SUNRISE – So this is why things are different this time.
Clinging to a one-goal lead, down four skaters to six with under two minutes to play in regulation, the Panthers not only stopped the Flyers Tuesday night at BankAtlantic Center, but they jumped past Carolina in the standings to officially climb into the eighth playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
Remember the old Panthers? The ones who couldn’t seem to get into the playoff picture? The ones that folded in third periods? Heck, folded in the final seconds?
Well, right now, these Panthers don’t bear any resemblance…not when they’re 17-1-1 when leading after two periods and not after coming back from the All-Star break with a 3-2 victory over the Flyers.
Led by goalie Tomas Vokoun’s 33 saves and rookie Michael Frolik’s first three-point game, the Panthers held off the Flyers in the third period to boost their record to 22-17-8 and climb over Carolina with two games still in hand.
The Panthers are now 15-6-7 dating back to Nov. 24.
It wasn’t a pretty victory, and the Panthers did slump in the third period – a little rope-a-dope, perhaps – but these are games they certainly would have lost in the past. So they’ll take the win and await Montreal here Thursday night at 7 p.m.
“It was a big win for us, especially after the break,” said David Booth, who scored his 20th goal of the season.
“We definitely bent in the third,” said Panther coach Peter DeBoer. “It wasn’t exactly a textbook period as far as playing with the lead. But we didn’t break.”
And thanks go in large measure to the penalty killers who withstood the Flyers onslaught during the final 1:23 of regulation with defenseman Karlis Skrastins in the penalty box for hooking.
The usual suspects – Gregory Campbell, Radek Dvorak, Keith Ballard, Kamil Kreps, Jay Bouwmeester and, yes, Vokoun – all kept the Flyers from scoring the tying goal.
“We just tried to keep things simple,” Kreps said. “Make sure we’re in the lanes on the shot.”
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When asked how they stopped the Flyers in that final minute, Ballard smiled and said, “Don’t let them score.”
“We tried to keep them on the outside, block some shots,” said Ballard, who had five hits and a blocked shot. “With six guys, they got some traffic out from and they have some skill guys, too. But we did a good job. Soupy and (Dvorak) had some good blocks, we kept them wide, and (Vokoun) made a few saves.”
The Flyers took a 1-0 lead at 10:44 of the first period on a questionable Simon Gagne goal. Skating toward the corner of the goal, Gagne couldn’t get his stick on a cross-ice pass from Mike Knuble but did manage to get his skate on the puck, which bounced off his left boot and past Vokoun.
Despite a delay of several minutes to review the play, Gagne was awarded the goal.
Just 3:50 later, the Panthers tied the game at one when Frolik sent Stillman out of the Panther zone. Stillman stopped inside the Flyer blue line and sent the puck cross-ice to Bryan McCabe, who snapped a quick wrist shot from the top of the left faceoff circle past Martin Biron.
The Panthers came out strong in the second period, and it showed when they left the ice after 40 minutes with a 3-1 lead.
First, Frolik, fresh from Montreal and the YoungStars Game over the weekend, skated the puck from behind Biron and, from the side of the Flyer net, slid the puck toward the goal. The puck appeared to bounce off Biron’s stick and into the net for a 2-1 lead. Frolik’s goal, at 7:43, was his 10th of the season.
“I was just trying to put the puck toward the net,” Frolik said.
Just 4:07 later, and with Gagne serving a double-minor for high sticking Jay Bouwmeester, Booth scored his 20th goal of the season when he redirected a shot from Ballard at the point past Biron.
“I thought our first period…both teams were feeling each other out, getting their legs,” DeBoer said. “The second period was our best period. We have to play that way. When we’re forechecking, creating shots – I think we had 13 shots in the second period – we usually get rewarded.”
The Flyers cut the lead to 3-2 just 1:51 into the third period when Claude Giroux scored his first NHL goal after getting a nice pass from Darroll Powe.
But despite getting outshot 12-4 in the final period, the Panthers left BankAtlantic with two points. The Panthers remain three points out of seventh, currently held by the Sabres.
“We didn’t play a great game, but we got the win,” said defenseman Jassen Cullimore. “When you can get a win like that, maybe when you don’t deserve one, it’s a good thing.”
The Panthers blocked 14 Flyer shots. Bouwmeester and Campbell each had four blocks, Skrastins three…Nathan Horton was .500 (9-for-18) in the faceoff circle…Frolik was voted the media’s No. 1 star…The Canadiens, who come Thursday to BankAtlantic start, started a road trip Tuesday with a 5-3 loss in Tampa against the rejuvenated Lightning. Christopher Higgins, who had missed 19 games with a shoulder injury, was back in the lineup Tuesday for the Canadiens. Montreal is still without Alex Tanguay, who’s two-to-three weeks away from returning from a separated shoulder, and Georges Laraque, who is battling a back injury.
The Panthers-Canadiens game Thursday is 7 p.m.
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