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Panthers top Predators in Jovanovski's return

by Alain Poupart

SUNRISE, Fla. -- Captain Ed Jovanovski provided inspiration for the Florida Panthers by making his season debut. Tomas Kopecky provided the heroics in the shootout.

Kopecky scored in the sixth round to give the Panthers a 5-4 win against the Nashville Predators on Saturday at BB&T Center after they squandered a 4-2 lead in the last 5:08 of regulation.

After Tim Thomas stopped Gabriel Bourque in the first half of the sixth round, Kopecky ended the game with a quick shot that beat Marek Mazanec to the glove side. It was the second shootout winner in three weeks for Kopecky, who scored with the same move in the 10th round to give Florida a 3-2 victory against the Washington Capitals on Dec. 13.

"It was very nice to see," Thomas said of Jovanovski's return. "He's a great player that's had such a great career and to never know if he'd ever get to play that one more game, it was special to him. When we won the shootout, the first thing I said to him was, 'Congratulations,' not only to be able to come back but to get your first game back a win. That makes it extra memorable, right?"

Jonathan Huberdeau also scored in the shootout for the Panthers. David Legwand scored for the Predators.

Florida evened its shootout record at 5-5; Nashville is 0-4. The goal by Legwand is the only one in 16 attempts for the Predators, who have lost their past two in shootouts and have a seven-game shootout losing streak dating to last season.

"We had a chance," said Predators forward Matt Hendricks, who was stopped in the fourth round. "[Mazanec] did a great job for us giving us a chance to win that game in the shootout. That's part of the game. We didn't get it. Just got to think about it for a little bit like the last game."

Jovanovski returned after missing 83 games over the past two seasons and undergoing hip resurfacing surgery in April.

The defenseman got 15:54 of ice time and had a plus-3 rating along with partner Alex Petrovic, who left the game with an injury early in the third period and did not return.

"Overall, there were moments in the game where it did come quick," Jovanovski said. "The timing was a little rusty. But I tried to keep it as basic as possible. I got a little antsy there, started kind of jumping around in warm-up. The first shift was really nice to get out of the way and move the puck and have a decent first shift and try to carry on from there."

Panthers coach Peter Horachek, who served as an assistant in Nashville the previous nine seasons, beat his former boss, Barry Trotz, in their first meeting. Nashville won the first game between the teams, 4-3 on Oct. 15, when Florida was coached by Kevin Dineen.

"It wasn't pretty, but it felt pretty good," Horachek said. "You wanted to win against your former team. They're all friends over there, the coaching staff and the staff over there. It's always nice.

"We just take the points and move forward. It feels good to beat them. I wish them all the best after tonight."

Brad Boyes and Marcel Goc each had a goal and an assist for the Panthers, and rookie Aleksander Barkov extended his point streak to five games with two assists.

Barkov, the second pick in the 2013 NHL Draft, has a goal and five assists during the streak, and 11 points in his past 11 games.

Kopecky and Sean Bergenheim scored in regulation for the Panthers, who went 2-2-1 during their homestand and are headed for a three-game road trip against the Montreal Canadiens, Buffalo Sabres and New Jersey Devils. Huberdeau had two assists, and Thomas, making his second consecutive start after missing nine games with a lower-body injury, made 38 saves in 65 minutes.

Craig Smith, Mike Fisher, Seth Jones and Paul Gaustad scored for the Predators, who lost for the seventh time nine games (2-5-2).

Jones, the fourth player taken in the 2013 draft, scored his fourth goal of the season but his first in 20 games. It came in the third period after his giveaway led to a Florida goal earlier in the period.

"This League will make you pay if you make the big mistakes like that," Trotz said. "There's no reason to move the puck. He wasn't pressured or whatever. This League will humble you; great response by him. He's a special player and some nights he's 19 and some nights he's 29. That was one of his 19 moments."

Fisher has four goals and five assists during a four-game point streak. Mazanec made his fourth consecutive start and stopped 25 shots.

Florida seemed headed for a comfortable victory before Jones made it 4-3 at 14:52 of the third period with a wrist shot from the high slot that beat Thomas high to the stick side.

Gaustad tied it with 48 seconds left after Mazanec was pulled for an extra attacker. He had an easy tap-in after Shea Weber's shot from the point was stopped and bounced into the crease behind Thomas.

"It was good for us to come back," said Weber, who had two assists. "We're digging ourselves these holes and making mistakes that we shouldn't be. We showed a lot of character to be able to come back."

Bergenheim broke a 2-2 tie at 17:29 of the second period off a feed from Barkov. After Bergenheim misfired on a one-timer off a Boyes pass across the net, Barkov simply tapped the puck back to him. Bergenheim didn't miss his second chance, firing a low shot to the far side.

Goc made it 4-2 at 1:34 of the third after Huberdeau picked off an errant pass from Jones behind the Nashville net and fed the puck in front to Goc for a one-timer.

Barkov set up the goal by Boyes, which tied the game 1-1 at 11:03 of the first period. Barkov and Boyes worked a pretty give-and-go before Barkov shot from close range. Mazanec made the save, but Boyes poked home a loose puck at his feet while Barkov was tangled with Jones.

Kopecky gave the Panthers a 2-1 lead at 17:56 after Goc's shot hit the outside of the net from a sharp angle and the puck bounced off the skate of Mattias Ekholm and went to the front of the net. Kopecky poked the puck past an unsuspecting Mazanec.

Smith opened the scoring 6:42 into the game with his sixth goal in seven games. He grabbed a loose puck in a crowd in front of the net and beat Thomas.

"Nashville is a good team," Jovanovski said. "They came at you in waves. They're a well-coached team and they check hard. Finding a way to kind of persevere and find a way to grab two points was big for our team heading out on the road."

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