Badly needing a victory to snap a four-game losing streak, and needing a confidence builder to keep pace in the playoff race, the Panthers used a strong second period to stop their slide and take a giant step forward Thursday by beating the Maple Leafs 3-1 at BankAtlantic Center.
Given a boost by Stephen Weiss’s short-handed goal, second period goals by Richard Zednik and Ville Peltonen, and a 37-save performance by goalie Tomas Vokoun, the Panthers crept back to within a point of seventh-place Montreal and two points of the sixth-place Rangers in the Eastern Conference with 11 games remaining.
“Very, very big win for us,” said Weiss, who also assisted on Zednik’s game-winner. “We lose tonight, we’re in trouble.”
Defenseman Bryan McCabe described the Panthers as “very desperate tonight” to get a victory and two points.
“We knew we needed a win to get back in this race,” he added. “This was one of our games in hand. We’re right back where we want to be. Right in the thick of things.”
After losing Tuesday 3-0 against the Capitals and failing to produce a shot in the third period, the Panthers went back to what has made them successful, particularly in the second period when they fired 19 shots at Leafs goalie Martin Gerber.
“In the second we kept doing the right things,” said Peltonen. “We kept the neutral zone clean, kept the pucks pretty much in their zone, and we had traffic in front of their net. We had a good period.”
Although they still came out tentative in the first period – they were outshot 9-3 early – they weren’t as tight as they were Tuesday against the Capitals. Coach Peter DeBoer, who held a 15 minute practice Wednesday preaching a return to basics, “experimented” with a couple different lines and watched his team slowly improve through the early going.
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But, ironically, it was when the Panthers were down a man that at 7:15 of the opening period that good things started to happen.
With Radek Dvorak in the penalty box, the Panthers were able to get the puck out of their end due to Keith Ballard and David Booth and up to Weiss. Weiss made a move on defenseman Alton Stralman inside the blue line that sent Stralman to the ice. He then skated in on Gerber and roofed the puck with a back-hander over Gerber for a 1-0 Panther lead.
It was goal No. 12 on the year for Weiss and the first short-handed goal of his career. It was the Panthers sixth short-handed goal of the season.
“Big goal, big time, from one of our best players,” DeBoer said. “We were a little tight in the first period, you can see we felt a little pressure. We got that goal and started to loosen up a little and started playing the way we’re capable of.”
Weiss and linemates Booth and Richard Zednik had a few other solid opportunities in the first period – including a 3-on-1 – but they couldn’t convert. Despite a good period, the Panthers found themselves tied 1-1 after 20 minutes after Zednik took an undisciplined penalty late in the period and Mikhail Grabovski scored on the power play with only 1:52 remaining in the period.
The Panthers didn’t panic.
“We talked about it after the first, after they got the tying goal,” Weiss said. “We wanted to take the game over and have a good second period and set ourselves up for the third.”
Fortunately, the Panthers did just that, and it started with Zednik, who made up for his penalty at 6:21 of the second. After poking the puck out of the Panthers end, he followed Weiss and Booth up ice, took a pass from Booth inside the Maple Leafs blue line, and, with Gerber partially screened by Andre Deveaux, bounced a shot between Gerber’s pads and into the net for a 2-1 Panther lead.
Just 2:27 later, Peltonen, standing off to Gerber’s right, made a nifty move on defenseman Jeff Finger and sent the puck once again through Gerber’s pads for a 3-1 lead. The goal was set up on a nice play by Dvorak.
For the third time in their last five games, the Panthers carried a 3-1 lead into the third period. Despite a strong third period by the Leafs, Vokoun made some key saves – had one puck ricochet of a post – and helped the Panthers withstand the Leafs final push.
With only three weeks left in the season, and two more critical home games Saturday against the Blue Jackets and Monday against the Senators, Thursday’s victory, DeBoer said, will “allow us to take a deep breath.”
“We’re right back in the middle of the pack,” he said. “Hopefully, it gets us back mentally to a point where we can play the way we’re capable of playing. I think it will. It was exactly what we needed.”
Weiss echoed DeBoer’s sentiments.
“It was a big win for us, to loosen up and start playing some hockey,” he said. “I think we’ve been a little tired the last week or two. When we’re loose and skating, that’s when we’re at our best.”
On this night, it was a critical victory. Peltonen might have summed it up best. “We got two points in this huge race, and that’s all that mattered.”
EXPERIMENTING WITH LINES
DeBoer used several line combinations early in the game. Midway through the first period, he decided to have Kamil Kreps center Peltonen and Dvorak and moved Gregory Campbell with Cory Stillman and Michael Frolik, who started the game at center between Stillman and Rostislav Olesz.
“(Frolik) is game for anything, but he’s not real comfortable in the middle,” DeBoer said. “We went with Plan B early in the first. We put Campbell with Stillman and Olesz and moved Kreps. I think Kreps feels more comfortable in a checking role and hard-working, checking players. He responded a lot better than he had when we bumped him into the second line spot.”
Olesz, playing in his second game after missing 43 games with a sports hernia, played 2:17 in the first period and ended with 8:56 on ice.
The Panthers swept their four-game series against the Maple Leafs, the first time they’ve done that in franchise history…Campbell had six hits on the night and won 13 of 23 faceoffs…Karlis Skrastins had three blocked shots…Zednik had six shots on goal. Jason Blake had seven for the Leafs…Nick Boynton and Anthony Stewart were scratched by the Panthers…The Panthers practice Friday at 11 a.m., at IncredibleIce…