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Southeast: Panthers on prowl for playoffs

by Mike G. Morreale
Florida Panthers defenseman Keith Ballard knows how important the next 10 games prior to the Olympic break will be -- particularly now when the Panthers enter weekend play three points from the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

Ballard went on record following a recent victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning to compare the Panthers to last season's Carolina Hurricanes. The Hurricanes went on a second-half surge to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs as the sixth seed. The team would eventually stun third-seed New Jersey and top-seeded Boston before suffering a four-game loss to fourth-seeded Pittsburgh in the Conference Final.

There's plenty of motivation for sure as the Panthers haven't played a meaningful game after the regular season since 2000.

If there's one player familiar with Carolina's run last season, it's defenseman Dennis Seidenberg. Seidenberg was a member of that Hurricanes team that produced that memorable finish in Raleigh in 2009.

"If it ends up like last year, it'll be great, but right now, we're still trying to find our stride," Seidenberg told "Getting a few wins in a row and establishing ourselves in that upper half of the standings. I think we're getting there -- we're slowly starting to play more consistent hockey and that'll definitely help us get to the playoffs."

Florida coach Peter DeBoer prefers to break the season up into small segments.

"You try to break up the season to make the picture a little smaller for the guys," DeBoer said. "We did a five-game segment going into the Christmas break. These guys are not used to having two weeks off in the middle of a season, so the more focus we can keep on the task until we actually get there, the better."

In the meantime, Seidenberg knows the Panthers will need to battle harder on defense despite the fact goalie Tomas Vokoun has been lights out in recent weeks. The Panthers have yielded a League-high 34.4 shots per game.

"I think there's always room to improve and we could definitely tighten things up," he said. "We need to get our shots-against down a little bit. Every game we're giving 30-plus shots, so there's definitely room to improve. I think we're trying to do that."

Penalty shot success -- Washington's Alex Ovechkin has seen and done it all for the Capitals in his four-plus seasons in the League. But until last week, he had continually failed at one aspect of the game -- the penalty shot.

That all changed in a 5-3 victory over the Flyers on Jan. 17 when, with 4:12 left in the third period, Ovi connected on his first penalty shot in six career attempts on a backhander past goalie Ray Emery.

It appears all Ovi needed was a little coaxing. Ovechkin's goal, the fifth and final Capitals tally of the game, triggered a promotional giveaway that the two-time Hart Trophy winner knew would send fans home happy. The promotion was an offer made by a local restaurant that would give those attending the game 10 chicken wings when the Caps scored five or more goals.

"I just wanted to give the fans free chicken wings," he joked. "(On the penalty shot) I know what I'm going to do. (Emery) just didn't recognize what I'm going to do."

Ovechkin's first penalty shot goal came on his 2,000th career shot -- he had four shots against the Flyers. To put that total in perspective, no other player in NHL history had totaled 2,000 shots over his first six seasons. Ironically, Ovi would be held without a shot on goal for only the third time in his career the following game -- a 3-2 triumph over Detroit Tuesday.

"He's such a competitive person," Caps defenseman Jeff Schultz told "He expects us to win every night and expects the best out of everybody. Those nights when, maybe we just don't have it, we build off of his energy and what he does on the ice. It helps us to battle through."

Ranger close to return -- It appears Tampa Bay defenseman Paul Ranger, who has been out of the lineup on a three-month personal leave, is close to making a return.

According to Erik Erlendsson of The Tampa Tribune, Lightning coach Rick Tocchet, who has kept in contact with Ranger throughout his absence, admitted an update on Ranger's status should be forthcoming.

"If and when he comes back - and I don't know exactly when he's coming back so I can't make plans - but he'll have to get in some conditioning and some games somewhere, whether that's here or (AHL) Norfolk," Tocchet said.

Ranger, who was expected to be a top-four defenseman for the club this season, is in the final season of a three-year contract. He would obviously provide extra assistance along the back end if and when he does return.

"That's one of the things that a lot of people may not understand," Tocchet said. "He's a guy that can play 20-plus minutes. He's a young guy and his curve for potential is still high. To knock a guy like that out of your lineup, he's one guy we relied on as a puck-moving defenseman who has a good shot. That's something we need and expected to have and we don't have him, so that's a big loss."

Kurtis Foster leads all Tampa defenders with 7 goals, 13 assists and 20 points through 39 games this season.

Kari's comeback -- Atlanta Thrashers goalie Kari Lehtonen is returning to the ice.

Ben Wright of Blueland Blog reported Friday that Lehtonen was on his way to the team's American Hockey League affiliate in Chicago to join the Wolves for a conditioning assignment. The Finnish goalie would be able to remain there for up to two weeks and could return to the big club as early next month.

"We are getting to a point now where he is hitting a bit of a wall with practice," Thrashers coach John Anderson said. "What I mean by that is we have three goalies out there. At some point in the very near future we are going to have to decide if we send him on a conditioning stint, maybe to (AHL) Chicago, to get some games in. We want to make sure he's ready to succeed in the National Hockey League and not throw him to the wolves right away."

Lehtonen hasn't played a single minute this season following two offseason back surgeries, including his most recent in October.

"Physically, I feel fine," Lehtonen said. "But it's the hockey skills and how to read the game that'll take some time but I'm on the right track. It's been so tough the last few months not being able to even touch the ice. When I get back, I want to do my best to help this team get back on the winning track."

Lehtonen admitted he's about seven days away from getting back into game shape.

"I think a week or two, or something like that," he said. "I should be closer and ready to play by then."

Lehtonen finished 19-22-6 with a 3.06 goals-against average and .911 save percentage in 2008-09 -- his fourth full season in the League. The Thrashers have yielded 3.22 goals per game this season, which ranks 27th in the League.

Contact Mike Morreale at

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