mike Santorelli and an overtime winner from Rostislav Olesz to breathe life into their playoff hopes heading into a five-game homestand.
Christopher Higgins and Dennis Wideman also scored while Tomas Vokoun made 28 saves as Florida leapfrogged Buffalo into 10th place in the Eastern Conference. It is now five points behind eighth-place Atlanta and four points behind the ninth place Carolina Hurricanes. The Panthers and Hurricanes each have two games in hand on the Thrashers.
"It was huge," Vokoun told NHL.com. "There are some teams in front of us struggling so if not now -- we can't expect them to struggle for the next 30 games so we have to take advantage. We had some bad luck in this game, but we didn't mail it in -- we battled and won the game."
The bad luck Vokoun is talking about resulted in at least two of the Devils goals. Travis Zajac made it 1-1 just 6:52 into the game after a fortunate (or unfortunate, for the Panthers) carom off the end boards allowed the puck to land right on his stick directly in front of the net. Zajac stuffed it through Vokoun's pads.
Devils defenseman Mark Fayne made it 3-2 with 13:40 to play in the second period when his chip from just inside the blue line resulted in a looping, knuckling shot that cleared everything in its path and flew over an unsuspecting Vokoun. Devils rookie Nick Palmieri ducked in front of Vokoun to avoid getting hit by puck before it sailed over the goalie's head.
Vokoun joked it was the kind of shot you'd see out of the sand in golf.
"If he tried a hundred times he's not going to chip the puck right over everybody and into the net," Vokoun said. "It's just bad luck, but it doesn't matter now. We got the two points and that's what we came for."
Jason Arnott scored the Devils' other goal thanks to a rebound off the Prudential Center's lively end boards.
"Those bounces seem to be going against us lately and it would have been easy to say tonight, 'Oh, here we go again,' and pack it in," Panthers coach Pete DeBoer said. "We showed a lot of resiliency. We stuck with it. I liked our game. I liked the character we showed."
Florida has a fan on the Devils' side, too.
"They've got a chance," New Jersey coach Jacques Lemaire said of the Panthers' playoff hopes. "They don't beat themselves. That's why they've got a good chance."
The Panthers needed this win Friday more than they probably were letting on.
Heading into the third period, they were on the verge of dropping their fourth game in a row and eighth in their last nine. They were 1-3-4 since a 3-2 overtime win over the Devils on Jan. 15, but turning that one into a two means the world to a team on the playoff periphery, especially when you consider what's going on with the teams in front of them.
Buffalo blew a 2-0 lead and lost in Pittsburgh on Friday. Atlanta is 2-6-3 over its last 11 games and Carolina has lost two in a row and six of its last 10. The door is swinging open for the Panthers, who improved to 13-11-6 in their League-high 30 one-goal games this season.
"We're in every hockey game, it's just a matter of finding that extra goal or keeping that extra one out," Panthers forward Stephen Weiss told NHL.com. "We're learning, finding ways. You look at the goals tonight; that's what's been going on with us, cheesy goals. But, we found a way to win and that's key. That's a big win for us going back home."
It took a huge shorthanded goal by Santorelli to get the comeback started. He intercepted a bad pass by Ilya Kovalchuk to Brian Rolston at the blue line and started on his breakaway. Devils goalie Johan Hedberg (24 saves) came out to challenge, but Santorelli maneuvered around his poke check and put the puck into the wide-open net with 7:08 left in regulation.
"It just got caught in the guy's skate and I pounced on it," Santorelli told NHL.com. "I wanted to do one move and luckily I got my head up at the last second to see (Hedberg) come out."
Hedberg used the poke check late in the second period to stop Marty Reasoner on a similar shorthanded breakaway, but this time he missed. Santorelli said he didn't see the Reasoner breakaway because he was heading off the ice at that time.
"Stupid move by me," Hedberg said. "He had too much time. I should not have done that."
Lemaire blamed the Devils defense for allowing Olesz to shoot and score the overtime winner from the lower portion of the right circle.
"It's 2-on-2 and we let the guy shoot for no reason," Lemaire said. "It's mental mistakes we made throughout the whole game. We deserved to lose."
The Panthers felt they deserved to win. Olesz made it happen by beating Hedberg two minutes into overtime.
The standings might not yet show how big of a win it was for Florida, but the Panthers collectively know they accomplished something very important Friday night.
"If we end up wining four or five in a row, I'll take a peek (at the standings) to see where we're at," Weiss said. "It can get to be a little much sometimes when you see your six points out, eight points out, whatever it may be.
"When you keep winning games it snowballs, and the next thing you know you're right in it."
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl